Lab-Grown Meat Is Actually Bad for the Climate Too, Warn Scientists

A new report hits pause on the petri dish patty craze.

burger knife

Climate change has forced us into an age where burger-lovers must reckon with the notion of lab-grown meat. Cattle farms, with row upon row of hungry cows burping and farting methane gas and consuming piles of organic material, are some of the worst climate change offenders. A neat pile of muscle cells growing in a little petri dish, in comparison, intuitively seems very green. But as a new study reports, these cultured meat systems may not be the future food fix that carnivores are hoping for.

Researchers from the University of Oxford, publishing in Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, have found that cultured meat and cattle farms will be similarly taxing on the environment, if we look far enough into the future. This seems counterintuitive because of what we know about animal farming: According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, for example, animal agriculture is responsible for almost 4 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the US. That number takes into account greenhouse gases released by cows into the air, those that are released from fertilizer, and the loss of greenhouse gas-neutralizing trees from the land used to farm cattle.

But the Oxford researchers point out that we need to take a closer look at the types of greenhouse gases being emitted by both cows and meat laboratories before getting too excited about cultured beef.

farmed cattle
Farmed cattle aren't great for climate change, but lab-grown meat might not be so hot, either.

Not All Greenhouse Gases Are Created Equal

Generally speaking, cattle farming is associated with the release of methane and nitrous oxide, while energy used to power labs is linked to the release of carbon dioxide. Importantly, these gases don’t all affect global warming in the same way. Co-author Raymond Pierrehumbert, Ph.D., a physics professor at the University of Oxford, told theBBC: “Per tonne emitted, methane has a much larger warming impact than carbon dioxide. However, it only remains in the atmosphere for about 12 years, whereas carbon dioxide persists and accumulates for millennia.”

In other words, there’s no question that cattle farming is a more urgent threat to the climate in the near to middle future because of all the methane it releases into the air. But if you look far enough in the future, the accumulation of carbon dioxide — a byproduct of the energy sources used to power the labs that grow meat — could have just as much of a negative impact, if not more.

They came to these conclusions by comparing the findings of four existing studies on the greenhouse gas footprints from “synthetic” meat and three studies on the same effects from various beef production systems. Using that data to create a climate model, they saw what could happen under various meat-eating scenarios over the next 1,000 years.

“Under continuous high global consumption, cultured meat results in less warming than cattle initially,” the team writes, “but this gap narrows in the long term and in some cases cattle production causes far less warming, as CH4 emissions do not accumulate, unlike CO2.”

The Effects of Meat Consumption

cultured meat cells
How muscle tissue is grown in culture in a lab. A cultured beef burger is the result of researchers growing muscle strands this size — thousands of times.

In one of the scenarios that the team modeled, people eventually reduce their meat-eating to sustainable levels. With decreased demand for beef, they found, the global warming effect of cow farming seems to decrease — even surpassing the positive climate impacts of lab-grown meat.

They eventually conclude that lab-grown meat isn’t necessarily better for the climate than cattle, noting that it all depends on the kinds of production system used to grow the meat and, perhaps more importantly, the energy source used to power those systems.

As of now, there seem to be too many unknowns concerning lab-grown meat to make any hard decisions about whether to pursue it or not. For one thing, it’s so expensive that nobody’s figured out how to scale up production, and for another, consumer surveys suggest that people just aren’t ready for a petri dish patty.

What is becoming clear, however, is that we’re going to have to change our meat-eating habits, regardless of where we end up getting it. Scientists are urgently calling for a worldwide shift to a plant-based diet, which, will not only reduce climate change but also address the global issues of obesity and malnutrition.

As the experts involved in the Lancet Commission on Obesity argued in a recent blockbuster report, the global pandemics of obesity, malnutrition, and climate change are all intertwined in a “Global Syndemic” that could be significantly curbed by a shift to a plant-based diet — the only problem being that there are a lot of people and industries that aren’t ready to give up their steaks.