Fake meat, real solutions?

Image from page 189 of "Handbook of meat inspection" (1904)

Professor Shulamit Levenberg, Dean of the Faculty of Biomedical Engineering at the Technion, hadn’t been thinking about meat substitutes as she worked for years on tissue engineering, or growing human tissue outside the body for use in restoring damaged tissue in the body. But the logic was compelling – if animal cells have the capacity for regeneration, then under the right laboratory conditions, a single bovine cell should be able to generate a steak. And if we can create a steak in the laboratory – and later, in the factory – then we may be able to find an environmentally-friendly alternative to agricultural-industry produced meat. And in fact, Prof. Levenberg and her colleagues went ahead and created a steak from a single bovine cell.

We need such technological advances for ethical, environmental and health reasons.

I assume that for most of us, our conscience allows us to eat meat only when we ignore the ethical and environmental implications. This is one reason why the meat industry is largely secretive and off-limits to public exposure – most people just wouldn’t be able to stomach watching the systematic slaughter of cows, pigs, sheep and other animals or the horrendous conditions in which they are raised. If we all knew that our meat is not coming from a placid and content cow munching on grass out on the frontier, but rather from a cramped processing facility where cows never see a green plant before their death, then many more of us would opt for vegetarianism or veganism.

Our meat consumption is also responsible for a broad range of the planet’s most intractable environmental challenges. The greenhouse gasses produced by the meat industry, including carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide comprise around a quarter to a third of human emissions, second only to energy production. But the impact of meat production does not stop there. Excessive nitrogen loading – from fertilizer to feces – into groundwater, open water ways and oceans is causing water pollution, anoxia, algal blooms and other poisonous side effects. Here is Israel, according to Nature and Parks Authority ecologists, cattle are the most likely source of leptospirosis bacterial outbreaks in Israel’s northern springs. Rainforest devastation, which accelerated this year, is most often due to land clearing, opening up forests for rangeland for cattle.

Meat itself is resource inefficient. A single kilogram of meat requires 15,000 liters of water, and the industry accounts for 8% of global freshwater use. Antibiotics flood in and out of the meat production process. 70% of all the earth’s arable land and 30% of its total land surface are needed to feed the animals that feed increasingly carnivorous humans (these and other statistics are derived from the Food and Agricultural Organization’s 2006 report, “Livestock’s Long Shadow”).

Lab-produced steak (Screen capture of Alpha Farms promotional video, courtesy of the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology)

Admitting all of this is the first step to admitting we have a meat addiction. The next step is to decide what to do about it. For many, reducing or eliminating meat in our diet has been the most direct and effective response. But for those who can’t kick the habit, start-ups like Alpha Farms, for which Prof. Levenberg is the chief scientific officer, may be producing the next generation, laboratory produced meat. This cell-grown meat, according to CEO Didier Toubia, has the potential to be produced without the extensive environmental, ethical and health impacts. Alpha Farms is one of several “alt-meat” startups, among which several (like Alpha Farms) are producing real meat from cell cultures, while the others are using plant-based materials to produce meat-like substances.

The environmental damage caused by the meat industry is so ubiquitous that it seems intuitive that any alternative will be an improvement. That may be true, but a full life-cycle analysis is still necessary to investigate all the environmental costs and benefits of each technology. Since the lab-produced meat industry is still in its infancy, we must rely on projections of environmental costs, including energy use and waste production. Fortunately, several such assessments have been conducted – some in the scientific community and some generated by industries themselves. Although there can be high uncertainty over precise values (they depend on local conditions, such as whether energy is produced with fossil fuels or renewables, waste-treatment methods or the methods by which cattle are raised), overall, the environmental balance clearly favors laboratory-produced meat.

Cultured meat measures up well compared to conventional farmed meat. (From Toumisto and Teixeira de Mattos, 2011. “Environmental Impacts of Cultured Meat Production”. Environmental Science and Technology).

One highly cited study reports that cultured meat produces only 25% of the greenhouse gasses per kilogram of product as traditionally farmed meat, and only a fraction of the land and water (about 450 liters per kilogram compared to 15,000 for farmed meat).  Interestingly, another study, which compared only the environmental impact of various meat substitutes, found lab grown meat to be less environmentally friendly than other alternatives, such as soy-based, mycoprotein-based and insect-based meat substitutes. But all perform better environmentally than conventionally farmed beef and pork, and as the authors of the previous study note, once cultured meat moves from laboratory to factory, improvements will be made in efficiency and environmental performance. Ethically, of course, the issue of animal death is all but eliminated.

With rising meat demands in countries like India, China and Russia, the impact of meat production will continue to detrimentally affect climate, threaten biodiversity, exacerbate nitrogen accumulation in the environment, and hasten fresh-water loss – all leading humanity towards precipitous global environmental tipping points. Reducing our consumption and improving our technologies may be our only choices. Laboratory meat production may offer an important pathway towards global sustainability if it manages to wean humanity off agro-industrial meat.

About the Author
Daniel Orenstein is an associate professor in the Faculty of Architecture and Town Planning at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. His research interests include human-nature interactions, environmental issues in Israel and globally, and public engagement in environmental policy. His general interests are much broader.
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