Are meat substitutes such as in vitro ‘meat’ better for the environment?

In general, it would be wise in the EU to assess the risks for human health before promoting this type of 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, in vitro meat (IVM), are all 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 both 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 that are now betting on a fast market uptake of these products at the expense of traditional livestock production. However, when looking at academic publications, the scientific community seems more skeptical when compared with the general media about the development of in vitro meat.. 

In Vitro meat is not magic meat, it still needs to be produced!  

Cultured meat, or in vitro meat, is meat derived from tissue and cells grown in a laboratory setting rather than in a living organism according to the definition given by Mark Post. In factual 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. Today, even with the most advanced techniques, culture mediums still need either hormones, growth factors, foetal calf serum, antibiotics or fungicides to allow for cell development. Against this background in vitro meat cannot be considered as a “natural” alternative to EU livestock which has to respect strict standards on the use of antibiotics and prevents the use of hormones. As a matter of fact, such products cannot even be called “meat”, as some important cell types (e.g. nerves, adipocytes, etc..) are not part of this invention which is just a cell culture.

In Vitro cell cultures, an environmental impact that remains controversial

It is not yet clear whether cultured meat production would provide a more climatically sustainable alternative. The climate impacts of cultured meat production will depend on what level of decarbonized 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[ref][/ref].

The fact that lab-meat is an energy-consuming process and involves the use of compounds and molecules normally not allowed for feeding animals (hormones, antibiotics, etc.) is very often ignored. 

Consumer acceptance 

Researchers believe that artificial meat can be high in protein, but there is still a big concern about the iron and vitamin B12 content. Aside from nutrition, one of the challenges for cultured meat is to mimic traditional meat in terms of sensory quality/taste at an affordable price in order to become acceptable for future consumers. If companies engaged in the development of lab grown meat expect to be competitive by 2020 replicating the actual complexity of meat structure and taste will remain challenging as well as convincing the great majority of consumers.  In this context, irrelevant of individual perceptions, in vitro meat cannot be considered as a short-term alternative as it will have to first face the long and challenging process of consumer acceptance. 

– Hocquette et al., 2013
Cultured meat timeline 
Cultured meat in western media: The disproportionate coverage of vegetarian reactions, demographic realities, and implications for cultured meat marketing 
Bill Gates and Richard Branson are betting lab-grown meat might be the food of the future 
Is it possible to save the environment and satisfy consumers with artificial meat? 
What is artificial meat and what does it mean for the future of the meat industry? 
Climate Impacts of Cultured Meat and Beef Cattle – John Lynch and Raymond Pierre Humbert
Lab meat is cheap enough for anyone to buy
Consumer acceptance of cultured meat: A systematic review