Lab-Grown Meat is Doing More Harm Than Good to the Planet

Lab-grown meat, often hailed as a sustainable alternative to traditional beef production, might not be as environmentally friendly as previously believed, according to a recent study conducted by researchers at the University of California, Davis. The preprint, not yet peer-reviewed, highlights concerns about the environmental impact of lab-grown or ‘cultivated’ meat production.

The study involved a comprehensive life-cycle assessment comparing the energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions at all stages of lab-grown meat production to conventional beef. It found that the current reliance on highly refined growth media, akin to pharmaceutical-grade ingredients, is a significant contributor to the carbon footprint of lab-grown meat.

Lead author Derrick Risner, a doctoral graduate from UC Davis, has noted that if companies persist in using such purified growth media, it would not only consume more resources but also increase global warming potential, potentially making cultivated meat less environmentally friendly and more expensive than traditional beef.

The study defined the global warming potential in terms of carbon dioxide equivalents emitted per kilogram of meat produced. Shockingly, lab-based meat using these refined media was found to have a global warming potential four to 25 times higher than retail beef, debunking the perception that it’s a greener choice.

However, there is hope for a more sustainable future for lab-grown meat. The research suggests that transitioning to food-grade ingredients and processes could substantially reduce the environmental impact. Cultivated meat’s global warming potential could be 80 percent lower to 26 percent higher than that of conventional beef production under such circumstances.

Professor Edward Spang, the corresponding author of the study, cautioned that cultured meat was not inherently better for the environment than traditional beef. He noted that while it might improve in the future, it would require significant advancements in technology to make it both eco-friendly and cost-effective.

Interestingly, even the most efficient beef production systems outperformed cultured meat in all scenarios studied, indicating that investing in more sustainable beef production methods might yield quicker and greater reductions in emissions than investing in lab-grown meat.

The UC Davis Cultivated Meat Consortium, a cross-disciplinary group focused on cultivated meat research, aims to develop the technology necessary for this transition from ‘pharma to food.’ Their research also seeks to establish suitable cell lines for meat production and enhance the structure of cultured meat.

Risner emphasized the value of the research, stating that even if lab-based meat didn’t lead to a more eco-friendly burger, there was still valuable science to be learned from the endeavor.

The research received funding from the UC Davis Innovation Institute for Food and Health and the National Science Foundation Growing Convergence Research grant.

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