Could lab-grown meat help in the fight against climate change?

The most important legacy

Ethics and health benefits aside, the most important legacy of lab-grown meat could be stemming the environmental impact of the global meat and dairy industries.

Most people know about fossil fuels and climate change, but only in recent years has the public started to realise the scale on which the livestock industry impacts the environment. When you consider that the billions of animals we consume as a global population all require their own space, food, and water, it begins to make sense.

It is estimated that 70 billion farm animals are now produced for food each year, with two out of every three being factory farmed. This is not sustainable even at this current rate, let alone if it rises in proportion with the growing global appetite for meat.

A gassy truth

The meat and dairy industries as a whole produce an enormous amount of greenhouse gases, estimated by some to be on a par with the transport industry. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimate that livestock are responsible for 14.5% of all global greenhouse emissions.

Everyone has heard the fact that cows fart methane (they actually burp far more), but large a factor actually is it in climate change? Whilst not the only part of the livestock industry that produces greenhouse emissions, cow are genuinely a major methane contributor. Methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, capable of trapping as much as 84 times the amount of heat – and cows produce a lot of it.

Studies have suggested that by swapping from traditional livestock farming to producing lab-grown meat, emissions could be cut by 96%. If this is even half correct, it’s enough to have a hugely beneficial impact for the planet.

It’s getting a little crowded

About 60% of all the animals living on the planet are livestock. Huge areas of natural land are cleared every year to make more space for them to live, often land that was home to natural populations of plants and animals. Vast swathes of the Amazon rainforest have been cleared to make way for grazing land for cattle, destroying natural biodiversity.

The billions of farm animals occupying this space produce a huge amount of sewage and toxic run-off which usually ends up in the sea or otherwise dumped on land. This, in turn, leads to antibiotics, pesticides, and toxins getting into the natural environment surrounding areas of mass meat and dairy production.

A large scale adoption of cultured meat has the potential to save an enormous amount of land and space needed for traditional farming.

Water, water, everywhere… but maybe not for long

The world’s freshwater sources are finite, and some analysts expect the availability of freshwater to become an increasingly prevalent issue in the coming century. The meat and dairy industries use water on a staggering scale – with the biggest thirst actually coming from the grain needed to feed the animals.

I was genuinely surprised to discover quite how much water is used to produce meat. It is estimated that a factory farmed beef burger costs 2,400 gallons of water to make. The average ‘water footprint’ per calorie of beef is twenty times higher than that of cereals and starchy roots.

Lab-grown meat requires a fraction of the water that would be needed to make the same product, placing far less pressure on our finite freshwater sources.

Don’t forget the fish

I’ve mostly discussed the beef and dairy industries in this series, but the oceans are also suffering from the vast overfishing of wild fish populations. Many species have dropped to numbers that they may never recover from, and non-edible species are caught in giant nets that indiscriminately trawl the oceans. Most of the sewage and toxic run-off from land based animal agriculture also ends up polluting the ocean.

The marine environment could stand to benefit a lot from a lab-grown meat revolution. A California biotech company, Finless Food, is working on lab-grown fish which can hopefully take some of the strain away from wild fish populations. In the UK at least, people do seem to have taken an interest in the reduction of plastic thanks to programmes such as Blue Planet highlighting the impact on marine life. Whether that same level of interest will translate to where our fish and chips or tuna sandwiches come from, remains to be seen.

There is clearly no quick fix to the looming threat of climate change – although a concerted effort to adopt lab-grown meat could be a good start.

This series is exploring questions about lab-grown meat. I’ve already talked about whether lab-grown meat will be healthy and ethical. All views expressed are my own.