Updated date:

The Environmental Impact of Cultured Meat Production

Jon has a Ph.D in chemistry. Living an active outdoor lifestyle, he also has an interest in nutrition science and nature conservation.

Today's cultured meat. Mostly useful as hamburgers or minced meat.

Today's cultured meat. Mostly useful as hamburgers or minced meat.

What is Cultured Meat?

A sub-field of biotechnology, called tissue engineering, has is the last recent years' done extensive research into cells and cell growth. From this research, a new technology, initially developed for human organ production, enabled scientist to develop an ethical method of meat production. This technology enables the growth of animal muscle tissue in a bioreactor from a tiny original sample, meaning that meat can now be "grown" without killing any animal.

Cultured meat is a term used for any meat that has been "grown" in a bioreactor in this manner. The terms lab-grown meat and clean meat is often used for the same concept, but cultured meat seems to be the preferred term.

The future of cultured meat. A tender beef muscle complete with fat.

The future of cultured meat. A tender beef muscle complete with fat.

What is the Environmental Impact of Traditional Meat Production?

Traditional meat production has a serious environmental impact every year. It touches upon most aspects of environmental pollution, with the most serious being carbon release, water usage and extensive land usage.

In 2012 the global average meat consumption was 42 kg of meat a year, threefold that from 1960 and is predicted to rise even more in the coming years, reaching 60 kg a year by 2030. This increased demand for meat in the world market can only exacerbate any environmental problems arising from traditional meat production and cannot be sustainable in the long run.

Global Warming

Globally, about 45-55% of emissions from agriculture consist of nitrous oxide (N2O), 35–45 % is methane (CH4) and only about 9% is carbon dioxide (CO2). This high ratio of methane and nitrous oxide compared to carbon dioxide is due to raising livestock. Livestock naturally releases methane and nitrous oxide gases. These gases have a serious impact on global warming as they are the most aggressive greenhouse gases. In fact, it is estimated that the agriculture sector is responsible for about 18% of the total greenhouse gas effect.

Land Use and Deforestation

Raising livestock takes an enormous amount of land, which otherwise might be used to grow crops or allowed to remain wild. In some nations around the globe, huge swathes of forest land have been cut to make grassland for livestock. This has a double negative impact for global warming as more livestock means more greenhouse gases are released and fewer forests mean less CO2 captured from the air.

Also, to feed all the livestock in the world, large amounts of feed crops, such as grain and corn, are needed. This means more fertilizers must be used to grow those crops with the pollution that accompanies them. Heavy use of fertilizers can seep into groundwater and rivers, causing the death of fish and other animals.

Water Usage

Another aspect of livestock's impact of the environment is in the use of water. It is estimated that about 8% of water used globally goes directly to the livestock sector This is a massive amount of water used for a single industry and in many areas is placing an enormous strain on local water sources.

While these three are the main culprits in regards to meat production, many other aspects are environmentally troubling. Overall, the environmental impact on traditional meat production is becoming too high for the planet to sustain. To change this another approach is needed. One such is through the use of cultured meat.

A cattle field. Land that can be reclaimed with forests as cultured meat becomes the norm.

A cattle field. Land that can be reclaimed with forests as cultured meat becomes the norm.

How Does Cultured Meat Change the Environmental Impact of Meat Production?

By changing regular meat out for cultured meat a massive net benefit can be gained in regards to the environmental impact of meat production.

First of all, cultured meat does not release any methane or nitrous oxide gas during it's growing cycle, as the cultured muscle does not eat, digest or breathe. There is still some release from carbon dioxide, mainly in connection to the energy needs of producing the meat. Nevertheless, the total release of greenhouse gases for each kg produced is estimated to be reduced by over 90%. Seeing as the estimated part of livestock in the global greenhouse gas emission is about 18% this would cause a 16% reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions, more than the entire transportation sector releases.

Secondly, water usage is also reduced manifold. While cultured meat production will still need considerable water it will be nowhere near the water needs of livestock. In fact, it is estimated that cultured meat production would only need about 4-18% of the water used for livestock today per kg produced.

Thirdly, the land use for cultured meat production will be insignificant compared to land used for livestock today. A single factory should be able to produce the same amount of meat as a massive farm, leading to a whopping 99% reduction in land use. Also, land that is used for grain and corn production could be reused for other crops. This should, in turn, start to turn around deforestation, which is an important goal in environmental conservation.

Finally, cultured meat factories could be placed nearer to the market where it is consumed than is the case today, saving in transportation costs and shortening supply chains for the benefit of all.


Summary

With all this in mind, it is clear that switching to cultured meat would have a great effect on the environment. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions, water usage and land usage alone is a great enough change to support cultured meat.

On top of that many other factors are in favor of cultured meat, such as reduced transportation costs and better availability of fresh meat. Also, cultured meat does not carry the ethical dilemma of eating food from slaughtered animals.

Resources

  1. Shruti Sharma, Sukhcharanjit Singh Thind, and Amarjeet Kaur. In vitro meat production system: why and how? J Food Sci Technol. 2015, 52(12): 7599–7607.
  2. Hanna L. Tuomisto and M. Joost Teixeira de Mattos. Environmental Impacts of Cultured Meat Production. Environ Sci Technol, 2011, 45 (14): 6117–6123.

© 2018 Jon Sigurdsson

Related Articles