Feb 19 2019

Cultured Meat and Climate Change

Climate change has altered the debate over the ethics of meat consumption, adding a new dimension that certainly changes the equation. There are also new options on the horizon, however, such as lab grown or cultured meat. How this will all shake out is still unknown, but it seems likely our meat consumption habits are going to be different in 50 years.

There are several issues to consider regarding meat consumption. One is simply the ethics of animal consumption. This one is a bit personal, and I don’t think there is any one answer. I personally advocate for humane animal treatment, but I do not think it is unethical to breed animals for consumption or to use their body parts for whatever purpose we like after they are dead. As long as their life is reasonably comfortable and their death painless and stress free, I don’t see an ethical issue.

This is essentially the position of Temple Grandin, who is a staunch advocate for animals rights but is not against meat consumption, she simply advocates for a system of animal handling from beginning to end which is humane.

A second issue is land use and the overall impact on the environment. Here the issues are perhaps ethically a bit clearer, but technically still complex. There is no question that growing meat requires more energy and more land and resources overall than plant consumption. However, there are many variables involved and depending on the details plants are not always more efficient.

One way to look at the issue is calories produced per acre of land. Here beef has the worst ratio, with 1.1 million calories produced per acre (I assume this is per year, although it is not explicitly stated in the linked reference). Potatoes are very efficient at 17.8 million calories per acre. But soybeans are also pretty inefficient at 2.1, while pork is more efficient than soybeans at 3.5. The ratio of efficiency between potatoes and soybeans is about the same as the ratio between wheat (6.4) and beef.

These are also average figures. Some land is better suited for grazing cattle than growing crops, while different climates and soil qualities are better suited to some crops over others. Ideally we would use land for the purpose that it is best suited, rather than growing potatoes everywhere.

Further, land use is not the only issue (although arguably it is the most important). There are also inputs, like fertilizer and water, and runoff into the environment. Cattle farming also produces fertilizer that can be used to grow crops, which partly offsets the inputs.

How this all shakes out is complicated, and you there are many analyses with differing results depending on what variables they consider. A recent analysis published in Nature, which I discussed previously, looks at the issue from the perspective of optimal land use. They conclude that we should decrease, but not necessarily eliminate, our overall meat consumption if we want to reduce negative impacts on the environment and mitigate climate change.

This leads into the third major concern – climate change specifically. There are various concerns here as well. One factor is overall energy use, since energy production currently produces carbon release as a byproduct. But there are other factors, such as CO2 released from soil, and methane released from cattle. Methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, but its effects are short term (around 12 years) and not cumulative. CO2 has a small greenhouse gas effect, but accumulates long term in the atmosphere.

So the relative impact of methane vs CO2 depends largely on the timescale of the assessment.

My takeaway from all this is that overall we should decrease our meat consumption, but not necessarily eliminate it. We need to use land as efficiently as possible, and land should be used for the purpose for which it is best suited.

Meat Alternatives

What potential impact can meat alternatives have on this equation? There are three basic approaches to producing meat alternatives: different more efficient meat (like eating more chicken and less beef), vegetable-based meat substitutes, and lab-grown meat.

The first issue is fairly easy – in terms of most to least efficient we have fish, chicken, pork, lamb, then beef. Keep that in mind when determining your relative consumption of various kinds of meat. Substituting fish or chicken for lamb or beef when possible can have a beneficial impact. Yes there are issues with overfishing and chicken factory farming, but there are perhaps other solutions to deal with these issues.

Fake vegetable-based meat is a reasonable option, and many people are happy with tofu substitutes or veggie-burgers. The “impossible burger” is an effort to make a plant-based burger that tastes like real beef. They use heme from soy to simulate meat flavor. I tried one, and I thought it was good, but I would never confuse it for a beef hamburger. It had a definite potato-like flavor. However, they recently unveiled the impossible burger 2.0 as the CES 2019 and apparently everyone was impressed.

This approach has a lot of promise. I would like to try the 2.0 recipe, but if they continue to improve upon this and get to the point where they have a decent meat substitute made entirely from plants, that could take a huge chunk out of the demand for meat. Right now this is a great option for those who cannot eat meat for ethical or dietary reasons.

While I have an open mind, I suspect they will not get to the point where the impossible meat would fool me into thinking I was eating real meat. This means there is still some room in consumer demand for a real meat substitute – and that is the potential role for lab-grown or cultured meat.

Cultured meat starts with meat stem cells, and then grows them in a vat. There is never a sentient animal involved, just cells in a vat. This technology is still young also, but several labs have made cultured burgers (ground meat is easier to simulate that whole meat, like a steak). There is a lot of potential here, and no reason that we cannot get to full meat substitutes grown in the lab.

The only question here is efficiency. This is the subject of a recent study, looking at the climate impact of cultured meat vs animal farming. They conclude that it is not necessarily the case that cultured meat is better in terms of climate change. In some scenarios cultured meat has a worse long term impact, because while it does not produce methane, it can produce more CO2 from the energy necessary for the process.

The big variable in their analysis, however, is what the source of energy is. They basically run their analysis with different assumptions regarding the mix of energy sources in the future. If we move to a green low or zero CO2 energy infrastructure, than culture meat wins hands down. If we still have a CO2 intensive energy infrastructure, then cultured meat may have a worse long term climate impact.

By my thinking, however, if we don’t move heavily toward low emission energy production, we’re screwed anyway. The same exact analysis is true for electric cars. They are only advantageous if we charge them with clean energy. If you are getting your electricity from coal-fired plants, there isn’t really an advantage to electric cars.

What we really need is a future with green energy, electric cars, and cultured meat. They work together as a system.

For now I have reduced my meat consumption (especially beef), but not eliminated it. I will keep trying the Impossible Burger and other potential plant-based substitutes, and I’m happy to eat them when available. I hope they continue to progress. And I also have my eye on cultured meats, which are not yet ready for prime time, but I suspect with have a large role in the future.

The ultimate goal is general public acceptance. If people could buy fake or cultured meat in the grocery store, for about the price of real meat, and find no or trivial differences in terms of cooking and taste, then it will take over. This could have significant environmental benefits.

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