Can lab grown meat help solve the climate crisis?

With carbon dioxide levels the highest they have been for over 4 million years, and the hope of staying below the IPCC 1.5-degree Celsius target looking ever bleaker, now is the time to make drastic changes to our lifestyle and consumption patterns. With the meat industry being one of the worst contributors to the climate crisis, the idea of cultivated, lab grown meat is making waves in the world of food. But just how sustainable is cultivated meat? And can vegetarians expect to be replaced by the rise of ‘cultivarians’?

The environmental impact caused by the meat industry is indisputable, with it producing some 14.5% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, and accounting for 77% of agricultural land. With the global population estimated to surpass 9 billion by 2050, the demand for meat is only going to rise. Much of our global agricultural land is already being rendered unusable due to climate change; felling more trees to develop new farmland is only going to exacerbate this problem as it removes a large carbon sink. Although plant-based diets are becoming more common across the globe, it is clear we need a new strategy to tempt our meat lovers away from factory-farmed produce.

Lab grown meat relies on a technique of in vitro muscle tissue growth.  The process was developed over 100 years ago, but it was only in 2013 that focus switched to applying this technique to produce the first cultivated burger. The process of cultivating the meat involves harvesting muscle cells from a live animal under local anaesthetic, and growing them in a bioreactor supplied with the required nutrients to allow the cells to proliferate into muscle tissue that can be formed into the desired size. Cells taken from a single cow can produce up to 175 million quarter-pounder burgers, which is the equivalent of slaughtering 440,000 cows, meaning that, with appropriate production scaling, cultivated meat is more than able to meet the consumer demand.

In terms of environmental impact, cultivated meat has the potential to be the secret we may be looking for. Depending on the type of meat produced, cultivated meat is predicted to use 82 to 96 percent less water, 99 percent less land, and produce 78 to 96 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions. This is because it does not rely on as much pasture space to graze cattle, and less land and water must be dedicated to growing the animal feed.

However, the process of artificially cultivating meat is profoundly energy-intensive, so to reap the full benefits from the process it is vital we decarbonise the industry and switch to primarily renewable sources such as wind or solar energy. Furthermore, many companies are still relying on foetal bovine serum (FBS) to supply nutrition to the dividing cells, which is obtained from the unborn foetuses of pregnant cows after they are slaughtered. This means that the process is not yet fully decoupled from factory farming, although the Dutch company ‘Mosa Meat’ substitutes FBS with hydrolysed cyanobacteria, which is cheaper and more sustainable, so it is hoped that other companies will soon follow suit.

To assess fully the ability of cultivated meat to help solve the climate crisis, we must also consider how feasible it is in terms of health impacts and cost. Perhaps surprisingly to many, cultivated meat is actually a healthier alternative to traditional meat, despite being produced by an admittedly unnatural process. However,  lab control over the meat production means that we can adjust the essential amino acid profile, vitamin and mineral content of the meat to enhance its nutritional value. Furthermore, unlike traditional meat, it avoids contamination from growth hormones or antibiotics that are routinely injected into factory farmed animals, reducing the risk of antibiotic resistance, which is responsible for the deaths of some 1.2 million people every year.

Currently, it is the expenses that prevent cultivated meat from being a feasible, every day alternative. Although huge progress has been made in minimising production costs, with a decrease from $300,000 per burger in 2013, to just $11.36 by 2015, this is still significantly more expensive to produce than traditional meat. If cultivated meat is to become common in household shopping baskets, companies will have to focus on the scaling of factories, and maximising efficiency to avoid any wasted costs.

Overall, we cannot predict with certainty the impact that cultivated meat will have until it hits the shelves. Nonetheless, the health and environmental prospects are promising, provided we are able to drive the manufacturing process from renewable sources and reduce production costs. The climate crisis is a complex issue with many interacting factors, but the ability to reduce our reliance on the meat industry would be a major step forward to halting our detrimental anthropogenic damage.

Image description: Cow mince presented in a petri dish

Image credit: iStock