New study suggests that lab-grown meat produces up to 25 times more CO2

A new study has suggested that lab-grown meat could be worse for the planet than traditional animal husbandry and slaughter.
Christopher McFadden
It turns out that lab-grown meat isn't much better for the planet.

Arkadiusz Warguła/iStock 

A shocking new study suggests that lab-grown meat (aka animal cell-based meat, or ACBM for short) could actually be far worse for the environment than traditional livestock. By the study's estimates, if current techniques were scaled up to supply the market, they could produce between four and 25 times more CO2 than rearing and slaughtering animals, though the study has not been peer-reviewed.

"[billions of] investment dollars have specifically been allocated to [the ACBM] sector with the thesis that this product will be more environmentally friendly than beef,” explains the study. It is true that lab-grown meat does away with the need for land, water, and antibiotics in cattle raising. However, researchers have found that the hype around cultured meat is based on flawed analyses of carbon emissions.

The increased levels of CO2 are associated with the fossil fuels needed during purification processes that supply cultured cells with nutrients. The elimination of endotoxins is crucial when creating cultured meat as bacteria in the environment release these toxins. Even a small amount of these toxins in the growing medium can hinder the cells from reproducing.

“Animal cell culture is traditionally done with growth medium components which have been refined to remove/reduce endotoxin,” write the study authors. “The use of these refinement methods contributes significantly to the economic and environmental costs associated with pharmaceutical products since they are both energy and resource intensive,” they added.

Assuming the continued use of highly refined growing media, the researchers estimate that each kilogram of ACBM produces 542 pounds (246 kg) to 3,325 pounds (1,508 kg) of carbon dioxide emissions. Based on these figures, they calculate that the global warming potential of cultured meat is between four and 25 times greater than that of retail beef.

Another problem, according to the study, is that several reports on the climate impact of ACBM rely on unrealistic technologies that are either non-existent or improbable to function. An example of this is a study that calculated the carbon emissions of ACBM production through the use of cyanobacteria hydrolysate as a feedstock for the cells. However, the researchers of the current analysis point out that this is not a current or feasible technology or feedstock for animal cell proliferation.

 “The environmental impact of near-term ACBM production is likely to be orders of magnitude higher than median beef production if a highly refined growth medium is utilized for ACBM production,” concluded the study.

The authors propose a solution, suggesting the creation of cell lines that can withstand higher amounts of endotoxins. This would decrease the necessity for energy-intensive purification procedures and ultimately reduce the environmental impact of lab-grown meat.

You can view the yet-to-be peer-reviewed study for yourself in the journal bioxriv.

This story has been updated since its original publication to highlight the fact that that the study in question has not yet been peer-reviewed.

Study abstract:

"Interest in animal cell-based meat (ACBM) or cultured meat as a viable environmentally-conscious replacement for livestock production has increased. However, a life cycle assessment for the current production methods of ACBM has not been conducted. Currently, ACBM products are being produced at a small scale and at an economic loss. However, ACBM companies intend to industrialize and scale-up production. This study assesses the potential environmental impact of near-term ACBM production. Updated findings from recent techno-economic assessments (TEAs) of ACBM and a life cycle assessment of Essential 8TM were utilized to perform a life cycle assessment of near-term ACBM production. A scenario analysis was conducted utilizing the metabolic requirements examined in the TEAs of ACBMand a purification factor from the Essential 8TM life cycle assessment was utilized to account for growth medium component processing. The results indicate that the environmental impact of near-term ACBM production is likely to be orders of magnitude higher than median beef production if a highly refined growth medium is utilized for ACBM production."

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