Lab-grown meat has a higher carbon footprint than retail beef

Scaling up production using existing processes is energy-intensive.

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The production of livestock is an essential part of the global food system because it helps poor households in low- and middle-income nations by providing them with income, staple proteins, increased crop yield, and nutrition.

Lab-grown meat, created from animal cells, is sometimes assumed to be more environmentally friendly than beef since it is expected to require less land, water, and greenhouse gas emissions than raising cattle.

According to present and near-term manufacturing methods, the environmental impact of lab-grown meat is projected to be “orders of magnitude” greater than retail beef.

This is because highly refined or purified growth media are used, which is similar to the biotechnology used to produce medications.

“If companies have to purify growth media to pharmaceutical levels, it uses more resources, which increases global warming potential.” said lead author and UC Davis Department of Food Science and Technology Ph.D. graduate Derrick Risner.

If this product continues to be produced using the “pharma” approach, it will be worse for the environment and more expensive than conventional beef production.”

Researchers compared beef to a life-cycle assessment of the energy required and greenhouse gases released during all manufacturing phases.

The use of highly refined or purified growth media, the components required to enable animal cells to multiply, is one of the main issues with lab-grown meat.

The scientists described the carbon dioxide equivalents emitted for each kilogram of meat produced as the global warming potential.

According to the study, the global warming potential of lab-based meat produced using these refined media is four to twenty-five times more than the average for retail beef.

The industry aims to generate lab-grown meat utilizing largely food-grade components or cultures rather than pricey, energy-intensive pharmaceutical-grade chemicals and techniques.

Researchers discovered that cultured beef is considerably more environmentally competitive, although with a wide range. According to their calculations, the global warming potential of cultured meat might be between 80% and 26% lower than that of average cattle production. However, transitioning from “pharma to food” remains a huge technical issue for system scaling.

“Our findings suggest that cultured meat is not inherently better for the environment than conventional beef. It’s not a panacea,” said corresponding author Edward Spang, an associate professor in the Department of Food Science and Technology. It’s possible we could reduce its environmental impact in the future, but it will require significant technical advancement to simultaneously increase the performance and decrease the cost of the cell culture media.”

Even the most efficient cattle production systems analyzed in the study beat cultured meat across all scenarios, showing that investments in more climate-friendly beef production may result in greater emissions reductions more quickly than expenditures on cultured meat.

One of the goals of the University of California Davis Cultured Meat Consortium, a multidisciplinary network of scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, and educators interested in cultured meat, is to develop technologies that will make the transition from “pharma to food” easier.

Other goals are to establish and evaluate cell lines that could be used to grow meat and find ways to create more structure in cultured meat.

Risner said that even if lab-based meat doesn’t result in a more climate-friendly burger, there is still valuable science to be learned from the endeavour.

Risner said, “It may not lead to environmentally friendly commodity meat, but it could lead to less expensive pharmaceuticals, for example. My concern would be scaling this up too quickly and doing something harmful to the environment.”

The study was funded by the UC Davis Innovation Institute for Food and Health and the National Science Foundation Growing Convergence Research grant.

Journal Reference:

  1. Derrick Risner, Yoonbin Kim, et.al. Environmental impacts of cultured meat: A cradle-to-gate life cycle assessment. Biorxiv DOI:10.1101/2023.04.21.537778

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