Cultured Meat, a low carbon alternative?
Cultured meat, also commonly known as lab-grown meat, clean meat or synthetic meat, refers to any meat produced by animal cell cultures in vitro. As we approach a point where it may soon be commonplace to find cultured meat on restaurant menus and supermarket aisles (having already been approved in Singapore), the subject has gained a lot of public and media interest in recent times. In fact, the concept of growing meat in an industrial setting has long captured the imagination of many. In his 1931 essay Fifty Years Hence, Winston Churchill, for example, reflected on the “absurdity on growing the whole chicken to eat the breast or the wing” and instead suggested “growing these parts separately under a suitable medium”. After many years and significant investment, professors at Maastricht University created the first hamburger patty grown directly from cells in 2013, acting as the precedent and proof-of-concept for cultured meat. Now, vast numbers of companies are competing to be at the forefront of this production process, with some even producing rare meats such as the well-renowned Wagyu strain of beef!
Now, why would we go to lengths to make meat from a laboratory when the real thing is right in front of us? Simply put, cultured meat has the potential to address many of the world’s most prominent issues, including food security, human health, animal welfare and perhaps most importantly, global warming. However, new research is putting into question claims that cultured meat can solve the current climate crisis. Comparisons between the emissions of animal products and cultured meat are inconsistent, using different climate models, there is not a definitive evaluation on the difference. So, is it actually viable as a low-carbon alternative?
Firstly, putting a steak on your plate contributes to more greenhouse gas emissions than you may realise. Beef alternatives are so commonly explored primarily because it is such an emissions-intensive product. Cattle grazing requires vast areas of land, which is obtained by deforestation. This means that not only is the carbon-absorbing capacity of rainforests diminished, but also extensive carbon dioxide emissions are generated due to the slash-and-burn practices. Furthermore, cattle themselves emit greenhouse gases; fermentation in their gut produces methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O). The meat and dairy industry is estimated to be responsible for 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions, with a significant portion coming from methane emitted by livestock.
Proponents of cultured meat have suggested that by bypassing these agricultural and biological processes, the production of meat will generate fewer emissions. Cultured meat production essentially replaces these processes using energy – mostly dependent on fossil fuels – to control the manufacturing environment. In essence, the methane and nitrous oxide produced by livestock are replaced with carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels used in the production process . Per tonne emitted, methane has a larger warming impact than carbon dioxide, which seems to support the claims in favour.
However, there are several uncertainties and assumptions that these claims are founded upon. Until now, many comparisons have been made using carbon dioxide equivalent metrics (CO2e) relating the various greenhouse gases, such as methane and nitrous oxide, to carbon dioxide. Yet, this metric can be ambiguous and does not provide the full picture. For example, while methane only remains in the atmosphere for 12 years (and so any warming it causes is undone shortly after), CO2 accumulates for millennia. Most metrics fail to consider the cumulative nature of carbon dioxide when evaluating the emissions differences. This is especially detrimental to the environment in the long term, and needs to be considered.
Furthermore, all research and data are merely based on predictions, as there are currently no large-scale productions of cultured meat: it is extremely difficult to anticipate what these will look like. For example, as previously mentioned, a medium is needed to grow the meat in vitro. However, it is still uncertain whether a large-scale, animal-free growth media is even viable. The expected take-up of cultured meat also needs to be considered in predictive modelling. There are great doubts about whether the wider public will adopt this form of meat with ethical or religious qualms and a lack of research on some of the main factors.
In an attempt to take these factors into account, researchers from LEAP at the University of Oxford modelled this potential impact of both types of beef over the next 1000 years, assuming systems are unchanged. In the most optimistic cultured meat models, the footprints suggested they were superior to even the best cattle ranching system (in Sweden). Nevertheless, generally, they found that there was a perpetual build-up in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels due to the emissions from energy use. Thus, what is holding cultured meat back from achieving its full potential is a transition to decarbonised energy on a large scale and maximising the energy efficiency of culture systems.
Ultimately, the climate impacts of cultured meat production will hinge on the level of sustainable energy production we achieve, as well as the efficiency of future culture processes. Do not be fooled by some companies’ bold claims, as of now, we do not have a complete and definitive solution. However, the potential of cultured meat is undeniable, enticing us to explore its vast potential.