Researchers at UC Davis have made a startling discovery that could change the way we view lab-grown meat.
As detailed in a yet-to-be-peer-reviewed paper, they found that the meat alternative's environmental impact appears to be "orders of magnitude" higher than retail beef you can buy at the grocery store — itself already a very environmentally damaging foodstuff — at least based on current production methods.
If confirmed, the research could be damning: lab-grown meat, long seen as a greener alternative to meat products that don't involve the slaughter of animals, could be more harmful to the environment than the products it's trying to replace.
"Our findings suggest that cultured meat is not inherently better for the environment than conventional beef," said corresponding author Edward Spang, an associate professor at UC Davis, in a statement. "It’s not a panacea."
Fortunately, there could be effective ways to reduce that carbon footprint significantly in the long run, the researchers suggest, meaning that it's not game over for lab-grown meat just yet.
Assessing the cycle of energy needed and the greenhouse gas emissions involved in all stages of producing lab-grown meat compared to conventional beef, they found that the global warming potential — an environmental metric measured in kilograms of CO2 emissions — of lab-grown meat is between four and 25 times greater than the average for beef products sold in stores.
One of the biggest drawbacks, they say, is the need for highly-refined growth media, which are the cultures that allow cells to multiply in a lab setting.
"If companies are having to purify growth media to pharmaceutical levels, it uses more resources, which then increases global warming potential," said lead author and doctoral graduate Derrick Risner, in the statement. "If this product continues to be produced using the 'pharma' approach, it’s going to be worse for the environment and more expensive than conventional beef production."
While the Food and Drug Administration approved the sale of cultured meat in the US last year, no such products are being sold in the country as of the time of writing.
That's despite the emergence of a number of new startups, particularly in Silicon Valley, trying to capitalize on the idea. Many of them, it's worth noting, are still struggling to scale up their operations, nevermind break into the mainstream market.
But there's a growing momentum. Back in March, the FDA deemed a cultivated chicken product produced by cultured meat company Good Meat safe to consume, meaning that it will only need an all-clear from the Department of Agriculture to start selling the product.
Lab-grown meat companies have tried to end their reliance on pharmaceutical-grade ingredients and focus on food-grade ones instead, something that would make growing meat in a lab far more environmentally competitive.
"We believe commercial-scale cultivated meat production will be more sustainable, efficient and healthier for the planet than conventional animal agriculture because we will not be raising and slaughtering billions of animals or using one-third of the planet’s ice-free land to grow food for them," Andrew Noyes, vice president and head of global communications at Good Meat, told the San Francisco Chronicle.
If the companies were to make that switch, cultured meat's global warming potential could end up being anywhere between 80 percent lower to 26 percent higher than conventional beef production, according to the researchers.
But ending their reliance on pharma-grade ingredients is still proving extremely difficult.
"It’s possible we could reduce its environmental impact in the future, but it will require significant technical advancement to simultaneously increase the performance and decrease the cost of the cell culture media," said Spang in the statement.
In the meantime, Spang is working with Bay Area companies to develop the tech further. For now, he told the Chronicle that we'll likely see more companies combining cultured meat with other plant-based ingredients to make it more competitive with meat products.
While the numbers paint a damning picture of the current state of the lab-grown meat industry, researchers and cultured meat companies aren't willing to throw in the towel just yet. It may just take a little longer than they might like to get there.
More on lab-grown meat: There's a Serious Problem With Lab-Grown Meat