Will lab-grown meat save the planet?

Illuminating answers to environmental questions.
May 20 2008 7:17 AM

Will Lab-Grown Meat Save the Planet?

Or is it only good for cows and pigs?

It's easy to understand why the animal-rights set is so keen on lab-grown meat—no more slaughterhouses or veal pens. But should environmentalists be getting on the bandwagon, too? I'm always hearing how cow burps are a major contributor to global warming. Then again, those massive meat labs will require a lot of power, right?

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

The hypothetical meat labs won't be carbon-neutral, but they'll still be far greener than our current system for producing burgers and chops. Raising and slaughtering livestock on a large scale doesn't just result in massive methane emissions due to bovine flatulence; it also creates waste-disposal nightmares, squanders valuable land, and guzzles an alarming amount of fossil fuel. So, yes, the environmentally conscious should keep their fingers crossed that lab-grown meat becomes a reality sooner rather than later. But given the numerous scientific challenges that remain, they shouldn't get their hopes up.

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For the record, the Lantern is by no means averse to feasting on steak, chicken, or currywurst and has previously suggested that omnivorousness needn't be a mortal environmental sin. But he also acknowledges that our collective yen for meat, particularly cut-rate beef and pork, is taking its toll on the planet. According to a study published in Animal Science Journal last August, creating a pound's worth of beef releases the same amount of greenhouses gases—the equivalent of 36.4 pounds of carbon dioxide—as driving a car 155 miles at 50 miles per hour. And that's an underestimate of the industry's total impact, since the study didn't account for emissions from farm equipment or the fuel expended on transporting product from killing floor to supermarket.

Making meat in the lab would eliminate not only the methane generated by belching cattle, but also the need to grow mass quantities of feed—a woefully inefficient use of land, given that a cow must consume seven calories of grain in order to produce a single calorie of beef. And once you factor in the petroleum required to raise that grain—a process that involves the use of synthetic fertilizers, among other environmental bogeymen—the ratio of input calories to output zooms to 35 to 1.

The energy requirements of laboratories, by contrast, pale in comparison. According to most proposals, tomorrow's beef would be grown in bioreactors, filled with a solution consisting primarily of water and glucose. Animal stem cells would be placed in these bioreactors, where their proliferation would be abetted by the presence of growth factors, perhaps made from fungi.

Relatively small amounts of electricity (potentially derived from solar panels) would be required to regulate the temperature in these bioreactors, but also to provide a bit of stimulation to the cells as they grow into tissues. To replicate the taste and mouth-feel of naturally grown meat, the lab-grown victuals would have to be exercised—cows stretch their muscle tissues when they move, which in turn affects the flavor of their flesh. A minor electric current can mimic the effects of bovine movement. There has also been talk of adding polysaccharide beads to the bioreactors; as the temperature or acidity of the solution changes, these beads would expand or contract, thus providing the necessary workout for the nascent tissue. The beads would likely be made from the exoskeletons of arthropods and are completely nontoxic.

Lab-grown meat would also be more efficient in that no energy would have to be expended to create unwanted byproducts—specifically skeletons. Nor would there be any problems with waste management, a big plus since manure is a worrying contaminant of water supplies. And the lab approach would make locavorism that much easier; why buy lamb cubes from 1,000 miles away when they can come from the corner bioreactor instead?

A lovely thought, but don't hold your breath while waiting for your first lab-grown roast. Despite considerable hubbub over the technology in recent months, we're still years—or, more likely, decades—away from affordable lab-grown meat. The current experiments are taking place in bioreactors that measure only a few hundred milliliters in volume, and the longest complete muscle tissues are just 2 centimeters long. Researchers are nowhere close to scaling up their production to market-ready levels, to say nothing of market-ready prices. A Dutch team's lab-grown pork, for example, would cost around $45,000 per pound—assuming they could make an entire pound of the stuff. Bioreactors may be energy-efficient when compared with cattle, but they're also expensive to design, build, and maintain. They also require highly skilled personnel to manage, in order to preserve aseptic conditions.

Furthermore, manufactured meat promises to replicate only the taste and texture of processed meat; as far as we are from enjoying lab-grown hamburger, we're even further from perfecting man-made rib-eyes. So even if meat labs did become viable commercial enterprises, the naturally raised meat industry would hardly vanish.

Given our penchant for gluttony, affordable lab-grown meat could even be harmful to our health: We might simply increase our beef and pork consumption to keep pace with production, as has occurred over the past half-century. (According to this disturbing assessment, we annually consume 50 pounds more meat per-capita than Americans did in the 1950s.)

So while we should welcome the advent of lab-grown meat, we should also realize that it can't provide a short-term fix. Unfortunately, our meat addiction is one of those environmental problems that we can't just invent ourselves out of.

Is there an environmental quandary that's been keeping you up at night? Send it to ask.the.lantern@gmail.com, and check this space every Tuesday.

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