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Lab-grown or "cultivated" meat, often touted as a more environmentally friendly alternative to traditional beef, may not be as eco-friendly as previously believed, according to a preprint study conducted by researchers at the University of California, Davis. While the research is yet to undergo peer review, it suggests that the environmental impact of lab-grown meat, based on current and near-term production methods, could be significantly higher than that of retail beef.

The study involved a life-cycle assessment of energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions throughout all stages of lab-grown meat production, comparing it to traditional beef. One of the key challenges with lab-grown meat lies in the use of highly refined growth media, which are essential for the multiplication of animal cells. Currently, this process resembles the biotechnology used in pharmaceutical manufacturing. This raises a crucial question regarding the classification of cultured meat: Is it a pharmaceutical product or a food product?

Lead author Derrick Risner, a doctoral graduate from UC Davis Department of Food Science and Technology, explained that if companies have to purify growth media to pharmaceutical standards, it results in greater resource consumption and increased global warming potential. He warned that if lab-grown meat continues to be produced using the "pharma" approach, it would have a more detrimental environmental impact and higher costs compared to conventional beef production.

The study defined global warming potential as the carbon dioxide equivalents emitted per kilogram of meat produced. The findings revealed that lab-grown meat using purified media has a global warming potential four to 25 times higher than the average for retail beef.

However, the researchers indicated that creating lab-grown meat using primarily food-grade ingredients or cultures, without relying on expensive and energy-intensive pharmaceutical-grade components and processes, could make it more environmentally competitive. Under this scenario, cultured meat's global warming potential could range from 80% lower to 26% higher than that of conventional beef production. Nevertheless, achieving this shift from "pharma to food" poses significant technical challenges in scaling up the system.

Edward Spang, corresponding author and associate professor in the Department of Food Science and Technology, emphasized that the study's results suggest cultured meat is not inherently better for the environment than conventional beef. While advancements could potentially reduce its environmental impact in the future, it would require significant technical progress to improve performance and decrease the cost of cell culture media.

Interestingly, even the most efficient beef production systems reviewed in the study outperformed lab-grown meat across all scenarios (both food and pharma). This implies that investing in the advancement of more climate-friendly beef production may yield quicker and greater emission reductions than investing in cultured meat.

The UC Davis Cultivated Meat Consortium, a multidisciplinary group of scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, and educators focused on cultivated meat research, aims to develop the technology necessary to transition from "pharma to food." The consortium's goals also include establishing and evaluating cell lines for meat production and finding ways to enhance the structure of lab-grown meat.

Risner emphasized that even if lab-grown meat does not result in a more environmentally friendly burger, there is still valuable scientific knowledge to be gained from the endeavor. For instance, it could potentially lead to more affordable pharmaceuticals. However, he cautioned against scaling up the production too quickly, as it could have detrimental environmental consequences.

The study was funded by the UC Davis Innovation Institute for Food and Health and the National Science Foundation Growing Convergence Research grant.