Cultivated Meat Is Much More than a Climate Solution
Despite serious challenges, alt-meat technologies are too important to fail: their benefits extend far beyond simply reducing emissions
Cultivated meats are heralding a new era. Since earning a series of regulatory nods in Singapore starting in 2020 and featuring at select restaurants in the city-state, two brands of lab-grown chicken meat were cleared for sale in the U.S. by the Department of Agriculture (USDA) this past June, hot on the heels of the FDA approval earlier in the year.
This is innovation fit for science fiction: rather than slaughtering animals for their parts in production lines, cultivated meats are protein cells from the same animals that are grown, or cultivated, in bioreactors within a controlled facility. It’s the chicken breast we’ve all come to love, but with no actual chicken involved in the process.
Across the globe, startups are pushing the boundaries of biotech with the promise to bring to market not only the minced meat suitable for meatballs and nuggets, but structured cuts like chicken breasts and sushi-grade salmon that boast the same shape, taste, and texture of the traditional animal-harvested product.
Yet, several recent articles have highlighted challenges that cultured meat startups are encountering (and sometimes creating for themselves, drawing parallels to the Theranos scandal.) The best of the crop is this long exposé calling out problems like low cell density, slow growth rates, frequent batch contamination, reliance on factory farm byproducts like fetal bovine serum, and failures thus far to produce anything at scale despite billions in investments. While the piece is well worth a read, it is telling that much of the criticism stems from one scientist (a notorious alt-meat skeptic), and one bungled report by the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit championing meat alternatives.
Coupled with recent declining sales for plant-based meat alternatives, one wonders what is going on. Can this technology succeed? Will it help address climate change? All important questions, but even more important are the ethical implications. Simply put, cultivated meat can help humanity move past the era of torturing and slaughtering animals to harvest their parts. Let’s dig in.
First of all, let me say out of the gate that alt-meat products suffer from abysmal branding. Phrases like “lab-grown meat”, “cell-cultured meat”, and “clean meat” conjure faintly dystopian high-tech images that most of us would rather not associate with food. Leave aside the fact that our current method of food production would cause revulsion if it were more widely known, branding is something that the challenger product must solve to succeed in the marketplace. Since the industry appears to have settled on “cultivated meat” (a term I am still warming up to), that is what I use throughout this article.
The Climate Problem
Meat production is one of the most polluting and environmentally unsustainable human activities today. It is estimated that by 2030, the world will produce at least 5 billion metric tons of fecal biomass every year. The lion’s share of the waste has its origin in farms that contaminate the surrounding air and nearby waterways. Livestock production is the cause of almost half of all deforestation happening in the world today. Our oceans too bear the brunt, with overfishing ravaging once-abundant ecosystems. Within the confines of factory farms, a brew of antibiotic-resistant bacteria simmers, as does the risk of unleashing a new devastating pandemic.
Livestock emits over 7 gigatons of CO2-equivalent (CO2eq) into the atmosphere each year, accounting for nearly 15% of global emissions. A significant chunk of it is the methane produced directly by animals and their waste.
But there’s another facet to this story: a staggering amount of the food we produce has the sole purpose of feeding animals. Here’s just a few mind-blowing numbers:
77% of all agricultural land, corresponding to almost 40% of all habitable land on the planet, is dedicated to meat and dairy production, all of which supplies only 18% of global calorie consumption.
Just 55% of the world’s crop calories are eaten by people. Over one-third of all the calories produced are used for animal feed.
Beef is specially carbon-intensive because it requires so much land: every 100 grams of beef protein emits a median of 25 kilograms of CO2eq.
Unfortunately, the problem of livestock emissions doesn’t have great solutions in the horizon. This thoughtful article by the World Resources Institute is alarming because it is thorough. The proposed solutions, all worth pursuing, often can only deliver incremental improvements, like better livestock feeding practices or pivoting to greener suppliers. Others, such as reducing enteric methane via feed additives or harnessing biogas from manure, show promise but are still in embryonic stages.
Unfortunately, reducing emissions on a per kilogram basis within our current factory farming paradigm invariably means a drift to more ‘efficient’ practices such as confining animals to smaller spaces and achieving higher growth rates through more hormones and antibiotics.
Is It a Climate Solution?
A recent article on Climate Drift argues that cultivated meat isn’t a climate solution. As the piece astutely points out, lab-grown meat has thus far failed to demonstrate being viable. However, their skepticism about cultivated meat is misplaced, arguing that it cannot be a meaningful tool for climate mitigation because
the only question in the climate context is whether or not they can significantly mitigate meat-based emissions within the next ten to twenty years or so.
I don’t think that is right at all.
Consider nuclear fusion. It will not have a climate impact in the foreseeable future; other energy solutions are needed to get us to net-zero. Realistically, it could be decades, perhaps even a century, before fusion reactors are deployed at scale. Yet, fusion is arguably the most important climate solution to be pursuing right now because it will be a game-changer. The level of human flourishing that can follow from attaining the holy grail of limitless cheap clean energy cannot be overstated.
The larger point is that climate change is a forever problem. Reaching net-zero or even net-negative won’t be enough; humanity will need to sustainably manage emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants for as long as there is a civilization. Thankfully, some climate solutions can help us get there more quickly because they are available to be deployed at scale today. But I bet that some of those technologies, such as harnessing power from wind, nuclear fission, or massive dams will seem very outdated in a few centuries. Pioneering climate solutions, like fusion and cultivated meats, might be embryonic now but will have lasting legacies. Given the potential vast benefits into the long-term future, continued progress on these solutions is arguably as important as the shorter-term goal of reaching net-zero this century. Humanity can walk and chew gum at the same time.
The Ethical Argument
I tread lightly here, aware of the minefield that discussions of animal ethics can be. To paraphrase this touching article, I believe in the animal rights mission, but I am bothered by the tactics deployed by activists. While I strive to be a conscientious omnivore, I am a meat-eater, a perfect example of the meat paradox. I have gradually cut back on something like 95% of my beef, poultry, and pork consumption and I try to think carefully about the origin of the remaining 5%. However, I still consume eggs and dairy products on a daily basis, I eat seafood several times per week, and I even enjoy the occasional cow-derived double bacon cheeseburger — something I would happily do a lot more of if cultivated meat could be found on supermarket shelves.
My beef (so to speak) is not with meat-eating itself. Meat is an important and primary source of protein not only for billions of humans, but for other animals as well. I don’t see myself ever cutting animal products from my diet altogether, given how difficult it is to stick to a purely vegan diet (and, frankly, I don’t understand how anyone could ever give up ham and cheese croissants.) I also have huge respect for those, regardless of species, who hunt and kill their own dinner. In principle, I am not even against dedicated facilities that raise animals for their meat, provided those animals can live good lives from birth to slaughter in a humane and compassionate environment.
The problem is that, in our relentless pursuit of affordable meat for all, we created a fantastically efficient system for breeding animals to harvest their parts without nearly enough care for their well-being.
It is not uncommon for people to feel a kind of queasiness at first exposure to the idea of cultivated meats. I remember having a similar reaction when I first heard of it, picturing a raw steak growing in a vat, surrounded by scientists in white jackets in a sterile lab. But it took me ten seconds to get past that irrational feeling, and today I find it truly puzzling that someone can think through the implications of this technology and still hold onto that initial repulsion.
Here’s my take on the ick factor: picture a mouth-watering hamburger in front of you. Now imagine you could strip away from that hamburger all the methane emissions, manure pollution, and fertilizer runoff. All the unnatural hormone-fueled growth. The permanent discomfort and pain and screams. The induced starvation. The deaths by heat, by suffocation, drowning, defeathering, debeaking, crushing, boiling. The filth. The copious antibiotics and disease everywhere. The blood, excrement, bile, gore. The indescribable suffering of trillions of short painful lives lived in miniscule steel cages, never once able to lie down, sit down, stretch, or turn around. You are telling me once you have a product that is free from all of the above, from all the death and disease and filth and suffering, is subtracting all that what makes the meat in your burger icky?
Okay, maybe that last paragraph was a bit graphic. I too prefer to just not think about it. But it is all true, it is happening as I type this, and it is happening as you read it. Factory farming is one of the greatest tragedies of our times. From the standpoint of individual sentient lives affected, it is arguably the greatest engine of pain and suffering ever devised by humankind. It is conceivable that the cruelty taking place routinely at factory farms will make our present era look very bad in retrospect. Future humans will look upon our thriving industrial farming sector with the same horror we today reserve for past societies where slavery and human sacrifice were not only seen as necessary, but good.
Even recognizing that cultivated meats might not make a climate impact for generations, this tech is so much more than just a climate solution. The sheer amount of suffering that it could alleviate makes this technology worth pursuing on ethical grounds alone.
But Does It Have Legs?
Despite over-eager startup pitches and misleading marketing, the formidable technical challenges looming ahead underscore how nascent this industry still is. Beyond the triumphant press releases, no company has yet advanced past the prototype stage. They are not turning a profit and might not do so for several years. Broad acceptance is still an open question. As the Good Food Institute transparently reports, a lot of research and development still lies ahead. But a little bit of perspective reminds us that the promise of nuclear fusion was discredited for decades, until it wasn’t. So was enhanced geothermal. If we keep at it, the breakthrough solutions will come.
One interesting emerging direction is hybrid products combining plant-based and lab-grown:
The future is not making plant-based sausages or lab-grown chicken. It is seeding plant-based scaffolds with animal muscle and fat cells, making technological marvels from synthetic and fermented and extracted materials. The plant-based products give the animal cells structure; the animal cells make the plant-based products taste better, and give the finished product that characteristic chewy texture and tender mouthfeel.
The core problem of climate change is a failure to account for negative externalities: fossil fuels were made cheap so they could power human development, but everyone failed to factor in the costs of cleaning up the damage. Similarly, our hunger for cheap meat also blinded us to its true cost — rampant methane emissions, environmental degradation, and perhaps most poignantly, the appalling state of animal welfare within the confinements of factory farms is largely invisible to us. But it is going on at this very moment, and cultivated meats are presenting us with an opportunity to right that wrong.
Chew on this
For the moral philosophy of treatment of animals, look no further than Peter Singer:
The Atlantic has several excellent articles worth getting behind the paywall for:
Two recent Catalyst pods that are relevant and useful:
A look at the post-pandemic slump for plant-based meat alternatives helps explain at least some of the backlash these products have been getting
Though not directly about cultivated meats, this conversation is a great overview about the relationship between food and energy.
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