Lab-grown meat is going to be on your table someday. It's cheaper than dealing with whole animals, there are none of the ethical issues associated with factory farms, it can help prevent the spread of animal-borne diseases, and according to a new study, cultured meat production generates up to 96% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than conventional meat production. Except for chicken, which is the most energy efficient of all meats. You may be seeing a test-tube steak well before a test-tube chicken breast.
The Stanford and Amsterdam University-authored study, Environmental Impact of Cultured Meat Production, contends that the overall environmental impact of cultured meat production is significantly lower than conventionally produced meat. This is largely because of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with raising livestock (i.e. methane emissions from cow burps and farts), manure management, nitrous oxide from soil, and the conversion of forests to grassland.
In almost all cases, growing animal muscle tissue in vitro makes more sense for the environment than having actual animals. But it requires more energy than conventionally produced poultry, which has relatively few CO2 emissions when conventionally grown and requires less energy than it would to run an in-vitro meat lab. The study's authors argue that cultured poultry production still may make more sense, because the emissions numbers don't take into account that biofuel crops could be put on the land where chicken coops now stand:
Energy input alone does not necessarily provide a sufficient indicator about the energy performance if the opportunity costs of land use are not taken into account. Cultured meat production requires only a fraction of the land area that is used for producing the same mass of conventionally produced poultry meat. Therefore, more land could be used for bioenergy production, and it can be argued that the overall energy efficiency of cultured meat would be more favorable.
And since most of the greenhouse gas emissions from cultured meat production come from fuel and electricity use, using renewable energy sources could cut down on emissions even further. There's another (slightly creepy) energy bonus: Cultured meat might require less refrigeration than conventional meat because of a lack of excess bones, fat, and blood.
Large-scale cultured meat production is still far from reality. The study's authors estimate that it would cost $160 million in research to bring artificial meat to mass production. And there is still the cultural acceptance issue to work out—who will actually eat this stuff?
But the study makes an excellent point: "Cultured meat consists of similar muscle tissue to conventionally produced meat, but only the production technique differs. It can also be argued that many current meat production systems are far from natural systems."
[Image: Flickr user FotoosVanRobin]