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Is lab-grown meat better for the environment?

Evaluations of the environmental viability of lab-grown meat have yielded varied results. Lab-grown meat, also referred to as cell-based

By Ground Report
New Update
Is lab-grown meat better for the environment?

Evaluations of the environmental viability of lab-grown meat have yielded varied results. Lab-grown meat, also referred to as cell-based or cultured meat, has attracted significant investments in recent years.

The surge in funding stems primarily from concerns about the environmental impact of conventional meat production and animal welfare.

However, whether lab-grown meat is ecologically superior remains uncertain. Life cycle assessment is a common technique to gauge the environmental repercussions of a product or process.

Lab-grown's recent environmental scrutiny

Such assessments allow quantifying a product's environmental consequences from raw materials to disposal.

Life cycle assessments have only recently applied to lab-grown meat production, despite long claims about their ecological sustainability.

A recent study led by the University of California Davis, published as a preprint in 2023 and not yet peer-reviewed, suggested that greenhouse gas emissions tied to lab-grown meat production could be four to 25 times higher than conventional meat production.

Conversely, another life cycle assessment study led by Dutch research and consultancy firm CE Delft, published in January 2023, argued that lab-grown meat could be more environmentally friendly than conventional meat production.

Limited lab-grown production's environmental impact

This study proposed that cultured meat is "almost three times more efficient in turning crops into meat than chicken, the most efficient animal". The differences in these conclusions warrant exploration.

It's vital to consider that companies in the lab-grown meat sector have not scaled their production significantly, relying heavily on projections and assumptions for their environmental assessments.

Even the largest commercial meat culturing facility, owned by Upside Foods, currently produces about 22,680kg of product annually. This is considerably smaller than the mega-scale red meat industry, capable of producing 12.6 billion kg in a year in the United States alone.

Choosing a quantifiable reference, a functional unit, is essential for consistent comparisons between products.

Functional units enable meaningful comparisons based on a product's intended purpose, such as providing nutrients or energy, rather than just weight.

Nutrient differences in lab-grown meat

This consideration is particularly relevant when assessing the functional and nutritional qualities of meat. Lab-grown meat, produced from a single cell type like muscle cells, might lack essential nutrients present in traditional meat, such as fat-soluble vitamins and vitamin B12 produced by gut bacteria in animals.

Hence, these nutrients must be added to the lab-grown meat or formulated with plant-based alternatives to achieve a similar nutrient profile.

Differences in digestibility and bioavailability of added nutrients are further areas of investigation.

Both assessment studies concur that lab-grown meat production is energy-intensive and its environmental impact heavily depends on energy sources.

The CE Delft study's hope is that renewable energy can address energy concerns, but it does not assure accessibility to renewable energy worldwide.

Singapore, a pioneer in lab-grown meat commercialization, faces such energy challenges.

Since the lab-grown meat industry is still nascent and data-limited, people should approach claims about the environmental sustainability of these products cautiously, acknowledging the limitations of each study.

This content is originally published under the Creative Commons license by 360info™. The Ground Report editorial team has made some changes to the original version.

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