Cultured meat: Is it a boon or bane for sustainable future?

Cultured meat promises to provide us a new way to eat and be the game changer for our problematic planet. But is it really that good?

Memphis Meats

With Singapore being the first country to approve a cultured meat product, cultured meat has lit a firestorm and set the media abuzz. Cultured meat, also known as lab-grown meat, is produced in vitro cell culture of animal cells. In other words, scientists take a small amount of muscle cells derived from animals, filter them and isolate them to make them grow. When provided warmth and oxygen, as well as salt, sugar and protein, these muscle cells are ‘tricked’ to believe they are still inside the body of an animal and continue to replicate tissues and eventually grow into the meat similar to the one we eat.

Factory farming has always been known as one of the major culprits that causes climate change, which approximately 44% of livestock emissions are in the form of methane (CH4); and the remaining part is almost equally shared between Nitrous Oxide (N2O, 29%) and Carbon Dioxide (CO2, 27%). According to Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), animal agriculture is accounted for 14.5% of all human-caused greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions globally.

What’s more, agriculture is also by far the largest water consumer, accounting for roughly 70% of water withdrawals globally; and 20–33% of all fresh water consumption in the world is used for animal agriculture. With the fact that only 2.5 percent of water on our planet is fresh, animal agriculture has become the main driver of water depletion.

In order to untangle all these knotty international problems, scientists have developed cultured meat to replace livestock, especially cattle. Cultured meat is intended not as an ultimate alternative for consuming animals, but as a way of acutely eliminating the amount of animals being force-bred, slaughtered and unethically treated for our consumption. It also helps lessen the substantial environmental costs of meat production and help alleviate the global food crisis.

An European food technology company, Mosa Meat claims that it only takes one tissue sample from a cow to yield enough muscle tissue for making 80,000 quarter-pounders. As cultured meat only takes a small part of animals’ muscle cells, it helps lower the amount of water pollution and land use.

According to an environmental engineer at the University of West Florida, Carolyn Mattick, the development of cultured meat can reduce the number of animals defecating all over the countryside and faeces running off into our waterways. It would also save up the use of land as the demand of growing acres of grains to feed the animals would be deducted.

Cultured meat may also be a boon in terms of food security. Though the production cost of these lab-grown meat is expensive now, Ryan Bethencourt, a Memphis Meats investor, conjectures that lab-grown meat, sooner or later, will potentially become affordable for the public that they can purchase them for $1–2/pound.

The making of cultured meat is expected to produce more carbon dioxide than the potent methane as methane has a much larger warming impact than carbon dioxide; and cultured meat has less methane emissions than its traditional counterpart. That said, it is argued that cultured meat not only might not be as sustainable or eco-friendly as it sounds, but it might also exacerbate climate change due to the long-lasting impact of carbon pollution.

Compared with methane, carbon dioxide takes much longer time to dissipate and much money is invested into meat labs, not to mention the cost of production is way too expensive at this stage. To give a tangible idea, it costs roughly $300,000 to produce the first lab-grown burger patty. Even with the investment from billionaires like Bill Gates and Richard Branson which reduces the cost to around $600, it is still not cost effective for most people; and the product still has a carbon footprint that is approximately five times the carbon footprint of chicken and ten times higher than plant-based processed meats.

However, the emission of carbon dioxide can be diminished if meat labs can use reusable energy to replace the electricity and heat use in upstream production of medium. Researchers point out, if cultured meat is grown with using renewable energy, the global warming impacts created by producing chicken, pork and beef could be possibly reduced by 17%, 52% and 85–92% respectively.

Also, the so-called “cruelty-free” nature of cultured meat might be misleading. Although the process of extracting a stem cell in itself is without pain, the stem cells are cultured in foetal bovine serum which is obtained by removing a foetus from a pregnant cow. The foetus will then bleed to death and get its blood extracted to make the serum. Such an invasive process has raised an ethical issue.

Cultured meat may have success in the marketplace because of its technological and economic viability, but there are environmental and ethical appeals regarding its making of production. Whether it is considered as sustainable, the answer still remains uncertain and we will need more time for experiments and observation. Hopefully one day, cultured meat can be made without harming animals and become the mainstream meat in our society!

A broke college kid who writes.

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