Is lab-grown meat better for the environment?

Consumption of “meat substitutes” is a matter of personal choice, but the consumer must be well-informed about the properties and production methods. In terms of environmental impact, however, based on currently available data, in vitro production offers no environmental advantage compared to real meat.

In these years, EFSA started looking more in depth to assess the risks to human health with a state of play and prospects in the EU before proposing this production as a better alternative to livestock farming. Producing meat without animals is a long-standing desire for some people. Churchill, in the 1930s, was already thinking about a future with cultured meat. However, the reality behind the utopia is not necessarily what Churchill would have expected.

Lab-grown meat, cultured meat, and in vitro meat (IVM) are different expressions that started gaining popularity in 2013 after the production and tasting of the world’s first “burger” made from stem cells by Mark Post from Utrecht University. Cultured meat has since then been presented in general media as one of the most promising alternative “meat” sources to solve animal welfare and food safety issues while preserving the environment.

This alternative to conventional meat has attracted huge investments, especially from well-known digital-tech companies now betting on fast market uptake of these products at the expense of traditional livestock production. However, when looking at academic publications, the scientific community seems more sceptical than the general media about developing in vitro meat.

Lab-grown meat derives from tissue and cells grown in a laboratory setting rather than in a living organism, according to the definition given by Mark Post. In real terms, in vitro meat is a cluster of muscle cells taken from an animal that multiply in Petri dishes with a culture medium rich enough to allow the cells to multiply.

Even with the most advanced techniques, culture mediums still need hormones, growth factors, fetal calf serum, antibiotics, or fungicides for cell development. Because of the ethical issues raised by the use of fetal bovine serum, many companies tried to replace it with artificial serum. But according to a study, these synthetic serums have difficulties determining the exact concentrations of each component, which must be well adapted to each type of cell and its stage of development. None of these synthetic alternatives has been presented and discussed in the scientific community. Against this background, lab-grown meat cannot be considered a “natural” alternative to EU livestock which has to respect strict standards on the use of antibiotics and prevents the use of hormones.

Such products cannot even be called “meat“, as some important cell types, such as nerves and adipocytes, are not part of this invention, which is just a cell culture. Whether cultured meat production would provide a more climatically sustainable alternative is unclear. Not all are as convinced by cultivated meat’s green credentials, and some warn the technology could do more harm than good. According to a comprehensive review of studies on meat and protein by the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food), cultured meat, rather than challenging the system, “entrenches the domination of food systems by giant agri-business firms, standardised diets of processed foods, and industrial supply chains that harm people and the planet,” as the report states.

The alternative protein market is now characterised by giant companies who create so-called “protein monopolies”, with several high-profile backers, such as Bill Gates and Richard Branson, and significant investments from the world’s largest meat processing companies, including JBS, Cargill, and Tyson. “But fake meat will not save the planet,” – Philip Howard warned, member of IPES-Food and lead author of the report – “Switching to fake meat will make the problems with our industrial food system even worse. This includes fossil fuel dependence, industrial monocultures, pollution, unhealthy diets, and control by massive corporations,” – he explained.

The climate impacts of cultured meat production will depend on what decarbonised energy generation can be achieved and the specific environmental footprints of production.

There is a need for detailed and transparent LCA of real cultured meat production systems. Based on currently available data, cultured production offers no environmental advantage compared to real meat. Early studies have shown that bioreactors used to cultivate cells spend a lot of energy with very high CO2 emissions. In practice, lab-grown meat initially causes a lower climate warming than livestock farming. Still, this gap disappears in the long term, with emissions from farms even lower, as CH4 emissions do not accumulate, unlike CO2.

The fact that lab-grown meat is an energy-consuming process and involves the use of compounds and molecules normally not allowed for livestock, such as growth hormones and antibiotics, is very often overlooked. Researchers believe that artificial meat can be high in protein, but there is still a big concern about iron and vitamin B12 content. In fact, in vitro meat will be deficient in vitamin B12, iron and micronutrients specific to actual meat, as no technology that can faithfully reproduce its nutritional content has been implemented.

Robust scientific arguments are still lacking in all these aspects. There is no consensus on cultured meat’s health and nutritional qualities for human consumption and its potential low environmental impact. In addition, many issues related to marketing, legislation, ethics and consumer perception remain to be addressed. Research by universities and public research institutes indicates that in vitro production has no major economic, nutritional, sensory, environmental, ethical or social advantages compared to conventional meat.

Aside from nutrition and health, one of the challenges for cultured meat is to mimic traditional meat in terms of sensory quality/taste at an affordable price to become acceptable for future consumers. Suppose companies engaged in the development of lab-grown meat expect to be competitively replicating the actual complexity of meat structure. In that case, the taste will remain challenging and convince most consumers. In this context, irrelevant to individual perceptions, in vitro meat cannot be considered a short-term alternative as it will have to face the long and challenging process of consumer acceptance.

Thus, by diversifying our sources of plant and animal proteins and reducing food losses and waste, a more balanced diet can reduce world hunger and environmental impact more effectively than some lab-grown artificial food. Maybe it would be better to turn down the protein hype and turn up a greater focus on entire food systems and comprehensive food policies using broader sustainability metrics, focusing on democratic, sustainable food systems rooted in regions and territories.