The Western world has a huge meat eating issue that lab-grown meat is, according to its proponents, supposed to help solve. High-tech meat supporters like to talk about how, in helping wean people off eating cows, their lab-grown substitutes will reduce carbon dioxide and methane emissions associated with raising cattle. There’s just one slight problem.
Lab-created meat may not actually do that, according to new findings published this week in Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems. The results point to the need for improvements in efficiency and more research before we can be sure what the most sustainable food system really is. They’re also a reminder that technology alone won’t solve climate change.
Currently, livestock production is responsible for an estimated 14.5 percent of all human greenhouse gas emissions. To combat that, entrepreneurs have been turning to alternate forms of meat production. In recent years, lab-grown meat has become the next big thing. The basic idea involves harvesting stem cells from animals and then growing them into a steak or pork chop you can plop on your plate between the peas and carrots. But we’re still a ways off from that future, despite news cycles frequently suggesting lab meat is right around the corner.
Scientists at Oxford wanted to better understand the environmental impact of lab-grown meat. They analyzed four different ways of growing red meat and compared them to three ways or raising cattle. But rather than focus on converting all emissions from either process to carbon dioxide equivalents—something most other studies on the topic have done to date—they focused on the impact of each type of greenhouse gas, including methane and nitrous oxide.
Cows burp up methane, a more potent but shorter-lived greenhouse gas, and that’s generally their biggest source of emissions. Emissions from lab-grown meat are almost all carbon dioxide, which sits in the atmosphere for much longer.
Using a 1,000-year timescale, the researchers looked at scenarios where the world continued to chow down on more meat, phased out all meat consumptions, and scenario where meat consumption peaks before declining. 1,000 years may seem like a long time, but the point is to understand how our choices over the next few decades affect the climate in the long-run.
“The 1,000-year time scenario is relatively arbitrary, but it was important to illustrate some of the longer term (i.e. more than 100 years) impacts of our current emissions,” John Lynch, a postdoctoral researcher at Oxford who led the study, told Earther via email. “Particularly the long-term legacy of CO2 emissions and the automatic reversibility of methane (and, in the longer term, nitrous oxide) emissions.”
The results from each scenario show that some types of beef production can actually be better for the climate long-term compared to their lab-cultured counterparts. In particular, the Swedish organic method of raising cows on pastures with low fertilizer input had some of the mildest long-term impacts on global warming, though some lab grown meat processes gave it a run for its money and even bested it. The American approach to beef production, though, was consistently the worst climate-wise.
All of lab and natural meat efforts led to some warming, though, which goes to show that there isn’t a silver bullet solution to decarbonizing the food system. The study didn’t take into account land or water use or animal welfare, all of which could still make lab meat a better option. And unlike convention meat, lab meat’s climate impact will largely depend on whether energy production is decarbonized by the time the industry matures.
In a separate report released this week by the Chatham House, a UK-based nonprofit, researchers called for better investment and regulation of the cultured and plant-based meat industries in the European Union. While both are still fairly nascent industries, providing a framework for them to operate in now could help steer them toward a more sustainable future. In addition, the report argues that the European Union needs to figure out how to rein in meat consumption, which is itself no easy task given the cultural values we attach to what we eat.
“The bottom line is that EU policymakers will not be able to meet their commitments to tackle climate change without a shift to less environmentally damaging forms of meat and food production,” Laura Wellesley, a research fellow at Chatham House who co-authored the report, told Earther. “The question for policymakers is whether cultured meat and plant-based meat can help to accelerate a shift to a more sustainable food system... Early indications are that they can [and] it is worth investing now to support and guide innovation in the right direction.”