Is Cultured Meat Really A Climate Solution?
Agricultural meat production is well-known for being problematic for animal welfare and the environment. These problems are predicted to deepen over the coming decades, with the UN expecting global demand for meat to double by 2050.
Cultured meat, or meat grown without raising a living animal, is frequently put forward as something that could replace conventional meat production — and in doing so, it may help to combat the climate crisis. Optimism around cultured meat is clear, with over $2 billion in funding raised and some reports claiming that it will displace over 60% of ground beef products by 2040.
Despite the buzz surrounding these products, the authors of this study argue that there remains a lack of bulletproof research into the climate impacts of cultured meat production. To remedy this, they evaluated the Global Warming Potential (GWP) of cultured meat, which involved looking at the greenhouse gas emissions of cultured meat at every stage of its production. The research compared three different assessments of cultured meat manufacturing processes and their climate impacts to those of conventionally farmed beef.
The study’s biggest finding was that there was a bigger GWP for cultured beef than for conventionally-produced cow meat. Per kilogram of meat produced, the GWP of cultured meat was between 4 and 25 times greater than that of retail cow meat. What’s more, the authors say this was an underestimate: it doesn’t include the carbon emissions from building equipment and transporting and storing the meat. It also assumed a 100% conversion rate from raw material into product (in reality, some raw materials such as amino acids are used for other processes and are not converted directly into meat proteins).
The researchers point to specific issues in manufacturing cultured meat that drive up this carbon cost. The most important of these is the removal of endotoxins during the process. Endotoxins are harmful chemicals released from bacterial cells when they disintegrate that must be removed from cultured meat before it can be sold. However, this process is very energy-intensive.
Additionally, the need for very specific raw materials for the production process, many of which need a lot of refinement, drives up the carbon cost. For example, cultured meat products currently rely on fetal bovine serum, which requires an 18-step refinement method. The researchers suggest solving this by finding a suitable byproduct of existing manufacturing processes that can replace existing manufacturing methods.
Despite the issues found in this article, the authors don’t write off cultured meat. Instead, they suggest that a change in focus is needed. Rather than continue trying to refine current production techniques, they argue that investors should fund scientific advances that might improve the production process from the ground up. Specifically, funding research into “solving the endotoxin challenge” should be a priority for reducing the costs of producing cultured meat.
In summary, this research suggests that the science of cultured meat needs to improve before it can replace animal agriculture. Specifically, funding for more foundational research is needed, rather than simply focusing on scaling up manufacturing. To push funding in this direction, animal advocates can help by pressuring governments, investors, and NGOs to provide relevant grants and resources.