A recent study warns that despite being touted as an environmentally friendly alternative, lab-grown meat may be far worse for the planet than conventional beef farming.
The life-cycle analysis of contemporary meat-growing methods revealed that culture-cell meat production processes could potentially emit between four and 25 times more carbon dioxide than standard beef farming, depending on the employed procedures.
“This is an important conclusion given that investment dollars have specifically been allocated to this sector with the thesis that this product will be more environmentally friendly than beef,” UCD food scientist, Derrick Risner states in the paper along with his co-authors.
“My concern would just be scaling this up too quickly and doing something harmful for the environment,” Risner adds.
Cultured-cell, or cultivated, or lab-meat (for lack of a more palatable term) is harvested in steel bioreactors from animal stem cells that are fed a combination of oxygen, vitamins, sugars, and fats.
While lab-grown meat requires less land, water, and antibiotics, the environmental costs of the specific nutrients for rapid product growth are high. These include harvesting crops for vitamins and sugar, as well as lab operations to facilitate the extraction of growth factors from animal serums.
According to ScienceAlert, an extreme level of energy-intensive standard of purification is required for the broth ingredients before they can be fed to the growing meat clumps, to avoid the introduction of microbes to the cell culture.
“Otherwise, the animal cells won’t grow, because the bacteria will multiply much faster,” according to Risner.
Another unanswered variable, the researchers’ calculations only considered the energy requirements for cultivating lab-grown meat employing existing methods, but not the potentially more costly effect of manufacturing bigger facilities to accommodate large-scale production.
Not a conclusion first of its kind, a study published in 2020 by the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future determined that cultivated meat produces five to 21 times more emission than plant proteins like peas and tofu.