Climate impact of lab-grown meat

22 February 2019

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Meat grown in the lab may not be as good for the environment as first thought, a new study suggests…

Cows and sheep roaming the countryside are a familiar sight, but new technology means that rather than rearing an animal, it is now possible to grow cultured meat in a lab.

At face value, this looks like one ready-made solution to feeding a growing population and mitigating the carbon costs of livestock rearing. But do the sums add up?

Fed and looked after in the right way, animal stem cells can be grown in the dish and persuaded to turn into muscle cells that grow into an edible piece of meat. This means there are no direct emissions of greenhouse gases, such as methane from animal digestion, arising through the process.

But this optimism might be premature. According to research by John Lynch from the University of Oxford, the problem is “still in the early stages, so there are a lot of unknowns around what real-life cultured meat production would look like.” Even, he continues, “when eliminating some of the animal’s biological processes, some studies have suggested it might be a very energy intensive process.” This is because, Lynch explains, the cultured meat needs to be kept warm so that it can grow.

This warmth often comes from burning fossil fuels and putting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. So, with cultured meat, you are effectively swapping methane from cattle burping for the carbon footprint associated with cultured meat. So which option is better?

According to Lynch, “you’d take your methane emission and describe that as if it was a certain amount of carbon dioxide. But we took it a step further.”

He has shown that, even though the warming effect of methane is stronger than carbon dioxide in the short term, methane breaks down within a few decades so the warming effect reduces with time.

But the carbon dioxide we emit today, “will persist in the atmosphere for millennia, unless we actively store it. Because it has this extremely long lifespan compared to methane you really have to consider them quite separately.”

He did exactly this, using a climate model to see the long term impacts of each gas and showing that previous work understates the impact of carbon dioxide from cultured meat. It all adds to the debate about whether this technology will help mitigate climate change.

Lynch’s take is that “we’re just urging a bit of caution because we just can’t say at the moment. All of the footprints we looked at are proposed studies, but we don’t have the data yet on the real-life production systems. It’s not the definitive answer at the moment.”

Despite these reservations, he goes on to explain that, “it might not be too long until we do start to get the picture of real production systems look like. We’ll then see where the real emissions fit among this scale of proposed ones that we looked at.”

Perhaps from there a better understanding of the climate impact of cultured meat will emerge...

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