Is cultured meat really the future food we need?

I’d say ‘cutting out the cow’ is better for the planet.

Tiahann Mathison – Environmental Politics Student

Flinders University


In 2013, the world witnessed the remarkable potential of scientific innovation when the University of Maastricht showcased the first lab-grown chicken burger. This novel way of meat-eating comes at a pivotal moment in human history, where taking decisive climate action is becoming increasingly urgent.

Agriculture is one of the highest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. Around 79 per cent of the total greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector are methane emissions alone, which mainly come from livestock. Methane emissions are especially concerning as its chemical structure allows it to trap around 28 per cent more heat in the atmosphere compared to carbon dioxide.

The agricultural sector is also one of the largest contributors to biodiversity loss, which is essential for supporting human and societal needs. As global temperatures are expected to rise 1.5oC above preindustrial levels by 2050, the world faces the prospect of an exacerbated climate crisis that will endanger the lives of humans, animals, and ecosystems alike.

With the global population continuing to rise, concerns over food security add to the current stress of the climate crisis; the introduction of cultured meat in such a world provides an interesting solution to our food-related woes. But, it may not be the best immediate sustainable food solution.

What is cultured meat?

Cultured – synthetic or lab grown meat – is created using animal stem cells. It is part of a growing field of science called cellular agriculture, that uses these cells and tissues to engineer new agricultural products. Scientists take the stem cells from the animal they wish to replicate, then place them in bioreactors where they are fed oxygen and nutrients to create the protein.

Cultured meat provides what appears to be the most sustainable alternative to conventional farming. It is a process that demands over 90% less land and more than 90% less water, and, therefore, sees a greater reduction in methane emissions.

Another more obvious benefit of cultured meat production is that it presents an opportunity for people to consume meat products without the ‘guilt’ in subjecting animals to cruelty. Although there are significant ethical debates surrounding whether such a product could be considered vegan, it undoubtedly presents a revolutionarily way of thinking about farming.

Is synthetic meat future of food?

While the development of cultured meat offers numerous benefits, such as reducing the demand for land and water resources, what concerns me is whether this in-vitro approach is really the best option available to sustain our environment. Rather than focusing on the development of a type of meat that is still far away from being commercially viable, would it not be better to take a more immediate action in removing meat from our diets right now?

Plant-based diets and veganism, which focus on living on a diet consisting of food derived from plant products, have existed for centuries. There’s plenty of evidence that completely plant-based diets produce lower greenhouse gas emissions, as well as lower rates of biodiversity loss. Those who eat plant-based diets see only one fourth of the dietary greenhouse gas emissions compared to that of meat eaters. This means switching to a plant-based diet is the most immediate change we can make to benefit the environment.

I understand comparisons of an individual diet and replacement of a meat product for another may seem unfair to make. But, in both cases, a sense of individual action by the consumer is required to make a sustainable swap for the planet. While governments and corporations have a collective responsibility to curb their own emissions, individuals also, to an extent, have a duty to take such actions.

The production of cultured meat presents itself with several significant issues. For one, the creation of cultured meat requires a large amount of energy due to the technical processes required in its making. While production does not see the potent methane gas emitted, around 2.01 kg of carbon dioxide emissions are produced per kilogram of meat made.  Concentrations of carbon dioxide within the atmosphere also greatly contribute to the greenhouse gas effect, that still greatly contribute to worsening climate conditions.

Resistance to change, especially in areas such as diet are huge constraint on building a sustainable diet for climate action. Consumers may feel disgust towards the product, which stands as a major hurdle in the widespread commercial acceptance of the product.  In a survey asking respondents if they would eat the cultured meat product, around 35% of those who were meat eaters and 55% of those identified as vegetarian expressed their disgust in eating it. While reluctance in consumers to try cultured meat can obviously change over time, if time is of the essence when it comes to reducing carbon emissions, such a transition period may be slow enough to see little benefit.

When cultured meat eventually does become more commercially viable, it will land in a cut-throat market where it will have to compete with both meat and meat free alternatives. Promethean approaches to environmental management may welcome the diversifying of competition in such a market, where companies may be forced to perform better. But with important factors like production costs to consider, the focus on sustainable practices may lose in the game of profits.

Right now, it is estimated that it will cost $100 per kilo to produce cultured meat on a commercial level. Such costs make it highly unlikely for consumers to choose it, especially over cheaper products that they are already comfortable with. Given the choice between expensive cultured meat placed against a non-expensive, familiar alternative, of course the consumer will more likely choose what is familiar to them.

Wait-and-see or cut-out-the-cow?

With every degree of warming the Earth experiences, the risks of climate extremes continue to increase. Countries will experience more volatile weather, substantial disruptions to both global water cycles and ecosystems. This will inevitably worsen food security issues. The need to act on both climate sustainability and mitigation is clearly now. Continuing to wait for the development of cultured meat and to see it as the diet solution to our climate crisis further harms the planet.

Cultured meat offers a fascinating glimpse into the future of sustainable food. While its production presents several advantages, it should not yet be considered the cornerstone of sustainable food solutions. It is too costly and too far into the future.

So for now, before readying your knife and fork for lab grown meats, perhaps look towards what you can put on your plate to make the biggest change for the environment.

This work was submitted as an opinion editorial for topic POLI3068 Environmental Politics at Flinders University.

Tiahann Mathison is a current undergraduate student at Flinders University.

She is pursuing a combined undergraduate in criminology and international relations and political science. She is currently focused in expanding her knowledge of environmental politics. Her interests lie in understanding how personal ethics can affect environmental action.


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