Meat has for thousands of years been an aspirational and rare meal for most of the world’s population. But as the world has rapidly modernized and industrial agriculture has taken off in the last 100 years meat consumption has soared globally. Industrial meat production however is a highly carbon-intensive activity. As the world begins to confront the challenge of climate change, reducing the carbon-intensity of meat production will be a necessity.
Agriculture is the second most pollutive industry in the world behind energy generation. Globally agriculture accounts for 25% of our greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). Shockingly, livestock and cattle alone account for a whopping 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Annually, livestock produces 7.1 gigatonnes of CO2 emissions. To put that in perspective, the entire US is responsible for 6.5 Gigatonnes of emissions annually. Globally almost four-fifths of agricultural land is dedicated to feeding livestock. Similarly, it takes an average of 18,000 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef. Worse even, about 44% of livestock emissions are in the form of Methane (CH4), a gas that warms the earth 86 times as much as CO2. Cattle – raised for beef and milk production – accounts for 65% of the livestock sector’s emissions.
Meat production is going to have to increase dramatically in the coming decades as the global population is forecast to increase to 9.7 billion by 2050. The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) – an agency of the UN – estimates that the number of cattle, buffalo, sheep and goats will rise from 4.1 billion to 5.8 billion between 2015 and 2050 under a business-as-usual scenario. This will massively increase agricultural and livestock emissions and make it increasingly difficult to reduce emissions to combat climate change.
In addition to a rising population, the world is becoming increasingly wealthy. Meat production increases steeply as a society becomes wealthier. Between 1961 and 2013 the average Chinese person went from eating 4kg of meat a year to 62kg – an increase of 1450%. As the world gets richer and the population grows, the world is either going to have to farm more intensively (produce more meat per acre / per input) or find different less carbon-intensive ways to produce meat.
To Meat or Not to Meat?
In the last decade a growing anti-meat movement has taken shape. Media outlets increasingly push a no meat, no animal products lifestyle as healthy for all and necessary for the future. But the simple – and at times unwelcome – truth is that meat and animal products in moderation are good for you and a key part of a healthy diet. The no meat movement fails to appreciate the role meat has played in the last century in improving human health dramatically. In China, the average 12-year-old urban boy was nine centimetres taller in 2010 than in 1985m, while the average girl is seven centimetres taller. This change is not completely attributable to meat but meat has played a large role in it. In 2015 for example, animal products supplied 22% of the average Chinese person’s calorie intake.
Similarly, meat is a great source of essential vitamins and nutrients, particularly iron. It is very difficult to consume your daily required iron intake without meat consumption. In Senegal, where meat consumption is relatively low, a health survey in 2017 found that 42% of young children and 14% of women are moderately or severely anaemic. Anaemia is primarily caused by a shortage of iron in your blood. In addition, research in rural western Kenya found that children who regularly ate eggs grew 5% faster than children who didn’t. Interestingly, cow’s milk had a similar but smaller effect.
Animal products – meat, milk, eggs – are a calorie rich and nutrient rich source of food that plays an important role in the human diet. Most people also find meat delicious and enjoy eating it for recreational and pleasure eating. As the world gets richer people are going to want to eat more meat. There is simply no stopping that reality.
The Rise of Plant-Based Meats
The most prominent movement towards decreasing the carbon-cost of meat production has been the rise of plant-based meat products. The last decade has seen the quick rise of plant-based meats, thanks to companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger. These companies have advocated plant-based meats as a hugely carbon-efficient solution to the problem of meat production’s carbon intensity. According to Beyond Meat:
“the Beyond Burger generates 90% less greenhouse gas emissions, requires 46% less energy, and has 99% less impact on water scarcity and 93% less impact on land use than a quarter pound of U.S. beef. That means a 41-square-foot plot of land can produce just one beef burger for every 15 Beyond Burgers.”
Both companies have seen their public profiles soar in the last year as restaurant chains like Burger King, KFC, FatBurger and others have released products with their plant-based patties or sausages. Beyond Meat went public on the New York Stock Exchange this year and saw its stock value soar by almost 300% at its peak. While plant-based meats are significantly more carbon-efficient than real meat, the health impact of these products is less than clear.
Plant-based meats are a form of ultra-processed foods. Highly processed foods have been linked with a range of health conditions and the rise of processed foods in the human diet in the last three decades has been pointed to by many experts as a core driver in the spread of more chronic diseases like heart conditions and cancers. Replacing meat, a whole food, with an ultra-processed alternative without a clear understanding of the health impact is a highly risky decision. The products by themselves are not necessarily healthier than meat. A recent CNN article pointed out:
- Tthe Impossible Burger has 240 calories, and 8 grams of saturated fat, thanks to coconut oil. By comparison, an 80% lean beef burger has 280 calories and 9 grams of saturated fat. That’s not a whole lot of difference. (The plant burgers are cholesterol free, however).
- The [plant-based] meat burgers also rank higher in sodium than the beef and turkey burgers, with the Impossible Burger containing 370 milligrams of sodium, and the Beyond Burger containing 390 milligrams. The beef patty contains only 65 to 75 milligrams of sodium, depending on the brand, and the turkey burger has 95 to 115 milligrams. The grain patties have over 400 milligrams, however, thanks to salt as an ingredient.
Similarly, the environmental impact of the plant-based meats is not a pure clean slate. The plant-based inputs are produced at scale through industrial agriculture and this comes with associated pesticide and herbicide pollution, water runoff and the like. Moreover, soy is a critical ingredient in the Impossible Burger and making room for soy production is one of the two main drivers of deforestation in the Amazon.
Cellular Agriculture, A Better Solution?
But there might be a different approach to decreasing the carbon-intensity of meat production while maintaining the health benefits meat brings. A little talked about but potentially better long-term alternative to plant-based meats is lab-grown meats or “cellular agriculture.” In 2013, the first lab-grown burger was successfully produced at a staggering cost of $330,000. Since then a range of new startups have popped up focused on cellular agriculture:
- Finless Foods and BlueNalu are two cellular aquaculture companies focused on creating lab-grown seafood
- New Age Meats is focused on creating lab-grown pork products
- Memphis Meats created the world’s first lab-grown meatball
- Mosa Meat, Aleph Farms and Perfect Day are all focused on creating lab-grown beef products
Five of the companies above recently formed the Alliance for Meat, Poultry and Seafood Innovation in the United States to lobby for better legislation around the cellular agriculture space. The US government has started paying attention and the US Department of Agriculture and Food and Drug Administration last year jointly agreed to regulate cellular agriculture.
Cellular agriculture involves applying biotechnology and tissue engineering to successfully grow “real meat” in a laboratory setting.
The process involves four core steps:
- Real cells are obtained from a healthy animal (cattle, chicken, fish etc)
- The cells are transferred to a sterile environment and placed in a bioreactor
- The cells are fed nutrients and allowed to grow for a period of time
- The cell culture has finished growing, is a full piece of meat and is harvested
Cellular agriculture avoids much of the hyper processing that goes into creating plant-based meats. Processing strips foods and ingredients of many of the important nutrients and vitamins that make whole foods healthy.
Cellular agriculture faces several critical challenges that prevent it from scaling to be a commercial ready solution. Firstly, the production costs of lab-grown meat are astronomical. The costs per pound of lab-grown meat need to be reduced by orders of magnitude to make it competitive with farm-fed meat. Similarly, and related to this, scaling lab-grown meat production to millions of pounds a year is a unique and difficult challenge. The technology of cell culture that lab-grown meat is based on was designed for medical uses at small volume where price was not a critical consideration. Scaling production in bioreactors of any cultures or compounds is a notable challenge in biotech. Finally, the public relations and press challenges around lab-grown meat are not to be underestimated. People may be more suspicious of “real meat” artificially grown in a lab then of plant-based meat.
Overall, meat production will need to radically transform in the coming decades in order for the world to successfully combat climate change. While plant-based meats have stimulated important conversations around this subject, it’s not clear that plant-based meats are any healthier for you and whether they are the best long-term solution to this problem. Cellular agriculture, while still in its early days, promises to be a better long-term solution that avoids the risks of consuming hyperprocessed foods. Significant primary research still needs to be done to successfully commercialize lab-grown meats. Excitingly though, the work has already begun.
This piece was originally published here.