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A New Concern for Cellular Agriculture

Lab grown meat may not be as 'green' as we thought

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The science website Inverse reports that 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 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, for example, animal agriculture is responsible for almost 4% of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. 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.

The neat pile of muscle cells growing in a little petri dish, in comparison, intuitively seems very green. But as the Oxford study reports, these cultured meat systems “may not be the future food fix that carnivores and others have been hoping for."

Generally speaking, cattle’s farming is associated with the release of methane and nitrous oxide, while the energy used to power labs is linked to the release of carbon dioxide. 

And 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 the BBC: “Per ton 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.”

Topline is that methane is a more urgent threat to the climate in the near to middle future, but in the far future, the accumulation of carbon dioxide could have just as much of a negative impact, if not more.

Inverse reports 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.

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. So we need to refine the discussion a bit and not just take for granted that plant-based everything is better for the planet. And in the future expect to see more regulations on just how these new foods are being produced.

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