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 being 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 large investments, 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, there are vast numbers of companies 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 largest 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, and so 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. Comparisons with beef are usually explored as it is an especially emissions-intensive product. Cattle-grazing requires vast areas of land which is provided by deforestation. This means that the carbon sink which rainforests act as is diminished, and carbon dioxide is released from slash-and-burn techniques. Furthermore, cattle release greenhouse gases themselves: 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, a large proportion of which is methane from livestock.
Supporters of cultured meat have suggested that by bypassing these agricultural and biological processes there will be fewer emissions per unit of meat produced. It essentially replaces these processes using energy – mostly dependent on fossil fuels – to control the manufacturing environment. In essence, the difference is the methane and nitrous oxide produced by livestock is replaced with the carbon dioxide from fossil fuels in manufacturing. 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 doesn’t 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 long-term detriment to the environment needs to be considered.
Furthermore, all research and data are merely predictions, as there are currently no large-scale productions of cultured meat, because there are many aspects still not fully fleshed out. For example, as previously mentioned, a medium is needed in which to grow the meat in vitro. It is still uncertain whether there is a large-scale, animal-free growth medium that is viable. The expected take-up of cultured meat also needs to be considered in predictive modelling. There are great doubts as to whether the wider public will adopt this form of meat, due to ethical or religious qualms and a lack of research. Considering these factors, researchers from LEAP at the University of Oxford modelled the 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). Yet, generally, they found that there was a perpetual build-up in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels due to the emissions from the required energy production. Thus, what is holding cultured meat back is the current reliance on fossil fuels for energy production, and the energy use of the process itself.
Ultimately, the climate impacts of cultured meat production will depend 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 clear to see.