Is lab-grown meat less environmentally friendly than regular meat?

By August 10, 2023 Environment, Lifestyle, Science

We came across the following post on a UK-based Telegram channel with over 142,000 subscribers:

The post features a minute-long clip of a man speaking about a study conducted in UC Davis which he says found that ‘lab-grown meat’s (also known as cultured or cultivated meat) environmental impact may be orders of magnitude higher than regular meat’. He suggests that the study contradicts the main reason for consuming lab-grown meat—that of reducing the environmental impact. He also questions why entities like Bill Gates and Cargill (a major meat producer) are investing in lab-grown meat, implying another agenda may be at play if there is no benefit compared to regular meat.

A Meaty Discussion

When we looked up the study referred to in the video, we did find a recent UC Davis study titled Environmental impacts of cultured meat: A cradle-to-gate life cycle assessment. The study’s results indicated that ‘the environmental impact of near-term ACBM (animal cell-based meat) production is likely to be orders of magnitude higher than median beef production if a highly refined growth medium is utilised for ACBM production’. These results corroborated the statements made in the video.

A closer reading of the UC Davis paper, however, reveals some details that are omitted by the video in the Telegram post. The UC Davis study states that it contradicts previous studies that found cultured meat to be more environmentally friendly than conventional meat. It states that the difference in the findings is due to previous studies not accurately reflecting the environmental impact of current technological practices used in the process of growing cultured meat.

As with many other scientific studies, the UC Davis study makes some key assumptions that contribute to the study’s findings. These assumptions may differ from study to study, resulting in different outcomes, and the calculations may shift over time as technology progresses. The UC Davis study is also in the process of being peer-reviewed, a process whereby other members of the scientific community may point out weaknesses in the study.

Other recent studies suggest that the environmental impact of cultured meat is highly dependent on the context in which it is produced. A University of Oxford study from 2019 found that cultured meat could cause far more impact on global warming in the long term than cattle production, but that the relative environmental impact ‘depends on the availability of decarbonised energy generation and the specific production systems that are realised’.

Another 2023 study by the Netherlands-based sustainability research consultancy CE Delft found that ‘when using renewable energy during production and in the most important parts of the supply chain, CM (cultivated meat) has a lower carbon footprint (than conventional meat)’.

As a whole, while the current process of creating cultivated meat appears to be more energy intensive than for conventional meat, cultivated meat production has yet to reach a scale whereby its environmental impact can be accurately calculated. Achieving scale may allow for more efficient production and the incorporation of renewable energy, reducing the environmental impact.

The video in the Telegram post also mischaracterises the possible benefits of lab-grown meat by limiting them to the environmental impact of emissions. Derrick Risner, the author of the UC Davis study states that while lab-grown meat may not lead to environmentally friendly commodity meat, advances in the field could contribute to less expensive pharmaceuticals, which use similar biotechnology in their production process. Lab-grown meat could also provide further benefits by freeing up land use, improving animal welfare and, if produced at sufficient scale, contributing to food security. For Singapore, which has emerged as a key hub for developing lab-grown meat technology, these advantages may prove highly beneficial.

Other Benefits Apart from the Environment

The video in the Telegram post therefore does not present the complete picture of the impact and potential benefits of lab-grown meat. As we found the Telegram channel to be highly prolific in disseminating content linked to conspiracy theories, it is likely that the video invites doubt over lab-grown meat in a similar fashion to conspiracy theories around genetically modified (GMO) food. The mention of Bill Gates also suggests an association with conspiracy theories of ‘elites’ controlling the world population through food production.

While the Telegram video does not reflect the limitations of the projections put forth by the scientific community and does not accurately represent the possible benefits of lab-grown meat, it is nonetheless mostly true—particularly from an emissions standpoint, that lab-grown meat is less environmentally friendly than regular meat at present.

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