The hidden carbon footprint of cultured meats raises questions about whether it is a sustainable substitute for retail beef

LFarmed meat, which is grown from animal cells, is often thought to be more environmentally friendly than beef because it is expected to require less land, water and greenhouse gases than raising livestock. But in a preprint, not yet peer-reviewed, researchers at the University of California, Davis found that the environmental impact of lab-grown or cultured meats is likely to be orders of magnitude higher than beef at the detail based on current and near-term production. methods.

The researchers conducted a life cycle assessment of the energy required and greenhouse gas emissions at all stages of production and compared it to beef. One of the current challenges with lab-grown meat is the use of highly refined or purified growth media, the ingredients needed to help animal cells multiply. Currently, this method is similar to the biotechnology used to make pharmaceuticals. This poses a critical question for cultured meat production: is it a pharmaceutical product or a food product?

If companies have to purify growth media to pharmaceutical levels, they use more resources, which increases global warming potential, said lead author and doctoral candidate Derrick Risner, UC Davis Department of Food Science and Technology. If this product continues to be produced using the pharmaceutical approach, it will be worse for the environment and more expensive than conventional beef production.

Scientists have defined global warming potential as the equivalents of carbon dioxide emitted for each kilogram of meat produced. The study found that the global warming potential of laboratory meat using these purified media is four to 25 times higher than the average retail beef.

A more climate-friendly burger in the future?

One of the industry’s goals is to eventually create lab-grown meat using mostly food-grade ingredients or cultures without the use of expensive and energy-intensive pharmaceutical-grade ingredients and processes.

Against this backdrop, the researchers found that cultured meat is much more environmentally competitive, but with a wider range. The global warming potential of cultured meats could be 80% lower to 26% higher than that of conventional beef production, they calculate. Although these results are more promising, the transition from the pharmaceutical to the food sector still represents a significant technical challenge for the scale-up of the system.

Our findings suggest that cultured meat is not inherently better for the environment than conventional beef. It’s not a panacea, said corresponding author Edward Spang, an associate professor in the Department of Food Science and Technology. It is possible that we could reduce its environmental impact in the future, but it will require significant technical progress to simultaneously increase the performance and decrease the cost of the cell culture media.

Even the most efficient beef production systems examined in the study outperform cultured beef in all scenarios (both food and pharmaceutical), suggesting that investments to promote more climate-friendly beef production can yield greater emission reductions. rapidly compared to investments in cultured meat.

Developing the technology that would enable the leap from pharmaceuticals to food is among the goals of the UC Davis Cultivated Meat Consortium, an interdisciplinary group of scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs and educators researching cultured meat. Other goals are to establish and evaluate cell lines that could be used to grow meat and to find ways to create more structure in cultured meat.

Risner said that even if the lab beef doesn’t result in a more climate-friendly burger, there is still valuable science to be learned from the effort.

It may not lead to environmentally friendly basic meat, but it could lead to less expensive pharmaceuticals, for example, Risner said. My concern would just be to ramp up too quickly and do something bad for the environment.

Other authors include Yoonbin Kim and Justin Siegel of UC Davis and Cuong Nguyen of the University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

The research was funded by the UC Davis Innovation Institute for Food and Health and a National Science Foundation Growing Convergence Research grant.

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