An Alt-Meat Reckoning: Not All Roses and Rainbows

03:05PM May 31, 2018
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Finally, some straight talk about the actual inputs and impact of cultured meat production.

In a review in Popular Science online, the energy use, resource consumption and eco-effects of alt-meat versus conventional meat were examined side-by-side.

For once, real meat production wasn’t painted as a scourge upon the Earth that will surely wipe out the entire animal kingdom, followed by the demise of the planet itself.

One disclaimer, though. The article, titled, “Lab-grown meat might not be the answer to our protein problem,” relied on research conducted by a pair of British researchers, Hanna Tuomisto and Avijit Roy, who have made some outrageous claims about conventional animal agriculture, such as:

  • Meat production uses almost one-third of the entire world’s land area.
  • Meat production requires more than 70% of global agricultural land.
  • Meat production generates one-fifth of all greenhouse gas emissions.

None of that is accurate — especially that last bullet point — unless you twist the data to account for every single input required to produce a pound of beef, pork or chicken, and then add in the carbon footprint of all associated activities involved in packaging, distribution, preparation and disposal.

Even then, if all meat production ceased tomorrow, people would still need to eat, and the multi-trillions of calories in the form of animal foods would have to be replaced with plant-based alternatives, which would require significant and additional amounts of farmland, fertilizer and energy inputs.

Cellular vs. Conventional Ag
That brings us to the Popular Science comparison between alt-meat and conventional meat, in which energy use is key.

“Plants will most likely always be the greenest protein, but cultured meat could at least become more sustainable than flesh grown on the bone,” the article stated.

By the way, the magazine relied on a definition of “cellular agriculture” that uses stem cell technology, in which stem cells are extracted from cattle or pigs, converted to muscle cells, then grown with added nutrients and “exercised” using either electrical stimulation to support development of tissue structure, texture and tensile strength that mirrors animal muscle fibers.

Here’s how the article analyzed the comparison scientifically:

› Land use. To produce a metric ton of lab-grown protein would require “far less land than conventional livestock production;” that’s a given. However, the article noted that farmland used to cultivate plant protein — legumes, principally — and other edible crops from which nutrients would presumably be extracted for test-tube meat production not only supports a significant amount of carbon sequestration but contributes to the value of “green space” in an increasingly urbanized world. Conclusion: A draw.

› Energy consumption. As the article phrased it, producing “beef” with cellular technology would require “a whole town’s worth of power-hungry appliances for a year,” whereas growing a similar amount of protein on farmland would require only about 5% of the energy of the culturing process. Advantage: Conventional agriculture.

› Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. According to the data Popular Science is accessing, cultured meat would emit only “about one-tenth of the GHG emissions of conventional beef, but more than double the amount of soybean [production].” However, that calculation does not take into account the downstream collection, transportation, processing packaging, distribution, etc., required to turn raw soybeans into edible food products. Advantage: cellular agriculture, according to the magazine; I call it even.

› Water consumption. A metric ton of lab-grown alt-meat would consume 713,265 gallons of water, while that amount of conventional beef supposedly uses 16 million gallons, which is about 8,000 gallons of water per pound of beef. That is a highly suspect data point, as it implies that bringing a single steer to market requires more than 6.4 million gallons of water. If one calculates the water required to grow feed and forage crops, that number might be in the ball park, but those inputs rely heavily on rainfall, not just metered water from an irrigation source. Advantage: Cellular agriculture, but not nearly by the margin alt-meat supporters always claim.

In the end, it’s entirely plausible that cellular agriculture could be a significant contributor to global food production. But to presume that all the energy and inputs (always euphemistically referred to as “nutrients”) required to duplicate the natural process of growing crops or raising livestock are only fractionally as significant as conventional agriculture is, in a word, bogus.

Keep in mind that when anyone points to the efficiencies generated by technology, from the dawn of the Industrial Revolution to the 21st century, they invariably fail to account for the incredible energy inputs of fossil fuels, which only began to be seriously utilized during the 1800s.

Every manufacturing or processing operation requires energy, and cellular ag is no exception. As Popular Science noted, alt-meat production is going to require enormous amounts of that critical input, a factor that ought to temper even the most enthusiastic proponent of this intriguing new technology.

Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.