As a meat lover, it's been hard not to notice the rise in the price of meat at my local supermarket over the last few years. But it's not just the cost to consumers that is a major concern; it's the major role that livestock production plays on climate change. While cultured meat, also known as in vitro meat, lab-grown meat and even Frankenmeat, might not sound that appetizing to many meat lovers, a new study carried out by scientists from Oxford University and the University of Amsterdam says that cultured meat would provide substantial environmental benefits.
Although cultured meat, which is grown using tissue engineering techniques, has yet to be produced for public consumption, there are several research projects growing it experimentally, with some scientists claiming the technology is ready for commercial use. The United Nations "Livestock's Longshadow" report released in 2006 that followed a Life Cycle Analysis approach estimated that livestock are responsible for 18 percent of all greenhouse emissions, which is more than transport. Such environmental impact, coupled with the constantly rising costs of conventional meat farming techniques and the need to feed an ever-increasing world population has prompted many to see cultured meat for human consumption as inevitable.
While convincing consumers to add cultured meat to their diet might be a hard sell, the Oxford University/University of Amsterdam study indicates the technology would provide substantial environmental benefits. The team based their calculations on a process being developed by study co-author Dr Joost Teixeira de Mattos at the University of Amsterdam that uses Cynobacteria hydrolysate as a nutrient and energy source for growing muscle cells. They estimated what the various costs would be for producing 1,000 kg (2.205 lb) of cultured meat using a scaled-up version of the technology.
Compared to the costs associated with conventionally produced meat, the study estimated that cultured meat would generate 78-96 percent lower greenhouse gas emissions, would require 7-45 percent less energy to produce, would result in 99 percent lower land use, and 82-96 percent lower water use, depending on the type of meat being produced. While cultured meat would still require more energy to produce than poultry, it would only need a fraction of the land area and water needed to rear chickens.
"We are not saying that we could, or would necessarily want to, replace conventional meat with its cultured counterpart right now," said Hanna Tuomisto of Oxford University's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, who led the research, "however, our research shows that cultured meat could be part of the solution to feeding the world's growing population and at the same time cutting emissions and saving both energy and water. Simply put, cultured meat is, potentially, a much more efficient and environmentally-friendly way of putting meat on the table."
But the team says the benefits could be even greater as their calculations don't take into account additional savings from things such as the lower energy costs of transport and refrigeration of cultured meat. They also suggest that land freed up from farming could be reforested or used for other carbon sequestration purposes to lower the carbon footprint of cultured meat even further.
Those turned off by the prospect of cultured meat can relax - at least for a while. The first such product, which is likely to be like mincemeat, isn't expected to be ready for dinner tables for around five years, with steaks estimated to take around another five years of development.
"There are obviously many obstacles to overcome before we can say whether cultured meat will become part of our diet, not least of which is whether people would be prepared to eat it! But we hope our research will add to the debate about whether we could, or should, develop a less wasteful alternative to meat from animals," said Ms Tuomisto.