Can Cultured Meat Save the Planet?

Lab-grown meat in a Petri dish and test tube.

(© Dmytro Sukharevskyi/Fotolia)


In September, California governor Jerry Brown signed a bill mandating that by 2045, all of California's electricity will come from clean power sources. Technological breakthroughs in producing electricity from sun and wind, as well as lowering the cost of battery storage, have played a major role in persuading Californian legislators that this goal is realistic.

Even if the world were to move to an entirely clean power supply, one major source of greenhouse gas emissions would continue to grow: meat.

James Robo, the CEO of the Fortune 200 company NextEra Energy, has predicted that by the early 2020s, electricity from solar farms and giant wind turbines will be cheaper than the operating costs of coal-fired power plants, even when the cost of storage is included.

Can we therefore all breathe a sigh of relief, because technology will save us from catastrophic climate change? Not yet. Even if the world were to move to an entirely clean power supply, and use that clean power to charge up an all-electric fleet of cars, buses and trucks, one major source of greenhouse gas emissions would continue to grow: meat.

The livestock industry now accounts for about 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, roughly the same as the emissions from the tailpipes of all the world's vehicles. But whereas vehicle emissions can be expected to decline as hybrids and electric vehicles proliferate, global meat consumption is forecast to be 76 percent greater in 2050 than it has been in recent years. Most of that growth will come from Asia, especially China, where increasing prosperity has led to an increasing demand for meat.

Changing Climate, Changing Diets, a report from the London-based Royal Institute of International Affairs, indicates the threat posed by meat production. At the UN climate change conference held in Cancun in 2010, the participating countries agreed that to allow global temperatures to rise more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels would be to run an unacceptable risk of catastrophe. Beyond that limit, feedback loops will take effect, causing still more warming. For example, the thawing Siberian permafrost will release large quantities of methane, causing yet more warming and releasing yet more methane. Methane is a greenhouse gas that, ton for ton, warms the planet 30 times as much as carbon dioxide.

The quantity of greenhouse gases we can put into the atmosphere between now and mid-century without heating up the planet beyond 2°C – known as the "carbon budget" -- is shrinking steadily. The growing demand for meat means, however, that emissions from the livestock industry will continue to rise, and will absorb an increasing share of this remaining carbon budget. This will, according to Changing Climate, Changing Diets, make it "extremely difficult" to limit the temperature rise to 2°C.

One reason why eating meat produces more greenhouse gases than getting the same food value from plants is that we use fossil fuels to grow grains and soybeans and feed them to animals. The animals use most of the energy in the plant food for themselves, moving, breathing, and keeping their bodies warm. That leaves only a small fraction for us to eat, and so we have to grow several times the quantity of grains and soybeans that we would need if we ate plant foods ourselves. The other important factor is the methane produced by ruminants – mainly cattle and sheep – as part of their digestive process. Surprisingly, that makes grass-fed beef even worse for our climate than beef from animals fattened in a feedlot. Cattle fed on grass put on weight more slowly than cattle fed on corn and soybeans, and therefore do burp and fart more methane, per kilogram of flesh they produce.

Richard Branson has suggested that in 30 years, we will look back on the present era and be shocked that we killed animals en masse for food.

If technology can give us clean power, can it also give us clean meat? That term is already in use, by advocates of growing meat at the cellular level. They use it, not to make the parallel with clean energy, but to emphasize that meat from live animals is dirty, because live animals shit. Bacteria from the animals' guts and shit often contaminates the meat. With meat cultured from cells grown in a bioreactor, there is no live animal, no shit, and no bacteria from a digestive system to get mixed into the meat. There is also no methane. Nor is there a living animal to keep warm, move around, or grow body parts that we do not eat. Hence producing meat in this way would be much more efficient, and much cleaner, in the environmental sense, than producing meat from animals.

There are now many startups working on bringing clean meat to market. Plant-based products that have the texture and taste of meat, like the "Impossible Burger" and the "Beyond Burger" are already available in restaurants and supermarkets. Clean hamburger meat, fish, dairy, and other animal products are all being produced without raising and slaughtering a living animal. The price is not yet competitive with animal products, but it is coming down rapidly. Just this week, leading officials from the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have been meeting to discuss how to regulate the expected production and sale of meat produced by this method.

When Kodak, which once dominated the sale and processing of photographic film, decided to treat digital photography as a threat rather than an opportunity, it signed its own death warrant. Tyson Foods and Cargill, two of the world's biggest meat producers, are not making the same mistake. They are investing in companies seeking to produce meat without raising animals. Justin Whitmore, Tyson's executive vice-president, said, "We don't want to be disrupted. We want to be part of the disruption."

That's a brave stance for a company that has made its fortune from raising and killing tens of billions of animals, but it is also an acknowledgement that when new technologies create products that people want, they cannot be resisted. Richard Branson, who has invested in the biotech company Memphis Meats, has suggested that in 30 years, we will look back on the present era and be shocked that we killed animals en masse for food. If that happens, technology will have made possible the greatest ethical step forward in the history of our species, saving the planet and eliminating the vast quantity of suffering that industrial farming is now inflicting on animals.

Peter Singer
Peter Singer is Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics, Princeton University, and Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne. Author, co-author and editor of fifty books on a range of topics, he is best known for Animal Liberation, widely considered to be the founding statement of the animal rights movement, and for The Life You Can Save, which led him to found the charity of the same name. His other books include Practical Ethics, The Most Good You Can Do, and, with Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek, Utilitarianism: A Very Short Introduction. In 2005, TIME named him one of the World’s 100 Most Influential People. He divides his time between New York City and Melbourne, Australia.
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Kira Peikoff
Kira Peikoff is a journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, Nautilus, Popular Mechanics, The New York Academy of Sciences, and other outlets. She is also the author of four suspense novels that explore controversial issues arising from scientific innovation: Living Proof, No Time to Die, Die Again Tomorrow, and Mother Knows Best. Peikoff holds a B.A. in Journalism from New York University and an M.S. in Bioethics from Columbia University. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and son.

President John F. Kennedy gave Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey the nation's highest federal civilian service award in 1962, saying she had "prevented a major tragedy of birth deformities."

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In July 1956, a new drug hit the European market for the first time. The drug was called thalidomide – a sedative that was considered so safe it was available without a prescription.

Sedatives were in high demand in post-war Europe – but barbiturates, the most widely-used sedative at the time, caused overdoses and death when consumers took more than the recommended amount. Thalidomide, on the other hand, didn't appear to cause any side effects at all: Chemie Grünenthal, thalidomide's manufacturer, dosed laboratory rodents with over 600 times the normal dosage during clinical testing and had observed no evidence of toxicity.

The drug therefore was considered universally safe, and Grünenthal supplied thousands of doctors with samples to give to their patients. Doctors were encouraged to recommend thalidomide to their pregnant patients specifically because it was so safe, in order to relieve the nausea and insomnia associated with the first trimester of pregnancy.

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Sarah Watts

Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.