Why we don’t yet know if cell-cultured meat will actually fight climate change

Professor Mark Post holds the world's first lab-grown beef burger

New research out of the University of Oxford is raising important questions about the environmental sustainability of making cell-cultured meats.

The study found that in the near term, it’s clear cell-cultured meat will help in the fight against climate change. But over 1,000 years, an arbitrary timeframe used for the study, the answer is less clear. The research was published today (Feb. 19) in the journal Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems.

 “I think they are too optimistic.”  

The work started as an exploration of how different gases work once they’re in the atmosphere. A molecule of methane produced by cows, for instance, traps about 10 times more heat than a molecule of carbon dioxide. But a molecule of carbon dioxide hovers in our atmosphere for more than 100 years, whereas methane only stick around for about 12 years. The researchers were curious how that data would impact the promise of cell-cultured meat, which is theoretically supposed to be more environmentally friendly.

The new study is attention-grabbing because high-tech, cell-cultured meat companies have long sold the idea that their meats—which don’t involve slaughtering animals and don’t involve herds of cows farting methane into the air—will be more environmentally sustainable than those coming from the current animal agriculture system. And while it is thought-provoking, the new study should be taken with a grain of salt. Here’s why:

It’s speculative

The new study leans very heavily on four prior pieces of research (from 2011, 2012, and two from 2015), the most recent of which is more than three years old. Each of those studies were speculative, based on models the researchers created without having any specific data about the processes that cell-cultured meat companies actually use for production.

They don’t have that data for two reasons.

  1. No cell-cultured meat company has a fully operational production facility built yet. All the work they are doing right now occurs mostly in a laboratory setting, which is a fraction of the size of any commercial operation.
  2. Such processes are part of each company’s trove of intellectual property, and the companies aren’t particularly forthcoming with the kinds of data academic researchers need to develop a better understanding of the technology.

“They don’t say what they are doing and they don’t present at the conferences, so I’m not completely able to track their progress,” says Hanna Tuomisto, the University of Helsinki author of the much-cited 2011 paper on the potential sustainability of cell-cultured meat. “I think they are too optimistic.”

Tumisto, who formally reviewed the most recent study, added that since she last presented still-unpublished research during a December 2018 conference (pdf) at the University of Maastricht in Holland, a handful of companies said they would be willing to share some of their data for her work.

“We did the best we could,” says John Lynch, the lead author of the new study. “We surveyed all the literature, but it’s still a fundamental problem that we have no idea whether [the data] correspond with what the companies are doing or not.”

The reality is that nobody knows how much energy it takes to create cell-cultured meat at scale, or if a company does, they’re withholding that information. The most recent study also worked on the assumption that cell-cultured meat companies would power their production facilities with energy derived the way much of it is today, with fossil fuel. Lynch, says a switch to renewable energy—such as solar power—would drastically change the findings.

“If the cell-cultured process is sufficiently energy efficient then it’s just better than the [system with] cow methane, full-stop,” Lynch says.

It plays the long game

Perhaps the most glaring aspect of the new paper is that it makes an attempt to measure the long-term efficacy of cell-cultured meat production energy use over the course of 1,000 years, a timespan that Lynch concedes is abstract.

That’s cool as an academic endeavor, but it’s essentially irrelevant as an exercise for current-day policymakers looking for ways to curb climate change. Even the most optimistic climate change forecasts don’t afford humanity that much time to dally with the changes we need to make to live more sustainable lives.

A transparency problem

From the perspective of researchers such as Tuomisto and Lynch, it’s going to be impossible to get a totally realistic grasp of the sustainability of cell-cultured meats if the companies making the stuff aren’t willing to be transparent about their processes. And if they aren’t willing to be transparent, there’s no way to know for sure how seriously people should take their high-minded claims about the environmental friendliness of their products.

“In regards to cell-cultured meats, I think it would be quite valid to approach some of the biggest marketing claims about environmental sustainability with a bit more caution,” Lynch says. “We do show very unambiguously that if the more optimistic viewpoints are realized it could be good.”

 “They’ll have to step it up at some point.” 

Steve Myrick is in charge of operations at Memphis Meats, a Berkeley-based cell-cultured meat company. He stands by the claim that, at scale, his company will prove to offer significant environmental sustainability benefits. That said, he added that because all cell-cultured meat companies are still in a research and development phase, any life-cycle analyses they could provide currently would be incomplete.

“As we get closer to bringing a product to market, we will explore ways to assess the environmental impacts and benefits of our meat and poultry,” Myrick says.

A few miles away from Memphis Meat, headquartered in the heart of San Francisco’s Mission District, is JUST. Its CEO, Josh Tetrick, claimed throughout 2018 that he’d have a product on the market—in some form—by the end of the year. The company missed that goal and still have yet to release product, but its projection was an indication of just how close cell-cultured meat startups are to getting their meat onto the market.

“We look forward to contributing our own findings to this emerging field and are eager to review additional studies as they become available,” said JUST spokesman Andrew Noyes.

Bruce Friedrich is the director of the Good Food Institute, a Washington DC-based organization that supports and lobbies on behalf of cell-cultured meat companies. He pointed out that by freeing up land that would otherwise be used for grazing cattle, cell-cultured meat operations would wind up decreasing overall emissions into the atmosphere. Indeed, some people in the field of climatology have talked about ways to use land for carbon sequestration. And Finless Foods CEO Mike Selden—who is working on cell-cultured bluefin tuna—said there are a bevy of other reasons to consider cell-cultured meat and fish operations, including the fact that they don’t involve fecal matter that can seep into the air and waterways.

The bottom line

Ultimately, the situation boils down to one obvious issue. People are increasingly demanding more transparency around the food they eat. If a high-tech meat company is going to make a claim, they should expect to back it up. The question is at what point are they obligated to do so. The concept of cell-cultured meats is starting to seep into the public imagination, and now that the science has pushed us to the point that early-stage products are ready for the market—barring regulatory hurdles—the calls to learn more about the ramifications of how this food is made are going to become louder and more vociferous.

And if academic researchers won’t be able to share that information, the responsibility will fall entirely on the companies themselves.

“They’ll have to step it up at some point,” Lynch says.

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