Creating Clarity in the Cultured Meat Climate Confusion

Did a recent study actually conclude that culturing animal cells is worse for the climate than raising whole animals? Spoiler alert: Nope.

Humans love good news about our bad habits.

Ever notice how much more likely we are to click on the “Study Shows Bacon is Good for You!” headline than the one boasting the benefits of broccoli?

Similarly, if someone suggests that an environmentally-friendlier alternative to something we really love — like eating meat from animals — may actually be bad for the planet…get ready for a slew of irresistible headlines. And wow, did the headlines spring forth in the past week. Here’s a small sampling:

Lab-Grown Meat Is Actually Bad for the Climate Too, Warn Scientists
Well Dang, Lab-Grown Meat Might Bad For the Planet Too
Lab meat not as green as you thought
Is lab-grown meat actually worse for the environment?

Just one problem: The study referenced doesn’t actually say that culturing meat is worse for the planet than raising and slaughtering animals for their meat.

Instead, the authors speculate about four possible futuristic scenarios, three of which find that cultured meat would be better for the climate, and one of which says that 1,000 years from now, presuming energy technologies don’t become eco-friendlier soon, cultured meat could then pose a bigger climate impact. And even in this one of the four scenarios, as Mosa Meat points out in its blog on the topic, growing live cells rather than livestock would still be preferable for the climate for the next 100–400 years — arguably the most climatically dire period in human history.

And even then, the authors admit that given how little is publicly known about the energy use of the cultured meat start-ups at present, let alone what they might be doing once at scale, it’s very hard to predict such numbers in the near-future, not to mention a millennium from now.

As an author of the study conceded to Quartz’s Chase Purdy, “We have no idea whether [the data] correspond with what the companies are doing or not.”

In my own inquiry to the study authors, they were equally frank about this point.

Noting that at least some of the headlines about their work have been misleading, they pointed out that their study doesn’t necessarily reflect poorly on the prospects of cultured meat. Co-author John Lynch told me, “we also show that if some of the more energy-efficient footprints from Hanna Tuomisto’s earlier papers can be realised, lab-grown has a significant climate advantage over cattle beef even without decarbonisation.” In other words, even if fossil fuels continue to power meat culturing equipment, most scenarios indicate that clean meat will still be better for the climate, even at 1,000 years.

The reality is that while it’s still too early to predict what cultured meat production may look like at scale, and while nothing is certain, under nearly all scenarios it’ll better for the climate than how we currently produce meat.

As well, it’s worth noting that, as the Good Food Institute points out in its blog, climate concerns are only one reason to favor cultured meat production over conventional.

Everything from land use to water use to animal welfare to antibiotic resistance are other factors to consider, and these factors weigh heavily in favor of switching to a more (literally and metaphorically) cultured method of producing meat.

This kind of research poses important questions and appropriately challenges cultured meat startups to think about their own carbon footprint. But to use it as a means of generating headlines so irresistible that they seem hard to be true, well, just maybe that’s exactly what they are.

Paul Shapiro is author of the Washington Post bestseller, Clean Meat: How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner and the World.

Husband of Toni Okamoto. Author of nat’l bestseller Clean Meat. CEO of The Better Meat Co. Host of Business for Good Podcast. 4x TEDx speaker.

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