In recent years, lab-grown meat has gained widespread attention as a potential solution to environmental and ethical concerns. However, despite its promises, the concept still faces some skepticism.
Back in 2016, the introduction of the first lab-grown meatball was hailed as a revolutionary solution to feed the growing population of meat-eaters. But over the past seven years, challenges such as cost, sterility, and now, the carbon footprint, have hindered its production.
In a groundbreaking study conducted by scientists from the University of California Davis, a comprehensive evaluation was performed to assess the energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions associated with lab-grown meat production at all stages, comparing it to traditional beef production.
Spoiler alert: Lab-grown meat's carbon footprint may be worse than that of retail beef.
One significant challenge identified by the researchers was the use of highly refined growth media, similar to those used in pharmaceutical manufacturing, to facilitate the multiplication of animal cells.
This raises an important question: Is lab-grown meat more of a pharmaceutical product or a food product?
The study's author, Derrick Risner, a doctoral graduate, explained that the purification of growth media to pharmaceutical standards leads to increased resource usage and consequently higher global warming potential.
If lab-grown meat continues to rely on this "pharma" approach, it could prove to be more environmentally detrimental and costlier than conventional beef production.
Risner also highlighted that the purification process leads to increased resource usage and, consequently, higher global warming potential.
The study's assessment of lab-grown meat's global warming potential, measured in carbon dioxide equivalents emitted per kilogram of meat produced, revealed that when purified media are used, it can be four to 25 times greater than the average for retail beef.
But what does the future hold for lab-grown meat?
The researchers acknowledge the potential for more environmentally competitive lab-grown meat in the future. This would involve shifting towards food-grade ingredients or cultures, eliminating the need for expensive, energy-intensive pharmaceutical-grade components and processes. In this scenario, lab-grown meat's global warming potential could range from 80 percent lower to 26 percent higher than conventional beef production.
However, the researchers emphasize that transitioning from a "pharma to food" approach represents a significant technical challenge when scaling up the system. They caution against viewing lab-grown meat as a cure-all for environmental issues, noting that even the most efficient beef production systems outperform cultured meat in all scenarios.
The study suggests that investing in advancing more climate-friendly beef production may yield faster and more significant emissions reductions than investing in lab-grown meat.
To address these challenges, the UC Davis Cultivated Meat Consortium, a collaborative group comprising scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, and educators, is focused on developing the necessary technology for transitioning from a pharmaceutical to a food approach in lab-grown meat production. The consortium aims to explore suitable cell lines for meat cultivation and seek ways to enhance the structure of cultured meat.