Lab-Grown Meat: Is It as Sustainable as It Seems?
The FDA cleared lab-grown meat for human consumption. Here's everything you should know about the sustainable alternative.
Plant-based meat alternatives are having a moment. Because of the environmental impact of meat, consumers are demanding more planet-friendly options.
To meet the demand, companies all over the world are introducing different types of plant-based meat to their menus. Chipotle is adding chorizo made from peas, Beyond Meat just released realistic "chicken" tenders, Taco Bell is experimenting with chickpea-based meat... the list goes on and on.
But there's another trend on the rise, too: lab-grown meat. According to Our World in Data, agriculture accounts for a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, which are causing global temperatures to rise steadily. (That's more than all emissions from ships, planes, and other transportation combined.) This is largely from the methane that's released by cattle, which is 30 times more harmful than carbon dioxide.
Unlike energy production, where there are many viable opportunities to scale back our carbon usage (like renewable and nuclear), the ways we can decarbonize agriculture aren't as clear. But lab-grown meat seems to be the next viable solution. So much so that in November 2022, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) cleared lab-grown meat for human consumption for the first time.
What Is Lab-Grown Meat?
Lab-grown meat, also known as "clean" or "cultured" meat, is grown from animal cells in a lab. This type of meat can be made from any type of animal that has muscle-specific stem cells—think mammals, birds, and fish. Stem cells are extracted from the animal, then the cells are replicated in a culture outside of the animal.
The stem cells are then immersed in a broth (which includes salts, vitamins, sugars, and proteins, as well as growth factors) in something called a bioreactor. The cells then cells multiply dramatically due to the oxygen-rich, temperature-controlled environment. The result? 100% real meat.
While it sounds like a futuristic process, several companies are currently developing their own artificially-grown beef, pork, poultry, and fish. In fact, GOOD Meat (a new brand from Eat Just, Inc., the creators of Just Egg) has already brought the world's first lab-grown chicken to Singapore.
"We can have real, high-quality meat without killing an animal, without tearing down a forest, without exacerbating climate change," said Josh Tetrick, CEO of Eat Just, in a past interview.
The Benefits of Lab-Grown Meat
As the demand for livestock continues to rise—it's projected to more than double by 2050—having an alternative solution that doesn't require using any land is definitely a positive.
Right now, roughly 30% of the Earth's land is used for livestock farming (which includes the land, water, and energy required to grow and harvest the food livestock eats, too). Even though we currently produce enough calories to feed 10 to 11 billion people worldwide, a staggering amount goes to that livestock—only 55% percent of the world's crops actually feed people.
Already, almost two billion people are food insecure. And our population continues to grow. According to National Geographic, population numbers are expected to rise to nine billion by 2050. As our population grows, where will all of that food come from? Lab-grown meat could be a solution. One that also comes with some health benefits.
Lab-grown meat is much more unlikely to become contaminated with bacteria such as E. coli because of the absence of digestive organs. And because none of these animals are being slaughtered, the risk of bacteria from that process is non-existent.
All in all, lab-grown meat seems to be the answer to many problems, right? Well, not so fast.
Is Lab-Grown Meat Sustainable?
There's no doubt that lab-grown meat has huge environmental potential. But while it's better initially, a 2019 study published in the journal Frontiers of Sustainable Food Systems found the production of lab-grown meat could generate even greater concentrations of CO2 over time. CO2 takes a lot longer to dissipate than the methane that's currently produced by cows.
The study does acknowledge, however, that emissions could be reduced if the right production efficiency is achieved. This is because the current process relies heavily on large energy output using fossil fuels. So, when it comes to the health of the planet, patience is important: According to a 2019 study from the University of Oxford, replacing current livestock systems with lab-grown meat production before energy generation is decarbonized increases the risk of long-term, negative climate impact greatly.
"While reducing methane emissions would be good—and an important part of our climate policies—if we simply replace that methane with carbon dioxide it could actually have detrimental long-term consequences," said John Lynch, lead study author, in a press release. "The climate impacts of cultured meat production will depend on what level of sustainable energy generation can be achieved, as well as the efficiency of future culture processes."
Now that we've covered the environmental impact of lab-grown meat, how does it impact the animals? It's thought to be completely harmless, but the nature of lab-grown can be misleading. While harvesting the stem cell sample doesn't involve killing the animal, the mixture needed to culture the meat is generally fetal bovine serum (FBS), which comes from slaughtered cows. Luckily, "cruelty-free" lab-grown meat companies—like Dutch-based Meatable—have found ways around the need for FBS that don't involve slaughter.
By no surprise, the high-tech production process of lab-grown meat is very expensive due to many variables, including energy used and culturing the meat. In 2013, it was priced at $1.2 million a pound. Last year, that shifted to $50 per pound... which is still one incredibly pricey burger.
Overall, lab-grown meat certainly has the potential to better the planet. But there's still a lot of work to be done before it becomes a game-changing solution.
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