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Web Date: August 5, 2011

Meaty Matters

Food Production: Engineered meat has lower environmental impact than conventional meat, a modeling study finds
Department: Science & Technology
Keywords: Environment, agriculture, meat, tissue engineering, life-cycle assessment
A new model supports proponents' contention that cultured meat has a lower environmental impact than conventional meat, such as ground beef.
A new model supports proponents' contention that cultured meat has a lower environmental impact than conventional meat, such as ground beef.

Lab-grown meat emerges as the big winner in a new study comparing its environmental impact to that of meat from conventionally raised animals (Environ. Sci. Technol., DOI: 10.1021/es200130u). Researchers have calculated that cultured meat has a smaller environmental footprint than beef, sheep, pork, and poultry.

Scientists are developing cultured meat as an environmentally friendly way to feed a growing human population. In cultured meat production, researchers use tissue engineering methods to produce muscle tissue. Proponents hope that such a process will be more efficient than growing whole animals because it generates only the parts that people eat. But they haven’t had any numbers to bolster those hopes.

The new study provides some of those needed figures. Hanna L. Tuomisto, a graduate student at the University of Oxford’sWildlife Conservation Research Unit, and M. Joost Teixeira de Mattos, a microbial physiologist at the University of Amsterdam, used a modeling approach called life-cycle assessment to estimate the environmental impact of growing one type of cultured meat. Life-cycle assessment estimates the impact of every stage of a process, from raw materials to final disposal. The team examined a hypothetical scaled-up version of an existing laboratory process that uses cyanobacteria as a nutrient and energy source to produce meat resembling ground beef.

In all categories they assessed—energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, land use, and water use—cultured meat had significantly lower impacts than beef production did. Cultured meat also beat sheep and pork production in all areas. The calculations showed that poultry production uses less energy, but performs more poorly than cultured meat by every other environmental measure.

Stig W. Omholt, chairman of the In Vitro Meat Consortium and director of the Center for Integrative Genetics in Aas, Norway, welcomes the analysis. “Such papers are exactly what we need to assess the potential benefits and problems attached to in vitro meat production,” he says.

Bernard A.J. Roelen, another member of the In Vitro Meat Consortium and a stem cell biologist at Utrecht University, in the Netherlands, agrees: “This study demonstrates that cultured meat can be an important sustainable alternative to traditional meat.”

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ISSN 0009-2347
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