Is laboratory grown meat the future?

Blog by George Coiley, Food and Climate Change Group

Is it time to say ‘sirloin, farewell’ to rearing animals for their meat? To find out, I went to a talk by Dr. Hanna Tuomisto, whose research looks at so-called cellular agriculture, the practice of artificially growing meat for human consumption.

Meat and the environment

As someone who salivates whenever I approach a pork pie, it pains me to say that the current global level of meat consumption is terrible news. Human-caused greenhouse gas emissions are leading to dangerous climate change which is already harming people today and if left unchecked will leave the world a much worse place for our children. Unfortunately, meat production bears a lot of responsibility for these emissions. If you don’t include land-use change and deforestation, the global food industry is responsible for around 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions. 80% of that is attributable to livestock. But it gets worse. The majority of land-use change and deforestation happens to make room for agriculture, mostly to grow feed for livestock. Trees are important carbon sinks (they absorb carbon dioxide) which means that the food industry actually accounts for 30-35% of global greenhouse gas emissions. In total then, a whopping 24-28% of global greenhouse gas emissions are due to rearing livestock.

On top of greenhouse gas emissions, the meat industry has many other significant environmental impacts. One example is that livestock undermines bio-diversity: it therefore threatens almost 1700 endangered species. Another is that, at a time where water is becoming a scarce resource for many, just one kilo of beef requires 15,415 litres of water to produce. For comparison, a kilo of rice requires about 2500 litres.

Lab Grown Burger David Parry AFPGettyImages

The first lab-grown burger (David Parry, AFP Getty Images)

What to do?

One solution is simply eating less meat. Cutting down the amount of meat in our diet is one of the most effective and easiest ways of reducing our personal carbon footprint. What’s more, changing our diets to eat more plant-based food and less meat has significant health benefits, including reduced risk of coronary heart disease, colorectal cancer and type 2 diabetes. And of course, meat is expensive, so eating less of it will make us richer too! We should remember that eating as much meat as we do today is a new phenomenon; in Europe fifty years ago we ate around half as much. It would benefit our children’s futures, our health and our pockets for us to again think of meat as a luxury, rather than an everyday staple.

But what if someone doesn’t want to cut their meat consumption? Or would like to cause the least environmental damage possible, but still treat themselves occasionally? Imagine if we could enjoy a burger when we wanted, without the impact that goes along with it. Is it possible to have our steak and eat it? Enter cellular agriculture.

Petri-dish of the day

The process of cellular agriculture involves painlessly removing cells from an animal and growing them in a culture in laboratory conditions. The concept has been proven to work, with the first cultured beef patty being created and eaten in 2013. At the time it was judged by professional food critics as a little pale, but ‘definitely meat’. Private companies are now working on commercialising cellular agriculture- one company’s effort is pictured below.

Memphis Meat Meatball

A meatball created by ‘Memphis Meat

The technology is in its infancy and there are a lot of challenges to scaling it up enough for large-scale production to be economically feasible. These challenges include the fact that currently the meat can only be grown in very thin slivers (the first burger was made up of 25,000 layers) and that the growing culture used currently is derived from animal products itself. For these reasons it is likely to be more than five years from now that we’ll see cultured meats on our supermarket shelves.

However, if these problems are overcome there is some good news: cultured meat would likely be far less environmentally damaging than conventionally produced meat, with 78-96% lower greenhouse gas emissions, 99% lower land use and 82-96% lower water use. Those are some big numbers, although it should be remembered that cultured meat requires a lot of electricity, so its carbon footprint will depend upon how we generate power.

Conclusion

Of course, the idea of eating laboratory grown meat is a bit unsettling. But if the technology continues to progress, then within most of our lifetimes cultured meat will probably become something commonplace and accepted. All things considered, hopefully this will be a good thing for the environment. However, cellular agriculture is fixing a problem that doesn’t need to exist. It is the over-consumption of meat that is primarily to blame for the substantial and ongoing environmental damage of the food industry. As individuals, we can help reduce that impact by reducing our meat intake, at least until cellular agriculture is a sustainable alternative!

Further Reading:

Greenhouse gas emissions due to meat production

Environmental impacts of different diets

Water consumption of food production

Diet and global climate change

Environmental impacts of cultured meat production