Growing Climate Solutions, as our name implies, aims to spotlight solutions we can adopt to reduce greenhouse gas (GhG) emissions and increase resiliency. Food production, consumption, and waste figure prominently in our programs, as worldwide agricultural accounts for a third of all global emissions, but also has the potential to be harnessed as a carbon sink. In the US, agriculture, including electricity use, accounted for around 11.2 percent of U.S. GhGs in 2020, and raising cows and other ruminants accounted for just 4 percent. On top of this, we also import meat, which drives land-use conversion in other countries. In total, 20 percent of all emissions globally are related to crops and pasture for grazing livestock. While we advocate for a plant-slant diet and encourage activities like Meatless Mondays, these changes alone are not enough to solve the global protein problem. Moreover, the gap between animal–based food production and global demand for meat is expected to grow as standards of living improve in developing nations.
Increasing meat production while minimizing impacts on the environment and climate requires producers to “change how meat is made,” says the Good Food Institute. Alternative proteins, including plant-based “faux” meats, those produced through fermentation, and meat cultivated from animal cells in a lab all deliver foods that we are accustomed to and enjoy, but with a bonus. They can be produced with 92 percent fewer emissions than traditional ranch-raised livestock while avoiding animal cruelty and slaughter. Advances in science that brought us Beyond Meat and Impossible Burgers – both plant-based alternatives-are now innovating products that cultivate meat in a lab setting from stem cells taken from cows, pigs, chicken, and fish. This meat is still animal meat, but as it is cultured in a facility, producing it does not require resources typically associated with the raising and feeding of livestock, transportation to slaughter facilities, and disposal of waste, which includes bones, organs, and other animal parts that are not consumed. At scale, the full life cycle of cultivated meat produced with clean energy offers significant environmental advantages over even the most ambitious sustainable animal agriculture operations. The figure below created by the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit working to improve global food systems, illustrates savings on land use, water, and other resources.
How is alt-meat produced?
The process begins with stem cells taken from an animal and grown in bioreactors. The cells differentiate into either muscle or fat cells and form into tissues. Because the bioreactors are carefully monitored and sterile, the meats have no added hormones, antibiotics, or virus contamination. The cultivated tissue is turned into a “bio-ink” and placed into cartridges for a 3D printer that extrudes them in layers to make steak. Printing the steak allows the steaks to be customizable in terms of fat composition and shape, minimizing waste and allowing for customization of the marbling content. Extending beyond beef, companies are also printing pork, chicken, and fish filets.
What began in 2006 as a NASA research project has expanded into a burgeoning industry with over 150 companies developing all kinds of meat alternative products. Some lab-grown meat has entered the consumer market in Singapore, and in March 2023, the FDA declared lab-grown chicken from Good Meat safe to eat here in the US.
What are the advantages or disadvantages?
Efficiency in the Feed Conversion Rate – both growing crops and raising livestock require inputs like fertilizer, grass, and soy, as well as water, to ready the plant or animal for the market. The harvesting of crops and slaughter of animals also require energy and resources, as does converting either type of product into edible food. The feed conversion rate (FCR), or the amount of input needed to make a pound of animal meat, varies widely, with plants being more efficient than animals, and some animals being much more efficient than others. Chicken, for example, has a ratio of 4.5 pounds of input to 1 pound of meat, whereas cattle require 16 to 25 pounds of feed to yield one pound of edible beef, making them the most inefficient animal protein to produce. Additionally, cows drink large quantities of water and their flatulence adds methane, a powerful greenhouse gas to the atmosphere. The inherent FCR inefficiency of traditional ranching (both free-ranch and mass) as a way to feed a growing carnivorous population has been challenging to overcome, resulting in growing calls among climate advocates to move society towards vegetarian and vegan diets. Cultivating meat from cells or creating it from plant-based proteins drastically improves this input-to-output ratio. The nutrients and energy used in lab-grown meat only nourish the cells that become meat tissue, eliminating energy or resources that would typically support the growth of inedible parts and meet other energy needs associated with living creatures.
Discourage Land-Use Conversion from Forest to Pasture
Civilization’s growing demand for meat, particularly beef, has led to substantial deforestation as ranchers seek more pasture on which to raise cattle. The shrinking Amazon rainforest has been the poster child of this land conversion quandary, and by some estimates, the Amazon now emits more CO2 than it captures. About three-quarters of our agricultural land is used for animal agriculture, and in the US 65 percent of crops grown are used as animal feed. Monoculture farming to sustain the growing demand for animal feed has depleted soils, which then require additional fertilizers for productive yield. Alternatively, cultivated meat produced with clean energy uses 94 percent less land per pound of meat production. Building manufacturing facilities near consumer bases could also reduce the distance between the meat production location and the point of retail, reducing emissions related to transportation. More importantly, the smaller and possibly vertical footprint of these facilities could allow land to be returned to native ecosystems, increasing biodiversity and Earth’s carbon capture potential.
Is there a downside?
While lab-grown meat brings the aforementioned benefits, skeptics point out that commercially grown meat requires a liquid medium to grow cells, and that medium is presently created from chick embryo extra and fetal bovine serum (FBS); the latter of which is ethically contentious as it comes from the fetus of pregnant cows during slaughter. These components of the medium are expensive, making the cost of cultured meat too high to be viable at scale. Moreover, meat factories require significant quantities of highly filtered water, which may be scarce in some settings.
Critics also note that, while the reduced footprint appears appealing, growing meat at a scale to even address 1/10th of the meat market would require about 4,000 factories. Unless these factories function on emission-free energy, the carbon pollution would be roughly equivalent to that of traditional ranching.
Innovation in alternative protein food sources could serve as a great democratizing instrument if costs can be reduced significantly, allowing greater availability of meat and seafood all over the planet, according to Good Food Institute scientists and policymakers. Clean energy would also need to power factories producing this protein, to make the effort a sustainable one. Today, about 2 billion people on Earth face food insecurity, and that number might increase as climate change-driven extreme heat and changing precipitation patterns reduce the amount of arable land. Innovations in manufactured alternative meat proteins mean not only that we can produce more quality protein foods with fewer resources, but we can also do it in locations where conventional meat is a luxury, or where animal husbandry is not viable.
A big question remains… Consumer acceptability. Would you eat it?