Can Cultivated Meat Live up to Its Environmental Promise?

With a growing number of meat processing plants closed due to COVID-19 infections and rising meat shortages at supermarkets, many see an opportunity for rapid growth in the alternative protein industry. While plant-based meats have become commonplace, cultivated meat — produced through replication of animal cells in a lab or similar facility — is often considered the next wave of alternative proteins.

But with no commercial product currently available, there’s a lot we don’t know about cultivated meat, especially environmentally. Still, that hasn't stopped advocates and detractors from making strong claims. Mosa Meat, a Dutch cultivated meat startup, for example, boldly claims their product is 95% lighter on the land and climate than conventionally raised livestock. Meanwhile, some groups, like the Organic Consumers Association, reject these products on principle, arguing that such products are industrial and unnatural and thus do “absolutely nothing to actually improve the environment,” regardless of what the evidence shows.

Certainly, the evidence lies more in Mosa Meat’s favor — there is no question that shifting from conventional to cultivated meat will benefit animal welfare and reduce agricultural land use, nutrient pollution, and risk of zoonotic disease. Yet absent from the conversation is a recognition that cultivated meat’s environmental footprint depends greatly on what it replaces in consumers’ diets.

The error bars represent the range and variability in emissions estimates for different proteins (except pork and poultry, for which only a single estimate was found). The error bars for cultivated meat are large because no commercial product is yet available. Sources: Poore and Nemecek (2018), Pelletier (2008), Mattick et al (2015), Beyond Meat & Impossible Foods LCAs. An earlier version of this article showed the standard errors in the first chart. It now shows the range of estimates from the studies cited.

While cultivated meat is expected to have greater climate benefits compared to conventional beef, it is likely to have a larger carbon footprint than chicken, some types of fish, and plant proteins like tofu or plant-based burgers. Estimates of total emissions for cultivated meat are inherently uncertain given that the products haven't been commercialized. And emissions could decline as production grows more efficient, associated processes are electrified, or if electricity sources become decarbonized. Yet the most recent studies estimate that the carbon footprint of one pound of cultivated meat will be about three times larger than that of one pound of chicken. Culturing meat in a lab is an energy-intensive process compared with conventional livestock production. While animals can naturally digest and absorb nutrients from grass and other foods, cultivated meat requires the production and processing of crops like corn and soy into amino acids and sugars.

Consider what might happen if Americans replaced 40% of their chicken, beef, or pork with cultivated meat (40% is a significant but plausible shift), as shown in the figure below.

The error bars represent the range of emissions impacts. Cultured meat is not commercially available yet, so it has a wide range of emission intensity estimates. So the error bars are wide, representing the range of potential emissions impacts, both positive and negative. Sources: Poore and Nemecek (2018), Pelletier (2008), Mattick et al (2015), OECD Agricultural Outlook database for 2019, Beyond Meat & Impossible Foods LCAs

Switching away from beef would reduce emissions — by as much as 94 million metric tons CO2-equivalents, similar to taking about 19.5 million cars off the road or reducing US agriculture emissions by nearly 15%.

But replacing pork or chicken with cultivated meat could well raise emissions, depending on how energy-intensive commercially-cultivated meat production actually is, which is still uncertain. If energy use and emissions are on the low end, replacing pork in particular would have climate benefits, but on the high end, replacing 40% of both pork and chicken would increase emissions by an estimated 40 and 170 million metric tons, respectively, more than offsetting the benefits from replacing beef. If energy use was this high, it is possible that cultivated meat would be too expensive to commercially produce and compete with chicken or pork prices, but such a scenario is far from guaranteed, particularly given current low prices for natural gas and other energy sources.

In fact, even a major shift from chicken and other poultry products to plant-based meat could raise emissions, which speaks to the environmental efficiency of conventional chicken production. While plant-proteins like tofu and some existing vegetarian chicken substitutes have lower carbon footprints than conventional chicken, new chicken substitutes geared toward meat-eaters, such as Beyond Fried Chicken, may have higher emissions.

If cultivated meat fulfills its promise to closely imitate conventional meat products like ground beef, chicken nuggets and patties, and various pork products at low cost, consumers may switch to these products as fast as they have shifted to plant-based meat products. This shift would lead to an unprecedented improvement in animal welfare, cut local pollution from manure lagoons and other livestock sources, reduce risk of zoonosis, and almost certainly reduce agricultural land use. But we shouldn’t expect cultivated meat companies and their products to substantially reduce emissions on their own; in fact we should prepare for scenarios in which they increase emissions.

To minimize the risk of cultivated meat increasing emissions, stakeholders from across the industry should start acting now to decarbonize and increase energy efficiency of production. Companies should examine and optimize their operations, by powering their facilities with renewable or low-carbon emitting energy sources and installing more energy-saving machinery, like electric boilers instead of gas boilers. Investors should consider how efficiently startups can produce their products, and they should demand or even help fund early life-cycle assessments. And government agencies, as well as innovation- and climate-focused philanthropies, should fund research on how to reduce the energy needs of cultivated meat production, such as investigating how to make animal cells more rapidly proliferate and structure themselves into the desired cultivated meat product.