Lab Grown Meat & Our Appetite for "One-Size Fits All" Solutions

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).

Image source: Center for Sustainable Systems, University of Michigan 

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?

Image source: United Nations Food and Agriculture Association

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. 

Sources

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

2018. Expenditure on food per capita. Knoema [internet]. Available from: https://knoema.com/atlas/topics/Food-Security/Expenditures-Spent-on-Food/Expenditure-on-food-per-capita

5 thoughts on “Lab Grown Meat & Our Appetite for "One-Size Fits All" Solutions

  1. Thanks for your blogpost, Lanie! I have been curious about lab grown meat for a while, and it was nice to have some of my misconceptions cleared up and to learn some more about the product! Mid-way through your blogpost, you mention two important studies. First, you mention a study that claims “lab-grown meat uses 78–96% lower GHG emissions, 99% lower land use, and 82–96% lower water consumption”, and later on you mention a study that claims “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”. The discrepancy in statistics, I assume, comes namely from the emissions caused by setting up a factory and transport (of ingredients and the product itself). Looking at these statistics, wouldn’t it be safe to say that the emissions caused by lab grown meat would not be for forever? And that if it did become a more streamlined process that the emissions would decrease again? As we discussed in class, most of the emissions that come from a nuclear power plant, for example, come from setting it up, but afterwards it may be a much better form of energy than wind or solar. I’m curious to know at which point these emissions would “break even”, and that lab grown meat would emit less than traditional meat. Perhaps a good starting point for a discussion, or if you know more about this, I would love to hear it!

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  2. Hi @malaauwen! Thanks for your comment. First of all, the statistics from the first study compare the emissions of lab-grown meat to “conventionally-grown European meat” while the second study looks at “ranch-raised meat” in Brazil and Sweden. However, I think your question specifically comes in a similar vein to what we were discussing with regards to biofuels, where the “break-even time” exceeds what most would consider to be reasonable time periods. I couldn’t find data on this exact break-even time myself; if another commenter can find it (or would figure out a way to calculate it!), that would be helpful to this discussion! I think the larger picture I was trying to paint with this post is that even if we get to a point where lab-grown meat emits less than conventional meat, it still cannot be a primary solution from a nutritional or financial standpoint, at least not within an immediate time span.

    Another point I’d like to raise is that even if we get to the point where lab-grown meat has less emissions than conventionally raised meat, a phenomenon I would also bring up Jevon’s paradox. When people know that lab-grown meat emits fewer emissions, they may be inclined to consume more meat than normal with the optimism that since it emits less, it’s okay for them to eat more, cancelling out any benefits of a lower-emission conventional meat alternative (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2010/12/20/the-efficiency-dilemma). In this case, it may actually not be beneficial, even if lab-grown meat emits less.

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  3. Thank you for your blog post on such an interesting topic. You mention that it is unlikely that lab grown meat products will be cheap on a wide scale soon. Currently, the company Future Meat has reduced their costs of production to $200 per pound of beef and $150 per pound of chicken. They also stated within the next few years they aim to be selling lab grown meat at less than $10 per pound (https://www.cnbc.com/2019/10/10/future-meat-technologies-a-lab-grown-meat-start-up-raises-14-million-dollars.html). The price of these products could be further reduced if the meat is mixed with other foods such as soy. Furthermore, many countries are considering taxing their farm grown meat to reduce consumption which would even out the playing field. I was wondering why it is unlikely lab grown meat will be sold on a large scale soon? Do you think there are other issues which will prevent this being successful such as public perception?

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  4. Thank you for your post, I had no idea that lab-grown meat had such an large environmental impact, but I share MALAAUWEN’s concern that maybe the emissions are due to the start up and construction of new plants and perhaps a change in the energy grid to account for the energy use. I wonder if it would, as popularity increases, have a lesser impact and eventually become cheaper as well (like solar panels have become through the betterment of technology).

    One thing that I often think about with the advent of these new “fake meats” is how we aren’t really trying to eat less meat, we are trying to make our meat less impactful. While this is good in principle, as you pointed out, there are many potential negatives to creating new substitutes for foods out of thin air. I have been a vegetarian for years and I think it is fair to say that most people who don’t eat meat don’t simply choose a meat substitute to put on our plate, we change the way our plate is organized. Historically, humans didn’t have access to that much meat, it was expensive and usually considered a luxury (https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/human-ancestors-were-nearly-all-vegetarians/). Even just talking to my grandfather, who grew up on a farm in rural Iowa during the mid 20th century, meat was typically a food to be eaten for celebration, as a luxury good. I understand that substitute meats may prove vital for the transition away from meat, to show people that alternatives are possible, but I think what we really need long term is a cultural transition. We need to reformat our brains and our plates to give greens and vegetables the bulk of the space. We need to realize that meat shouldn’t be the staple of our meals, it should be the side, with a small portion. A large stake at dinner is more than enough calories for the entire day for a fully grown adult. We really need to rethink the way that we consume food.

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  5. I was also wondering re the very different results in terms of GHG emissions between the two studies cited. Re a potential break-even point, Lynch and Pierrehumbert mention that in the short to medium term lab-meat (mostly CO2) may have less CO2-equivalent emissions, since farm meat has high CH4 and N2O emissions. But the latter have shorter residence times in the atmosphere, so in the long run artificial meat has higher eq emissions.
    Still, the results of both studies are extremely far apart, begging the question what the reason for the difference is. I didn’t read the articles in enough detail to have an answer to that question by the way. Perhaps they’re comparing a different technology to produce lab-meat?

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