Questioning the Sustainability of ‘Clean Meat’

Is cellular agriculture the way of the future, or is it just another techno-fix that avoids the bigger issues?

Image by Annie Theby, via Unsplash

As animals, we need protein to survive, and although the Homo sapiens biological system can create some amino acids on its own, there are several essential amino acids that can only be obtained through eating. All of these amino acids can be acquired from plants alone; however, the vast majority of us get them from eating animals.

The problem is that our growing population and increasing affluence are leading to the demand for more and more animals. At a global scale, both the average per capita consumption of meat and the total amount of meat consumed are rising.Currently, 97% of the bodyweight of all land vertebrates on Earth consists of humans and the animals we raise to eat.We’ve taken over the planet, however, that doesn’t mean we have it under control. Raising all these animals for our excessive meat consumption has numerous implications for human health and the environment on which we depend, as has been widely documented.3

Despite the increase in plant-based meats (such as the Beyond Burger) found in wealthy nations’ supermarkets and restaurants, it’s highly unlikely that a significant portion of the global population becomes vegan/vegetarian – or flegan/flexitarian– any time soon. This is especially true given that Sydneysiders, for example, are still confused about both health and environmental impacts of meat consumption.But what if we could have a ‘real’ beef hamburger without having artificially inseminated, birthed, raised, fed, watered, doctored, milked and slaughtered a cow? This is the idea of ‘clean meat’ which is being developed in the growing field of cellular agriculture. Clean meat is also referred to as cultured, cell-based, lab-grown, in-vitro, or synthetic (and finding the ‘right’ name is a critical task). More officially, clean meat is a technology in which animal muscle cells are produced through tissue culture in a factory or laboratory.So if it means we can bypass all the harmful aspects of producing animals conventionally, would that make clean meat a sustainable option for obtaining our protein?

This isn’t an easy question to answer, even within the industry, meaning significant critical  investigations are needed before we continue sinking resources into further development.

Environmental sustainability

Generally speaking, conventional animal agriculture at scale emits excessive greenhouse gases, siphons vast quantities of water, pollutes groundwater via untreated manure lagoons, results in deforestation and subsequently drives biodiversity loss.Replacing this system with meat produced in a lab would appear to mitigate many of these issues.7-10 However, as a clean meat facility does not yet exist at scale, the current lifecycle analyses being used are based on a hefty load of assumptions. Major questions and variables surround the required energy inputs such as feedstocks to culture the meat as well as the electricity used to power the bioreactors (whether renewable or fossil fuel). Further, how will the production of clean meat evade rebound effects, or will these potential efficiencies simply result in increased production that offset any comparative benefits? Perhaps research is needed to investigate ways to develop clean meat through industrial symbiosis or eco-industrial parks where various industries and factories are situated together to create a closed loop system of production (resembling the circular economy ideal).

Social and Economic sustainability

A significant amount of people rely on the current animal agriculture industry for jobs and livelihoods throughout the global supply chain. Further, some farmers’ identities can be tied to the animals they raise. Some jobs in the clean meat sector could be transferrable from animal agriculture, but it’s unlikely to accommodate a significant portion. Regarding national and local economies, disruption of the meat industry could destroy local economies and rattle certain nations’ GDP (Australia being one).

With respect to human health, it’s not immediately clear how clean meat would fit into the World Health Organisation’s findings of red and processed meats causing cancer. Early development of clean meat has been able to control the fat content, providing a level of benefit. Further, it can reduce the risk of food-borne pathogens and eliminate the need for antibiotics used in animal agriculture (which leads to antibiotic resistance in humans).11 Along with the environmental benefits, these findings form the basis of dubbing the food ‘clean meat’. However, if people eating a typical western diet – and those in developing nations seeking the same – simply replace conventional meat with clean meat hoping for health benefits, it likely won’t make much of a difference. The marketing of clean meat’s benefits could even result in a further increase in consumption of meat. Perhaps even vegans would eat it (I’m certainly curious). But when findings show that consumption of red and processed meat costs our individual health and the economy through increased healthcare costs, pursuing novel meat production methods may not be money well spent.

How to proceed

Living in a climate-changed world, does growing meat in labs provide resiliency because livestock are currently both being impacted by increasing temperatures, droughts and floods, as well as being among the biggest contributors to climate instability? Or is reliance on massive corporations, technological development and electricity infrastructure to develop our meat in labs not so resilient after all? With the issues we’re currently facing, shouldn’t we be placing greater emphasis on more sure-fire methods of obtaining protein, such as from whole food plants like legumes, rather than adding another item to the list of techno-fixes?

Obviously, if we’re creating clean meat to provide the undernourished population with vital nutrients in a way that is better for the environment, then full steam ahead. But if the intent is for clean meat to primarily serve the nourished, or even the overnourished, we may need to pump the brakes. Indeed, many countries including Australia are chowing down more meat than the limit set by reputable national and international guidelines, negatively impacting health.12 We don’t exactly want to be cleaning up our environmental troubles while eating Whoppers and getting heart disease.

Clean meat is certainly not a panacea. It would be wise to simultaneously dedicate equal, if not greater, efforts on initiatives that solve more of the critical issues we are facing in a more concrete way. Clearly it’s naïve to hope people guzzle more beans than burgers, but in our current situation it surely seems like the optimal solution for obtaining our protein.

1. Godfray, HC, Aveyard, P, Garnett, T, Hall, J, Key, T, Lorimer, J, Pierrehumbert, R, Scarborough, P, Springmann, M, Jebb, S 2018, ‘Meat consumption, health, and the environment’, Science, vol. 361 no. 6399, pp. 1-8.
2. Appleby, M 2008, ‘The environmental impact of industrial animal agriculture’, World Society for the Protection of Animals, London.
3. Steinfeld, H, Gerber, P, Wassenaar, TD, Castel, V, Rosales, M and de Haan, C 2006, ‘Livestock’s long shadow: environmental issues and options’, United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Rome.
4. Bogueva, D, Marinova, D & Raphaely, T 2017, ‘Reducing meat consumption: the case for social marketing’, Asia Pacific Journal of Marketing and Logistics, vol. 29 no. 3, pp. 477-500.
5. Stephens, DN, Dunsford, I, Lucy Di, S, Ellis, DM, Glencross, A, and Sexton, DA 2018, ‘Bringing cultured meat to market: technical, socio-political, and regulatory challenges in cellular agriculture’, Trends Food Sci. Technol. 78, pp. 155–166.
6. Godfray, HC, Aveyard, P, Garnett, T, Hall, J, Key, T, Lorimer, J, Pierrehumbert, R, Scarborough, P, Springmann, M, Jebb, S 2018, ‘Meat consumption, health, and the environment’, Science, vol. 361 no. 6399, pp. 1-8.
7. Note: this citation provides a summary (Figure 4) of the following three citations. Lawrence, S, King T, Fish, L, Baird, WF, Byrd, E 2019, ‘Meat Re-Imagined: The global emergence of alternative proteins – What does it mean for Australia?’, Melbourne: Food Frontier.
8. Tuomisto, HL, de Mattos, M, Teixeira, J 2011, ‘Environmental impacts of cultured meat production’, Environmental science & technology, vol. 45 no. 14, pp. 6117–6123.
9. Tuomisto, H, Roy, A 2012, ‘Could cultured meat reduce environmental impact of agriculture in Europe?’, 8th International Conference on LCA in the Agri-Food Sector.
10. Tuomisto, HL, Ellis, MJ and Haastrup, P 2014, ‘Environmental impacts of cultured meat: alternative production scenarios’, Proceedings of the 9th international conference on life cycle assessment in the agri-food sector, (pp. 1360-1366).
11. Mattick, CS and Allenby, BR 2012, ‘Cultured meat: The systemic implications of an emerging technology, IEEE international symposium on sustainable systems and technology, pp. 1-6.
12. Bogueva, D, Marinova, D & Raphaely, T 2017, ‘Reducing meat consumption: the case for social marketing’, Asia Pacific Journal of Marketing and Logistics, vol. 29 no. 3, pp. 477-500.

Austin Jacob is a Master of Sustainability student. He is currently trying to boil down his scattered interests in the field of sustainability to determine what to focus on after completing the degree.

This blog post is a part of the SEI’s Student Blog Series, which features original content by Honours, Masters and PhD students at the University of Sydney who are undertaking research on environmental issues and topics. If you are a current postgraduate student at the University of Sydney who would like to participate in the series, click here for details.