Why do we keep relying on emerging technology to solve our problems?
As sustainability receives increasingly more media attention, bizarre sustainable foods have begun to crop up in supermarkets across the globe: vertically-farmed lettuce, vegan fish sticks, even cricket oatmeal, standing next to boxes of muesli and cornflakes. While these items can feel more like science experiments than sustenance, in recent years, we’ve been inundated with articles about how technological innovations like engineered food will be our savior in the climate crisis.
One in 9 people on planet earth is malnourished, and experts predict that number will rise sharply as climate change causes desertification, flooding, and abnormal weather patterns. In light of these harrowing predictions, it makes sense that the public would turn to science for answers. After all, technological advancements worked in moments of major food insecurity in the past. A commonly cited example is the Golden Rice project, which involved genetically modifying rice so that it could biosynthesize beta-carotene, a precursor to vitamin A. This prevented blindness and premature death in millions without access to fresh produce and other micronutrient-dense foods.
As climate change becomes a larger global issue, we’ve seen dozens of agricultural innovations along these lines, all with the aim of reducing the food sector’s emissions without compromising human health or tastes. One such example is lab-grown meat. Lab-grown meat refers to meat products created from cultured cells, taken from a small muscle sample from one animal and allowed to replicate until they form easily-recognizable foodstuffs, like hamburger patties. The appeal behind lab-grown meat is that it replicates the protein content, taste, and texture of meat without the methane emissions, land use changes, or water use associated with animal agriculture, generating considerable buzz when it was introduced to the market.
At first glance, the production of lab-grown meat seems like a perfect solution to both the high emissions and resource consumption of traditional meat production, which can be compared to other food sources in the below pie chart. Compared kilo per kilo with conventionally-produced European meat, lab-grown meat uses 78–96% lower GHG emissions, 99% lower land use, and 82–96% lower water consumption, depending on if you compare it with poultry, pork, or beef (as per Tuomisto and Teixeira de Mattos’ study).
These reductions seem particularly important considering the rapid growth of meat production and consumption in emerging economies like China. It’s a golden ticket: we get to reduce emissions without compromising our current patterns of eating. What more could we ask for?
However, as with many other solutions to the climate crisis that seem too good to be true, lab-grown meat is not yet a viable solution to the high emissions of animal agriculture. The technology for manufacturing lab-grown meat is only accessible in a small number of developed nations (namely the Netherlands, the United States, and Israel) and the chemicals required for its assembly are often unsustainably manufactured and transported long distances to laboratories.
As a result, researchers found that ultimately, kilo per kilo, lab-cultured meat generates almost 4.5 times the CO2 emissions of Swedish and Brazilian ranch-raised meat and 23 percent higher CO2 emissions than USA pasture-raised meat on average (as per Lynch and Pierrehumbert’s 2019 study). Despite significantly lower methane emissions and water usage, those numbers are far from ideal.
On top of environmental concerns, half a kilo of lab-grown meat from US-based manufacturer Memphis Meats costs 530 euros, more than my grocery budget for 3.5 months in Amsterdam. While this price will shrink as production grows (the first lab-grown patty produced in 2013 cost upwards of 300,000 euros), it likely will not be adequately cheap for widespread production and consumption within this decade. Furthermore, we have no idea how these technologies will ultimately impact human health. There have been no large-scale clinical trials on the efficacy of a diet consisting largely of vitamin-enriched, artificially-grown foods for our immune systems, digestive systems, and overall functioning.
This begs the question: if we know that current and projected levels of meat consumption are unsustainable and the potential of lab-grown meat, why do so many believe that they will be a fitting substitute to a local and/or plant-based diet? We see this logic – that technological developments, even ones that don’t exist yet, will enable us to halt emissions without fundamentally changing our lifestyles – peppered throughout the debate on climate change. The danger of technologies like lab-grown meat is that they create a false sense of security, bolstering the idea that behavioral changes are not necessary if we wait for engineers to save the world.
I would never argue that technology has no role in solving the climate crisis. It’s difficult to imagine solving a problem of this magnitude without using every solution in our arsenal. But relying on novel technology is not only naive, it’s dangerous.
Changing legislation to stop propping up large, polluting agricultural and livestock-oriented industries will be necessary. Precision agriculture and targeted genetic modification will be necessary. And most importantly, changing our diets and behavior will be necessary. Now more than ever, accepting the necessity of multiple mitigation sources is crucial to fighting climate change.
Arvesen A, Bright RM, Hertwich EG. 2011. Considering only first-order effects? How simplifications lead to unrealistic technology optimism in climate change mitigation. Energy Policy. 39: 7448-7454.
Little, A. The future of food [podcast]. Fresh Air. National Public Radio. June 3, 2019, 47 minutes. Available from: https://www.npr.org/2019/06/03/729327973/the-future-of-food?t=1583352938554.
Lynch J, Pierrehumbert R. 2019. Climate Impacts of Cultured Meat and Beef Cattle. Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems.
Schaefer GO. 2018. Lab-Grown Meat: beef for dinner—without killing animals or the environment. Scientific American [internet]. Available from: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/lab-grown-meat/.
Maini S. 2016. Why we can’t rely on technology for a better future. Medium [internet]. Available from: https://medium.com/tradecraft-traction/why-we-can-t-rely-on-technology-for-a-better-future-1aee9fd8e946
Stone, Zara. 2018. The high cost of Lab-to-Table Meat. Wired [internet]. Available from: https://www.wired.com/story/the-high-cost-of-lab-to-table-meat/
Tuomisto H, Teixeira de Mattos J. 2011. Environmental impacts of cultured meat production. Environmental Science and Technology. 45(14): 6117-23.
Vidal J. 2013. Millions face starvation as world warms, say scientists. The Guardian [internet]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2013/apr/13/climate-change-millions-starvation-scientists.
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