Environmental impact and food sustainability are common concerns of many vegans. When the idea of cultured meat first emerged, many scientists hailed it to be the perfect solution to both of these problems. Recently however, a study from another group of scientists has argued that it might not be as perfect as first expected.
Why are scientists trying to grow meat in the lab?
Cultured meat, also known as cell-based meat or clean meat is seen as the future alternative to reduce conventional meat consumption. The meat, either from beef cells, or feather ends from chickens, is grown in laboratories. Although it is technically possible, at this early stage scientists are still figuring out the optimal conditions to grow these cells and how to scale up the production to meet consumer demand. The most plausible idea at the moment is to grows the cell productions to special containers called bioreactors which are essentially huge tanks similar to those used in beer production. Comparing to current livestock in the pasture system, cultured meat can reduce the use of land and water, and even some greenhouse gases such as methane from ruminants.
What has this new controversial study found?
Dr John Lynch and Prof. Pierrehumbert from the University of Oxford estimated that under the three presumed trends of meat consumption, the temperature increased by cultured meat production would eventually outdo the conventional cattle system. Their research is based on four existing publications in the field, but they commented that the current models from these studies count the effects of all greenhouse gases to be the same as carbon dioxide.
In their project they studied each individual greenhouse gas (carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide) separately and concluded that, over 1000 years, the temperature rise would be significantly higher through the production of cultured meat than the current conventional system. Their research report was published in the journal Frontier sustainable food systems in February 2019. The report immediately captured the attention of the media. For example, it led the BBC to write an article entitled “Cultured lab meat may make climate change worse”. Since the article was published more people have become sceptical about clean meat technology.
Bringing the research findings into question
To be expected, many scientists did not agree with the research findings. Dr. Hanna Tuomisto, whose research was quoted in the article, was quick to respond at the Proveg New Food conference a month later. Firstly, she expressed reservation because the research projections were based on the limits of existing clean meat technology. All technology improves swiftly over time so to not take this into account over a 1000 year period is ridiculous.
Secondly, as of yet, no cultured meat company has scaled up and manufactured their prototypes in a factory. Currently, scientists can only estimate how companies would scale up production up from a lab to a factory size operation. The research from Dr John Lynch and Prof. Pierrehumbert simply took the figures we know about the current environmental cost of growing small quantities of clean meat in the lab and simply multiplied these to meet the requirements for large scale consumer consumption. If I wanted to estimate the energy costs of baking 25 million cookies, it wouldn’t be accurate to calculate how much energy my own consumer kitchen appliances used to create 25 cookies at home and then simply multiple by 1 million. Aside from the need to meet demand, the whole reason behind producing food on a mass industrialised scale is to bring down the production costs and increase profit per unit sold. The increased profit margin obviously coming from a reduction in energy used per unit. Although, lab based meat production is different in nature to baking cookies, to assume it would not follow the same energy reduction patterns when scaled is a another huge oversight.
To his credit, Dr Lynch, the lead author admitted in an interview with popular online magazine Quartz that during his research they did not have full access to all the necessary technical information because of trade secrets, ‘We did the best we could. We surveyed all the literature, but it’s still a fundamental problem that we have no idea whether [the data] correspond with what the companies are doing or not.’
An unrealistic impact on climate change
The Oxford scientists mentioned that previous studies have overlooked the negative impacts on climate change, because these environmental scientists assumed that greenhouse gases methane and nitrous oxide are equivalent to carbon dioxide when its comes to temperature rise. Despite it being a common research methodology, they argued that carbon dioxide, which is the only greenhouse gas produced from cultured meat production, lasts longer than the other two gases in the atmosphere. They argue that in the long run, climate change caused by carbon dioxide from lab-grown meat production would surpass methane and nitrous oxide from the livestock systems. They implied that cultured meat production would cause a significantly higher earth temperature than the conventional cattle system over a 1000 year period. Considering the earth’s average global temperature actually increased by 0.85°C from 1880 to 2012 (132 years), their studied time frame does not look realistic. Climate change itself is an issue we must take care of immediately and the United Nations has already proposed a goal of zero net carbon dioxide emission by 2050.
An honest view-point but from a very narrow perspective
The group specifically emphasised the temperature changes caused by greenhouse gas emission, in the conventional and cultured meat system. While Dr. Tuomisto and other scientists have also found that greenhouse gas emission and temperature change could rise through cultured meat production, they have also analysed other environmental parameters, such as water use, land use and waste management. Together these parameters form what is known Life-cycle Assessment (LCA). LCA provides a better picture of environment impacts, by taking into account the whole ecosystem. Even though carbon dioxide emission from cultured meat production is currently high, it would reduce the number of trees chopped down for pasture which in turn would conserve the carbon dioxide balance.
The environmental specialists involved have explained that their research findings are based on honest presumptions about a technology still in the early stages of development. Without more detailed figures surrounding the production of cultured meat on a large scale, it is too early to make an accurate comparison of its environmental impact over the next 1000 years compared to conventional farming. While such reports have the ability to sway public opinion regarding cultured meat, the media attention they generate is not actually the major obstacle facing the emerging lab meat industry. Continuous rises in meat consumption throughout recent decades, fueled by large scale conventional farming, have created a disconnection in the minds of consumers between animal slaughter, consumer purchasing and meat consumption. A disconnection that is hindering us from realising the true potential of clean meat and the need for a greater cultural change when it comes to the production and consumption of meat. Stay updated and be optimistic because scientists are trying very hard to save our planet Earth, our animals and of course ourselves.
By Karen Hung & Matthew Fedak, futurefoodster.com
Karen Hung has a PhD in biomedical science and worked over the past 11 years in 8 different research groups and commercial labs in New York, UK, Germany and Hong Kong.
Matthew Fedak is a software developer from the UK. He is a keen future food enthusiast and currently lives in Germany.