The idea that we should get our hamburger from a lab and not from a slaughterhouse – the basic premise of the "cultured meat" or "clean meat" movement – tends to get people excited for two main reasons: it could save billions
But a new study suggests that the second reason may be wrong and that lab-grown meat could actually be worse for climate change.
Published in February 19 in the journal Frontiers for Sustainable Food Systems the report argues that lab-grown meat in the long run can accelerate climate change more than regular beef does
The authors note that other studies on greenhouse gas emissions of cattle have lumped the gases together as if they're all equivalent. But not all gases are created equal. Yes, cows produce a lot of methane, and methane is very bad for global warming. Yet it only lasts in the atmosphere for a dozen years. Carbon dioxide, on the other hand, lasts more than a century. And you know what releases a lot of CO2? Labs ̵
In the couple of days since it came out, the study has already produced several chagrined headlines concluding that clean meat does not make for a cleaner environment. The report has us questioning our old assumptions, and that's a good thing. But let's not replace them with new assumptions that are just as problematic.
The authors emphasize that their study is based on highly speculative modeling, which itself is based on some pretty strong assumptions. Two of them are especially glaring. The study models what will happen, assuming that 1) lab-grown meat will keep being produced using the same methods of energy generation that currently power generation; and 2) this will continue over the course of 1,000 years.
To be fair, the researchers had to pick some time frame for running their model, and any time frame will be fairly arbitrary. But 1,000 years is such a long span that it seems very unlikely we will still be using such energy-inefficient methods to make lab-grown meat by the end of it.
Whether because clean meat companies will face pressure from their climate-conscious consumers, or because policy makers will step up to regulate emissions, or because scientists will come up with a way to use cleaner energy to power production (solar and energy storage technology are improving and getting cheaper as it is), cultured meat will probably not be made using current methods, even a century from now.
In other words, it's hard to imagine a future scenario where assumptions 1 and 2 will both hold true, producing the most pessimistic of the possible outcomes modeled in the report.
There's another reason to be cautious about the findings of the study, as the authors are the first to note: Companies that make cultured meat generally do not release data on their production process and how much energy it uses up. They are particularly inclined to treat that information as proprietary now that several competitors – from Memphis Meats and Just in the US to Aleph Farms and Future Meat Technologies in Israel – are racing to get their products on the market.
"We did the best we could, "lead author John Lynch told Quartz this week. "We've been surveyed all the literature, but it's still a fundamental problem, that we have no idea whether [the data] correspond to what the companies are doing or not."
For now, no one's making cultured meat in a massive commercial scale – production is still a relatively small, lab-based affair. Companies are still trying to figure out how to make clean meat more appealing while also making it less wildly expensive. So there would be limited data on how the process works at scale, even if companies were keen to share it.
It may be in the companies' interest to become more forthcoming, though.
Lynch's study only proves we can not assume lab-grown meat will necessarily be better for the environment; The research does not prove it will necessarily be worse. But his report is not the first to warn about the potential impact of cultured meat on our climate, and it will not be the last. As more studies come out, consumers are likely to join academics in calling for more transparency. Many of them will not be content to reduce animal suffering if they fear they could be harming the environment in the process.
Over the past decade, the clean meat movement has become associated with twin promises – saving animals and saving the planet. So, naturally, people now want both – and clean meat producers to adapt to meet that demand.
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