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Here's what we know about lab-grown meat and climate change

MIT Technology Review Explained: Let our authors unravel the complex, confusing world of technology and help you understand what’s coming next . You can read more here.

Soon, the menu at your favorite burger joint will include not only options made with meat, mushrooms, and black beans, but also lab-packed Meatloaf from cultured animal cells.

The United States not only approved the sale of cultured meat for the first time, but also The industry consists of more than 150 companies that are raising billions of dollars to bring products to restaurants and grocery stores.

In theory, this should be a huge win for the climate.

One of the key drivers for cultivation-focused businesses One (or lab-grown or cultured) meat is its potential to eliminate the climate impact of our current food system. The animals we eat (mainly cows) are responsible for nearly 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions, a share that is expected to increase in the coming decades.

But whether growing meat is better for the environment is not entirely clear.

This is because there are still many unknowns about how production will be done on a commercial scale. Many startups are now planning to move from research labs to larger facilities and start producing food that actual paying customers will eventually eat.

Exactly how this shift happens will determine more than just whether these new food options are cheap enough to get into people’s shopping carts. It could also determine whether plant-based meat can deliver on its massive climate promise.

Moo-ve over, cows

Raising livestock, especially beef, is notoriously emissions intensive. Raising animals on a farm requires a lot of land and energy, both of which generate carbon dioxide emissions. Additionally, cattle (and some other livestock such as sheep) produce large amounts of methane during digestion. If you add it all up and take the global average, one kilogram of beef emits about 100 kilograms of carbon dioxide. (Exact estimates may vary depending on where the cows are raised, what they are fed, and how the farm is run.)

At the cellular level, cultured meat is essentially Made of the same ingredients as the meat we eat today. By taking tissue samples from young animals or fertilized eggs, isolating the cells, and growing them in reactors, scientists can create animal-derived meat without the constraints of breeding and raising animals for slaughter.

The USDA just sent two California-based Companies Eat Just and Upside Foods have given Green Foods a light to produce and market their farmed chicken products. This makes the US the second country after Singapore to allow the sale of lab-grown meat.

Cultivated meat still produces emissions because energy is needed to run the reactors that contain the meat. when the cells grow. In the United States and most of the world today, this will likely involve fossil fuels. Renewable energy could eventually power cultured meat production facilities on a widespread and sustainable basis. However, even in this case, the reactors, pipelines and all other necessary equipment of the production facility often generate associated emissions that are difficult to completely eliminate. In addition, animal cells need to be fed and cared for, and the supply chain involved is also accompanied by emissions.

Emissions from cultured meat can be significant. Some early work in the field relied on materials and techniques borrowed from the biopharmaceutical industry, where companies sometimes grow cells to produce drugs. Edward Spang, an associate professor of food science and technology at UC Davis, said it was a painstaking and heavily regulated process that involved high-purity ingredients, expensive reactors and a lot of energy. )

Span and his team set out to estimate the climate impact of plant-based meat assuming current production technologies. To quantify the potential climate benefits, the researchers examined the overall environmental impact of livestock farming and farmed meat in an analysis known as a life cycle assessment. This type of analysis adds up all the energy, water and materials needed to manufacture a product, converting everything into CO2 emissions.

In a recent preprint study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, Spahn estimated global changes in cultured meat under multiple scenarios based on assumptions about the current state of the industry. total warming potential.

Scenarios are divided into two categories. The first group postulates that cultured meat production processes and materials are similar to those used in the biopharmaceutical industry, notably including energy-intensive purification steps to remove contaminants. Other scenarios assume cultured meat production does not require ultra-high-purity ingredients, but instead relies on inputs used in the food industry today, implying lower energy demands and emissions.

The two sets of results have very different climate results. The CO2 emissions from the food-grade process are equivalent to 10 to 75 kg, below the global average for beef and in line with the production of some countries today. But in a process similar to biopharmaceuticals, artificial meat emits far more emissions than today’s beef production: 250 to 1,000 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilogram of beef, depending on the situation.

Where is the beef?

Span preprint published in April sparks compelling buzz about potential for extremely high emissions news headlines. The study also quickly drew criticism from some in the industry, including a widely circulated open letter questioning its assumptions.

Experts specifically question the assumption that the production of artificial meat requires the use of pharmaceuticals grade ingredients and undergoes rigorous purification steps to remove contaminants known as endotoxins. Endotoxins are fragments of the outer membrane of certain bacteria that are shed as the microorganism grows and dies. They are often removed during the biopharmaceutical process because even very small amounts can impair the growth of certain cell types and trigger an immune response.

The process of removing these pollutants is the main cause of a set of high emissions in the preprint scenario. However, Elliot Swartz, one of the authors of the open letter and chief scientist at the Good Food Institute, an industry group, said this purification step is not necessary in the commercial production of artificial meat. Different cell types are affected differently by endotoxin, and cells used to grow meat should be able to tolerate higher levels of endotoxin, meaning less purification is required, Swartz said.

The results of this study are indeed in line with many previous studies in the field Analyzes differ, which generally find that cultured meat reduces emissions compared to conventional beef production. Most studies assume that cultured meat producers will be able to avoid the energy-intensive methods described in the preprint and instead scale up to large commercial facilities and make progress in using more widely available food-grade ingredients.

Pelle Sinke, researcher at CE Delft, an independent research firm and consultancy focused on energy and the environment, said the experience would help to better understand the industry’s potential climate Influence. “In all innovative technologies, there is a huge learning curve,” Sink said. “I’m not sure we should worry too much about the huge burden [in artificial meat] on the global climate.”

In an analysis published in January 2023, he and his ‘s team set out to estimate emissions associated with cultured meat in 2030, assuming the production process can use food-grade ingredients and will reach commercial scale sometime in the next decade. The study puts the potential climate impact at 3 to 14 kg of CO2 per kg of cultured meat.

The total emissions from cultured meat production will fall within this range, depending a lot on where the energy to run the bioreactor comes from: if it comes from the grid (still will partial reliance on fossil fuels), then the carbon impact will be much higher than when using renewable energy to power the facility. It also depends on the ingredients in the medium used to grow the cells.

Regardless, Sink’s study found that total emissions would be significantly lower than emissions from beef production, which would be significantly lower than emissions from beef production quantity. His research estimates this to be equivalent to 35 kg of CO2 in an optimized system in Western Europe. (Chicken and pork emit about 3kg and 5kg of CO2, respectively.)

Sink’s analysis is far from the first to estimate that cultured meat has a lower climate impact than conventional compared to agriculture. An early analysis in the field, published in 2011, estimated that cultured meat production would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 78% to 96% compared with European meat production, assuming production scales to commercial scale.

Cultivated meat could eventually lead to major climate benefits, said Hanna Tuomisto, an associate professor at the university. researchers at the University of Helsinki and lead author of the 2011 study. Another recently published study by Tuomisto also found potential climate benefits of cultured meat. However, she added, the industry’s true climate impact remains to be determined. “There are still many, many unanswered questions because not many companies are able to build anything at scale,” Tuomisto said.

until the cows come home

Scaling up and producing artificial meat in larger production facilities is an ongoing process.

Upside Foods, one of two companies recently approved by the USDA, currently operates a pilot plant with a maximum capacity of approximately 400,000 pounds (180,000 The production capacity is close to 50,000 lbs. The company’s first commercial facility, which is currently being designed, will be even larger, with a multi-million pound annual capacity.

“In all innovative technologies, there is a huge learning curve.”

Pell Sink

Eric Schulze, the company’s vice president of global scientific and regulatory affairs, said in an email that, based on internal estimates, Upside’s products require as much water to produce as And land should be less than traditional meat. However, he added, “We need to go into larger scale production to really measure and start seeing the impact we want to have.”

Eat Just is currently operating in the US Build a demonstration factory and build a demonstration factory in Singapore. These facilities include reactors with capacities of 3,500 liters and 6,000 liters respectively. Ultimately, the company plans to produce millions of pounds of meat per year in its future commercial facility, which will consist of 10 reactors, each with a capacity of 250,000 liters.

Andrew Noyes, Eat Just’s vice president of communications, said in an email that there is already “a strong case to be made” about the impact of plant-based meat on the climate. hope”. “However, achieving these goals depends on several factors related to the optimization and upscaling of our production processes and the design of future large-scale manufacturing facilities.”

Although recent regulatory approvals have been Considered a milestone for the cultivated meat industry, these products won’t be showing up at your burger joint anytime soon. To keep production costs down, companies still need to build those larger facilities and keep them running smoothly.

Jess Krieger, founder and CEO of cultured meat company Ohayo Valley, said part of this growth will mean abandoning the industry from other More expensive equipment and raw materials borrowed by businesses. Company: “Is this how we’re going to do it in the future.” The factors that lead to Spang’s worst-case emissions scenario, such as intensive decontamination, expensive reactors and pharmaceutical-grade media, are not necessary for production, she said.

Indeed, early stage companies still routinely use the Quality Food Institute According to Elliot Swartz, it’s pharmaceutical grade ingredients. However, there are already cheaper food-grade options on the market. Both Eat Just and Upside Foods said they plan to use the non-pharmaceutical ingredients in eventual commercial operations.

According to Sinke, a researcher at CE Delft, energy-intensive methods are not only unsustainable for the planet. Many of the processes that rely on biopharmaceutical technology won’t be used in industry, he said, not only because they generate high emissions, but “because no one can afford it.”

For Sri Lanka Pan also agrees that economic factors may prevent plant-based meat from going down a production path that would lead to extreme climate impacts. “I don’t think the industry is going to be that big if it requires drug input,” he said. “It’s too expensive; I just don’t think it’s a viable path forward.”

But for him, there’s still a lot going on before the industry starts using credit as a climate solution. Open questions need to be answered, and plans to execute. “In my view, there is still a long way to go from lab-scale science to cost-effective climate impact,” Spahn said.

There is still potential for plant-based meat to have a significant positive impact on the climate, especially as renewable energy sources such as wind and solar become more widespread. An industry in which cells can be grown efficiently in large reactors while providing widely available ingredients in a process powered by renewable electricity could be an important way to help clean up our food system.

But the facilities to make it happen are mostly still in the planning stages, and it’s unclear what route artificial meat might take to reach our dinner tables.

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