Italy's Plan To Ban Lab-Grown Food Would Hurt Cuisine and Consumers

The move would close a promising culinary door and deny Italian consumers the opportunity to buy products that fit their preferences.


This month, Italy submitted its culinary heritage to UNESCO for designation as an "intangible cultural heritage." The country's bid named the cuisine's rituals, local flavors, and presence in social life as reasons why it should be recognized and protected. In other words, Italian food is special—so special, in fact, that the Italian government is looking to outlaw products that it feels might corrupt it.

The country is looking to crack down on the "decadence" of lab-grown food. A bill approved yesterday by the Italian government would ban "the use of laboratory-produced food and animal feed as it aims to safeguard the country's agri-food heritage, its agriculture minister told a news conference after a Cabinet meeting," reported Reuters. If the bill passes, "Italian industry will not be allowed to produce food or feed 'from cell cultures or tissues derived from vertebrate animals.'" Violators would face fines of up to 60,000 euros ($65,000 U.S.).

Health Minister Orazio Schillaci said the bill was "based on the precautionary principle" since there are "no scientific studies yet on the effects of synthetic foods." Several members of Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni's populist Brothers of Italy party have voiced their support for the bill on more political grounds. Minister Francesco Lollobrigida claimed that laboratory products "do not guarantee quality, well-being and the protection of our culture, our tradition." Augusta Montaruli, a lawmaker in Meloni's party, said she was "proud" that Italy would be "the first nation in the world to stop this decadence."

But it's a move that misunderstands the evolution of cuisine generally and Italian food in particular, and one that would deny Italian consumers the opportunity to buy products that fit their preferences.

Much of Italy's "traditional" food is relatively new, widely adopted only in the past century. Alberto Grandi, a professor of food history at the University of Parma, made many such claims in a Financial Times interview last week: Panettone only became soft and dome-shaped in the 1900s; tiramisu only appeared in cookbooks in the 1980s; the "exact modern-day match" to traditional parmesan is "Wisconsin parmesan." Several Italian food historians, including Grandi, claim that carbonara—a mainstay Roman pasta dish made with eggs, cheese, pork, and black pepper—didn't reach its modern form until after World War II. Though many of the specifics are contested by Italian food purists, it's clear that the cuisine is wont to change.

On a more basic level, some of Italy's most beloved ingredients only came to the country through cross-continental exchange. The tomato, for instance, reached Italy from the Americas in the 1500s. David Gentilcore, a professor of history and author of Pomodoro! A History of the Tomato in Italy, told The Boston Globe that most dishes that use it, like pasta al pomodoro, "are fairly recent—from the 1870s or '80s." Gnocchi, polenta, and torta tenerina would be impossible without the potatoes, corn, and cacao that explorers brought from the New World to the Old.

If past governments had banned any of this development in the name of culinary purity, Italian food would be far less rich today. The people who consume it would have far fewer options to suit their palettes and dietary preferences—something the Italian government may well ensure if it bans lab-grown products.

As Reason's Ronald Bailey has written, cultivated meat companies are using far less land and water to make their products than traditional meat production consumes, both huge environmental benefits. What's more, animals don't have to die for these products, which is a huge plus for consumers with ethical concerns about traditional meat production. Cultivated meat is already commercially available in Singapore and on its way to American plates. Italy would do well to follow their lead instead of closing off avenues for its cuisine to evolve and denying consumers the opportunity to buy products that fit their needs.