Italy has Banned the Mammoth Meatball :(

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People often want to know, “Rebecca, why don’t you eat meat?” And I used to give honest thoughtful answers to that question but over the past ten years I think it’s just become so ridiculously obvious that there are a million good reasons to not eat meat that I’d really rather just reply “I don’t know, why don’t you eat puppies?” It’s like saying, “Hey why do you take a shower every day?” “Why do you go to the dentist every six months?” Or “why do you put clips of Indy at the end of all your videos now?” Some things are just obviously, objectively good.

When I first gave up meat 20 years ago, I’ll admit that either I was less informed or the meat lobby had way more control over the narrative (or both), to the point where in the face of meat-eaters debating me, I would shrug and say the evidence isn’t all that overwhelming, it’s just a personal choice. But frankly, the evidence IS now overwhelming for every one of the reasons I originally decided to give up meat: consuming meat is bad for my health, bad for the environment, and bad for the animals.

I’ll just point to the most recent study I happened to see: earlier this year, researchers at UCLA compared six different diets, including the standard meat-heavy American diet and the fish and vegetable-heavy Mediterranean diet, to see which had the smallest carbon footprint. Surprising no one, they found that diets with ruminants like cows and sheep were the worst for the planet, and vegan diets were the best. Yes, even vegans who eat almonds, though to be fair to the anti-almond brigade, the study only looked at total carbon footprint and not water usage. Also, it’s worth noting that this study was produced “in partnership” with a “climate-friendly” snack food company, though the researchers say they had no input nor did they contribute any funding.

The researchers have a nice, nonjudgmental conclusion (that is probably appreciated by the snack food company if I’m honest): “Moderate consumption of meats such as chicken, pork, and fish in conjunction with an emphasis on locally grown fruits and vegetables can be maintained without adversely affecting the planetary carbon footprint and with the added benefit of promoting good health. Thus, making simple substitutions within each individual’s diet can be advertised as an effective approach to collectively lower the environmental impact in tandem with improving health and longevity.”

Before I go further, let me reassure those of you in the audience who eat meat who are worried that I’m making a moral judgment about you: yes, I am. You’re monsters.

Okay, I’m just kidding, you’re not monsters, unless seen from the perspective of a pig with the emotional and intellectual capacity exceeding that of the average human 3-year old…I don’t want to get into a whole philosophical debate here but people often take these conversations as personal indictments on their character, like “how dare you suggest that something I grew up doing is immoral and thus I am immoral,” which doesn’t really get us anywhere. Unfortunately, a lot of people think of meat-eating as being a central part of their identity, so they respond very poorly to things like, well, this entire video.

For instance, consider Italy. Yes, the entire country. Okay, well, the current far-right fascist government of Italy, which recently proposed a bill to BAN lab-grown and other “synthetic” meats from being produced in the country, in order to protect their “food heritage,” which is made-up BS that is covering for the fact that this is just a populist government bending to the will of the agricultural lobby. It’s telling, because the ag industry here in the United States would also be struggling without the government tipping the scales in its favor: without government subsidies, a pound of hamburger would cost $30. A $5 Big Mac would cost $13.

But meat is part of our identity, and so instead of subsidizing meat alternatives, or fruits and vegetables, we withhold that government funding, claim that it’s just too expensive to reduce meat consumption, and outright ban environmentally friendly alternatives like lab-grown meat and even flour made from insects, which Italy already banned last year.

And instead of our government funding research on creating more meat alternatives, we leave it to capitalism, which is why you’ve been hearing about mammoth meatballs lately. Sigh. “Meatballs made with mammoth DNA created by Australian food startup,” wow! Cool! I’ve always wanted to eat an extinct mammal! I’m basically Marlon Brando in The Freshman, which is a movie about the guy The Godfather was based on running a dining club for rich people who want to eat endangered species, which I thought was a fever dream I had as a child until I was writing the script for this video and went searching for it and learned it was real.

What’s not real, sadly (?), is the mammoth meatball. I mean, there is a meatball, and it is “lab-grown,” but it’s not a wooly mammoth. It’s actually a sheep. A sheepball. It’s a sheep cell that was injected with mostly African elephant DNA plus a single mammoth myoglobin, which is the protein that most mammals have that give their meat a bloody, almost metallic tang. They multiplied the cell until they had enough to roll into a little ball, which they then put on display in a museum.

The entire thing is a PR stunt meant to draw attention to the start-up, because that’s how science is done these days. And yes, if you can’t tell, I do find the entire thing exhausting. If our government cared about climate change, we could just pay researchers to make a tasty steak in the lab and then we’d subsidize the production and marketing to get it on people’s dinner plates while making new opportunities for the farmers who currently raise and kill the animals we are replacing. There would still be a market for them of course: lots of people are scared of “unnatural” foods, and lots of other people have an irrational commitment to “authenticity,” which is why the “natural” diamond industry scam is still alive and well despite the fact that scientists can make perfect diamonds in a lab at a fraction of the price. We put them on drill bits and circular saws, for fuck’s sake.

So fine! I’m all about harm reduction, so let’s let the true meat enjoyers pay a premium for something everyone else will be eating subsidized at a fraction of the cost, with hardly any negative impact on the planet. Probably still a negative impact on health, let’s be honest, but two out of three ain’t bad.
Okay, I’m dreaming. We won’t do that, but at least outside of Italy we do have dozens of start-ups competing to develop the first commercially viable lab-grown meat, and regulators in the US and Singapore are already clearing the way for it. Once that’s done, and production ramps up, costs will drop. Just like what we’ve seen happening with the fossil fuel industry responding to the dropping cost of alternative energy options like solar, Big Ag will fight hard to throw out roadblocks. But I honestly think that the moral arc is bending towards humanity eventually giving up meat. They can slow it down but they can’t stop it.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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