Lab-grown meat could worsen global warming more than cattle farming
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Lab-grown meat will need to be produced using renewable energy for it to be more environmentally friendly than traditional cattle rearing, according to a new study.
The research was conducted by Oxford Martin School’s LEAP (Livestock, Environment and People) programme, which looked at the climate-change impact of several production methods for lab-grown and farmed beef accounting for the differing greenhouse gases produced.
Their new projections reveal that replacing cattle with cultured meat may not be a simple replacement of high-impact with low-impact.
Lead author John Lynch, a researcher at the University of Oxford, said reducing beef consumption would help curb climate change, as methane emitted by cattle is a potent heat-trapping gas. How best to replace conventional meat remained unclear.
“We have to dig into the details a bit more to know if the substitutes would be as beneficial as claimed,” he said. “It just comes down to how much energy demand would be needed to produce a kilogramme of meat.”
Agricultural greenhouse gas emissions are responsible for around a quarter of current global warming figures.
Lynch said companies promising to bring lab-grown ‘clean’ meat to the mass market, many of them based in the United States and Israel, had yet to release information on their planned large-scale production processes.
To provide a rigorous comparison of the potential climate impacts of lab-grown meat and beef cattle, the researchers examined available data on the emissions associated with three current cattle farming methods and four possible meat culture methods, assuming current energy systems remained unchanged.
Using this data, they modelled the potential temperature impact of each production method over the next 1,000 years. Their model showed that while cattle initially have a greater warming effect through the release of methane, in some cases the manufacture of lab-grown meat can ultimately result in more warming.
This is due to the fact that even if consumption of meat were entirely phased out, the warming from carbon dioxide would persist, whereas warming caused by methane ceases after only a few decades.
However, the most energy-efficient method would not warm the planet more than farming beef in the long term, even without decarbonisation of the global energy system, the study found.
The website of one high-profile firm, Memphis Meats, which produced the world’s first cell-based meatball in 2016 followed by poultry in 2017, says its meat, cultivated “at scale”, would use significantly less land, water, energy and food inputs.
“Our process will produce less waste and dramatically fewer greenhouse gas emissions. We believe that the planet will be the ultimate beneficiary of our product,” it adds, without giving details of how that would be achieved.
Memphis Meats has received investment from business tycoons Bill Gates and Richard Branson, as well as multinational corporations Cargill and Tyson Foods.
In July 2018, Dutch start-up Mosa Meat raised €7.5m (£6.7m) to start commercial production of lab-grown meat in the hope it can be brought to market by 2021.
E&T looked at the big players in the meat alternatives industry.
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