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The impact of cell-based meat on the environment: Could it be detrimental?

Cell-based meat, often hailed as a sustainable alternative to traditional meat production, has garnered attention for its potential to reduce water, land and antibiotic requirements associated with livestock farming. However, a recent analysis by researchers from the University of California Davis suggests that scaling up cell-based meat production could have a more significant environmental impact than previously thought. This article examines the study's findings while considering the broader scientific literature on the environmental benefits of cell-cultivated meat. Scientists from the University of California Davis argue that previous analyses of carbon emissions associated with cell-based meat have been flawed. They say that unrealistic technologies and feedstocks have been used, leading to an overestimation of the sector's environmental benefits. The study highlights the use of cyanobacteria hydrolysate as a feedstock to grow animal cells. Cyanobacteria hydrolysate is a source of fermentable sugar (amino acids). Hydrolysates can sustain cell growth and allow cell adaptation to serum-free culture media. This is important as the culture media used in the earliest animal-derived cell cultures were composed of human or fetal bovine serum. The research states: “To these authors’ knowledge, this is not a technology or feedstock that is currently used for animal cell proliferation, nor is it one that is currently near feasibility given the current technical challenges of animal cell-based meat production”. Moreover, the researchers emphasise that the purification process, particularly the removal of endotoxins released by bacteria, “significantly” contributes to the economic and environmental costs of cell-based meat production. They say that the use of highly refined growing media, reliant on fossil fuels, could lead to substantial CO2 emissions. The study estimates that each kilogram of cell-based meat, assuming the continued use of refined growing media, produces 246 to 1,508 kilograms of CO2 emissions. Consequently, the researchers estimate the global warming potential of cell-based meat to be four to 25 times higher than that of retail beef.

While the study raises valid concerns, it is essential to consider the broader scientific literature on the environmental benefits of cell-based meat. Numerous studies have shown the potential advantages of this technology. In 2020, sustainability consultancy Quantis and environmental research organisation CE Delft assessed the impact of cell-based meat compared to conventional beef production on the environment. The study found that cell-based meat has significantly lower environmental impacts across several categories:

  1. Cell-based meat was found to produce 78-96% lower greenhouse gas emissions compared to beef production, depending on the production method and energy sources used.

  2. The study showed that cell-based meat requires 99% less land compared to beef production, helping to mitigate deforestation and habitat loss.

  3. Cell-based meat was found to use 82-96% less water compared to beef production, significantly reducing water scarcity concerns.In 2021, researchers at the University of Oxford examined the environmental impacts of cell-based meat production using a comparative life cycle analysis and obtained similar results to the Quantis and CE Delft study:

  4. Cell-based meat production was estimated to produce 90% lower greenhouse gas emissions compared to beef production.

  5. Cell-based meat could reduce land use by 90%, helping to preserve natural habitats and biodiversity. Freed-up land areas could be used for reforestation, biodiversity protection and rewilding, all of which would allow nature to regenerate and absorb more CO2.

  6. The study found that cell-based meat was estimated to reduce water use by 93% compared to beef production, alleviating water stress in regions affected by agricultural water consumption.

In addition to these findings, animal waste and pesticides used in animal agriculture would be avoided, which could reduce soil pollution, ocean dead zones, groundwater contamination and algal blooms. Local cultured-production facilities also have the potential to reduce ground transportation and shipping pollution. Marine wildlife and sea protection And the benefits do not stop at meat. Growing cultured fish and seafood products could substantially help protect seas and marine wildlife. According to ProVeg International, today, more than 90% of fish stocks are considered overfished, exploited or close to the point of unsustainability. Jasmijn De Boo, VP of ProVeg International, said: “A global shift toward cultured fish and seafood products would alleviate the tremendous damage wreaked by fishing and aquaculture while giving our oceans the opportunity to regenerate”.

The organisation says that overall, 12% of total global fishery production (about 20 million tonnes) is used for animal feed and fish oil. By producing seafood in controlled laboratory conditions, manufacturers eliminate the need for traditional fishing or aquaculture practices that contribute to overfishing, habitat destruction and pollution. There is no requirement for large-scale fishing vessels, reducing carbon emissions and the bycatch of non-target species. Furthermore, ProVeg says that the use of antibiotics and industrial chemicals in aquaculture pollutes the waters and can encourage the emergence of drug-resistant bacterial strains that could present a risk to humans. The cultivation process minimises the release of these harmful chemicals into the oceans, preserving the delicate marine ecosystem. Human health On top of these environmental advantages, cell-based meat production can benefit human health as the risk of contamination from pathogens such as Listeria, E. Coli, or Salmonella is vastly reduced, as well as a decrease in zoonotic diseases such as swine flu, avian flu and Covid-19. These pathogens can contaminate meat during the rearing, slaughter and processing stages, however, with cell-based meat production, the entire process takes place in a controlled environment and there is no direct contact with live animals, vastly reducing the risk of contamination. This advantage becomes even more critical considering the increasing frequency of global disease outbreaks and the potential for future pandemics. As with all innovations, the cultivation process will likely be optimised over time as the technology advances, which could further increase efficiency and lower costs of cell-based meat production. For more information on the cell-based food revolution, check out our newly launched website and magazine, The Cell Base.

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