Is Cell-Based Meat Technology Actually Sustainable?

For the last several years, beef, poultry, pork, and even seafood — made through cell cultures — have been hyped up to become the future of meat.

bacon cheeseburger with skewer through it

After all, the urgency to improve our global food system in a more sustainable way makes new technology an important force.

Cell-based meat, also known as “clean meat,” cultured meat and lab-grown meat, is created by taking a blood sample from an animal and isolating its stem cells in a bioreactor, an engineered vessel that allows cells to multiply into muscle, fat and tissue cells.

This has been an enticing idea for animal welfare activists and environmentalists alike: to eliminate the production of meat. Livestock is currently responsible for nearly 15% of all global greenhouse gas emissions, according to a study from the U.N. This year, both the USDA and FDA announced a formal agreement to jointly oversee the production of cell-based meat once it becomes available to consumers in grocery stores and restaurants.

But there is still uncertainty about how “clean” all of these products are. Experts have said we need further information to determine if cell-based meat is really more environmentally-friendly than conventional meat.

“It’s completely unclear if cultured meat is more sustainable,” said Ben Wurgaft, author of the forthcoming book, “Meat Planet: Artificial Flesh and the Future of Food.” “We don’t know what the actual natural resource costs, the energy costs would be. It’s certainly clear that industrial-scale meat is not sustainable, but that’s not to say that cultured meat is automatically going to be better.”

Food technology companies that are working to create cell-based meat still haven’t conducted life cycle assessments: tests that will measure how much energy — like water and fuel — is required to make their products.

Cell-Based Burger vs. The Cow

The first cell-based burger is expected to cost $50. It’s not expected to be consumer-ready until 2020. But will there be enough cell-based burgers to feed everyone?

Cell-based meat will require the largest scale of tissue engineering to date. Facilities are still in their infancy and aren’t big enough to produce cell-based meat for consumers at large. As of right now, one facility could produce enough meat for just one restaurant, at most. Creating cell cultures in a way that is both cost-effective and sustainable will be a challenge going forward, according to a 2018 study from Trends in Food Science and Technology.

Nearly a dozen international food technology companies are currently in beta-testing mode. While the first cellular steak just made its debut in Israel last year, products are nowhere close to consumer readiness and affordability, and many food startups are rushing to the finish line. Their goal is to replicate meat in a way where consumers won’t be able to taste the difference –– with the big promise of reducing the negative environmental impact conventional meat has.

“It’s always one thing when you’re doing something small in the lab. But this is really hard,” said Jaydee Hanson, Policy Director at the Center for Food Safety. “The challenge these companies have is to find a way that makes the cells keep growing. How do they grow this in a way that keeps other bacteria out of their cultures?”

More Meat, Less Problems?

What we do know is that cell-based meat could lower about 99% of the land used for animal agriculture, according to a 2011 study from the University of Oxford and the University of Amsterdam. The study, which was the first to consider the environmental benefits of cell-based meat, also predicted that this new technology could reduce at least 82% of water used for meat production.

In a recent survey, 66% of participants (who were mostly omnivores) said they are willing to try cell-based meat, while just over half said they are willing to eat it as a replacement for conventional meat. The majority of respondents also believed cell-based meat would be more environmentally-friendly than conventional meat, based on information they had learned.

At the same time, there is still uncertainty about whether or not meat will be in demand in the future, as plant-based diets and veganism have increased exponentially over the last few years. The uptick in these food trends and lifestyle changes are not only because of health and animal welfare concerns, but also because people are becoming more environmentally-conscious, said Julieanna Hever, R.D., a plant-based dietician.

But from an environmental perspective, meat is not the only problem. In the U.S., food in total produces about 17% of greenhouse gas emissions. Although lamb and beef are at the top of the list for causing the most emissions, air importation of fruits and vegetables still contribute to the problem when considering how much water and energy is required to grow them.

“Now is the time for these companies to start delivering the data behind the sustainability claims,” said Chase Purdy, a food technology reporter who has visited nine cell-based meat companies worldwide. “We need to start seeing real data as people consider whether they would want to eat it and what the benefits of eating it are compared to what they’ve known for their entire lives.”

“The number one sustainability thing we could do right now is quit feeding our animals 40% of our corn,” Hanson said.

While cell-based meat could replace conventional meat in the future, there are still a number of obstacles ahead. We still need to know if the technology will indeed be more sustainable in the long-run.

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