Can Lab-Grown Burgers Help Stop Climate Change?

Spencer Bokat-Lindell   NYTimes/Oct. 14, 2021

Humanity’s love of eating animals should worry you, even if humans are the only animals you care about. Meat and dairy production is responsible for 14.5 percent of the planet’s greenhouse gas emissions, with about two-thirds of those coming from cattle. To keep global warming below two degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, the limit established by the Paris climate accord, the World Resource Institute says much of the wealthy world needs to cut its beef and lamb consumption by 40 percent — and that’s on the low end of such estimates.

Americans are among the top eaters of beef in the world, and persuading them to cut down on it or swap plant-based burgers for their steaks is a challenge.

Enter lab-grown — or, as some prefer, “cultured” or “cultivated” — meat: In the past few years, a small but fast-growing industry has sprung up with a mission to create meat from cell lines that doesn’t just taste like meat but actually is meat. Last year, a restaurant in Singapore even put lab-grown chicken on its menu.

As the sector has bloomed, so too have predictions of its imminent usurpation of meat of the slaughter-requiring variety. But how close are we really to that future, and is it the one we should be aiming for in the first place? Here’s what people are saying.

Vexing as the problem beef poses for climate change mitigation already is, it’s going to get worse. That’s because the world is getting richer, and when people get richer, they eat more meat.

  • Since 1961, global meat production has more than quadrupled, to more than 340 million tons from 71 million tons.

  • By 2050, the Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that global demand will reach 455 million tons.

“The 7.8 billion of us on this planet cannot have a steak every night,” Inger Andersen, executive director of the U.N. Environment Program, told The Times in April. “It doesn’t compute.”

And climate change isn’t the only issue at stake in the race to cut down on meat:

  • Pandemics: The increasing demand for animal protein is one of the major risk drivers of pandemic outbreaks, according to the United Nations. Another is the “intensification” of animal agriculture that the growing demand for meat requires: Animals are bred to be genetically similar and crowded together in huge facilities that promote viral transmission and mutation. Since 1940, agricultural intensification measures — dams, irrigation projects and factory farms — have been linked to more than 50 percent of zoonotic infectious diseases that have spread to humans.

  • Animal welfare: You don’t have to believe that eating meat is per se immoral to object to the incalculable suffering factory farming inflicts on billions of animals — including human workers — every year.

  • Antibiotic resistance: About 65 percent of antibiotics in the United States are sold for use on farms, often just to prevent animals from getting sick. That’s contributed to the rise of antibiotic-resistant diseases, which are already killing 700,000 people a year worldwide. By 2050, the number could rise to 10 million.

  • Food-borne illness: Lab-grown meat could reduce the threat of food-borne pathogens like E. coli and salmonella, which kill 420,000 people every year.

    As Vox’s Kelsey Piper has reported, there are still a number of hurdles lab-grown meat has to overcome before reaching commercial viability:

  • Scaffolding: Growing ground beef is one thing, but replicating the structure and texture of a steak, say, requires shaping cultured cells into complex tissue — and researchers are still working out how to do that.

  • Scale: As Piper wrote, “it’s not enough to be able to make one steak — you need to be able to make steaks at the same incredible scale that factory farms do.” And at least for the moment, the economics and engineering challenges of building full-scale facilities are prohibitive
  • Cost: Lab-grown meat is staggeringly expensive. In early 2019, the Israeli-based company Aleph Farms said it had driven the cost of producing a beef patty down to about $100 per pound. Eat Just, the company behind the Singaporean lab-grown chicken, initially said making a single nugget cost $50.

For lab-grown meat to start replacing factory-farmed meat, all of these problems will have to be solved.

While other countries have thrown money behind alternative proteins, America’s lab-grown meat industry has emerged without the support of the U.S. government, which spends $38 billion each year subsidizing the meat and dairy industry.

Perhaps, as Piper and Klein hope, lab-grown meat will eventually become more widely available, and even if its cost never reaches parity with that of factory-farmed meat, a meaningful amount of substitution will become possible.

But as Aronoff notes, diets need to change now, particularly in the West. And people generally exercise a degree of control over what they eat in a way they simply do not over how their electricity is generated. America’s love of beef might seem intractable, but another beef-loving country, Brazil, has shown what the beginning of a national shift toward more climate-friendly diets might look like.

Although vegetarians and vegans have the smallest dietary carbon footprints, adopting a more climate-friendly diet doesn’t require becoming one, as the Times food columnist Melissa Clark wrote in her meat-lover’s guide to eating less meat. Following the World Resource Institute’s recommendations, she started focusing more on chicken, pork and seafood (especially mollusks), which produce far fewer greenhouse gas emissions than beef and lamb, both of which she has relegated to special-occasion status.

“I like to loosely think of my approach as mindful meat-eating,” she wrote. “Now, when I do simmer up a pot of beef short ribs (or smear cream cheese on my bagel, or go for sushi), I’m thoughtful and deliberate about it, which makes it taste even more delicious, seasoned with anticipation.”

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