Science Could Bring Sustainability to Your Table
By Kylie Wolfe
Meat is a staple in global diets. Whether you prefer chicken, beef, seafood, or no meat at all, you’ll find it in most freezers, grocery stores, and lunch boxes. But with demand so high, the environmental consequences of meat production are causing concern.
That’s why scientists have been looking for more sustainable ways to bring meat to the dinner table: some are turning to plant-based options and others to cultivated meats. The latter, an up-and-coming innovation, is a genuine meat product grown from real animal cells.
“While animals may have worked in the past as the chosen technology for producing meat, in the modern world it’s really becoming a problem and it’s only going to become more of a problem,” said Claire Bomkamp, a senior scientist at the Good Food Institute, referring to issues ranging from climate change to antibiotic resistance. The goal is for alternative proteins to help restore balance. Instead of changing the way we eat and what we eat, scientists are working on viable stand-ins.
Modernizing Meat Production
Environmental concerns regarding conventional meat are, in part, linked to greenhouse gas emissions. Livestock, for example, accounts for nearly 14.5 percent of these emissions globally.1 Therefore, as population and demand continue to rise, sustainability concerns surface.
Resource use is another issue of traditional meat production and a piece of the climate change conversation. Cattle need large amounts of land to roam, plus ample food and water, to produce a finite assortment of meat. Chickens also need significant amounts of water to produce a single egg, 53 gallons, to be exact. To help, a company called Eat JUST is making plant-based eggs using 98 percent less water, 86 percent less land, and emitting 93 percent less carbon dioxide.2
“Meat is not going anywhere, so how can we make the same products that people love without the externalities that come with conventionally produced animal meat?” said Bomkamp. Nonprofits like the Good Food Institute and companies like Eat JUST are working on that answer, bringing science to the table.
Bomkamp explained that if cultivated meat is produced using sustainable energy sources, like solar and wind power, its environmental impact in terms of greenhouse gas emissions is likely similar to that of tofu or chicken. Even when produced using conventional energy, cultivated meat might be more of a friend to the environment than beef.3
"Meat is not going anywhere, so how can we make the same products that people love without the externalities that come with conventionally produced animal meat?"
Creating Greener Alternatives
Cultivated meat production begins with a collection of animal cells. Scientists use these cells to establish cell lines that can be added to a nutrient-dense medium containing amino acids, vitamins, and other growth factors. This combination is ultimately placed in a bioreactor where, under the right conditions, the cells grow and multiply until they’re harvested.4 The resulting edible muscle and fat tissue can be made into hamburgers, sausages, and other meat products.
Bomkamp said this method is like plant cutting, taking a piece of one plant to grow a second. Even though this propagation technique differs from cell culture, it’s a simplistic representation of what it means to cultivate meat. On a cellular level, cultivated and conventional meat are identical. With more research, taste, texture, and hopefully, consumer cost can be too.
Depending on the type of meat a company produces, the overall process, from cell sample to finished product, takes anywhere from two to eight weeks. It’s thought to be more efficient and environmentally friendly than agriculture in the traditional sense, but more studies are needed to determine the extent. Scientists also believe that cultivated meat could help lower cases of foodborne illness because it will be raised in sterile conditions where contamination risk is kept to a minimum.
In March 2019, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) agreed to oversee certain steps of the cultivated meat production process. For livestock and poultry, the FDA oversees cell collection, growth, and differentiation, and the USDA oversees harvesting, processing, packaging, and labeling. For other meat products, the FDA manages each step.5 Their joint goal is to implement food safety regulations and provide accurate labeling for the public.
As of December 2020, the Singapore Food Agency approved a cell-cultured chicken product that became the world’s first cultivated meat approved for sale.6
Gauging Sustainability and Success
Bomkamp says that the short-term success of this industry means giving those who love meat, but don’t love its environmental consequences, access to an alternative. This also means creating a product with the same taste and texture as traditional meat — with a smaller environmental footprint. As we enter the future of meat production, scientists want to find a balance between what’s good for people and the planet. But that may take time.
“Do we get to the point where you can go to the grocery store and buy these products? That’s certainly the hope,” said Bomkamp. “But predicting timelines from the beginning is a little bit of a crystal ball situation.”
Aside from solidifying the science and scaling production to generate tasty, environmentally friendly, and cost-effective meats, public acceptance may also hinder the reach of alternative proteins and the time it takes for them to become mainstream.
According to a study published in Frontiers, 29.8 percent of survey participants said they were likely to purchase cell-cultured meat. The remaining 70.2 percent of participants were either unlikely or only somewhat likely to do so.7 Greater transparency from companies and government agencies can help raise awareness for cultivated meat, but it’s up to consumers to decide whether alternative proteins are welcome or unwelcome on their plates.
Deciding the Future of Meat
It’s possible to reallocate resources and potentially curb the meat industry’s contributions to climate change, but the path forward is to be determined. Scientists, legislators, and regulators are hoping to find an approach that’s better for the environment and meets public demand, even if it means changing the way we define our proteins.
“What if we not only switched to cultivated meat but were also really intentional with the land that’s freed up and no longer used for the production of food? What if we used that land for rewilding or other climate-positive activities?” Bomkamp said. “We should really be thinking about how to take advantage of those sorts of synergies.”
More research is needed to understand the environmental significance of cultivated meat production. Studies about water, energy, and land use will help tell a clearer story about alternative proteins and their role in the future of the food industry.
Kylie Wolfe is a Thermo Fisher Scientific staff writer.
1. Gerber, P.J., Steinfeld, H., Henderson, B., Mottet, A., Opio, C., Dijkman, J., Falcucci, A. and Tempio, G. (2013). Tackling climate change through livestock. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. https://www.fao.org/3/i3437e/i3437e.pdf
2. No author listed. (2021). How do we make eggs from plants? Eat JUST. https://www.ju.st/learn
3. Odegard, I., Sinke, P. (2021). LCA of cultivated meat. Future projections for different scenarios. CE Delft. https://www.cedelft.eu/en/publications/2610/lca-of-cultivated-meat-futureprojections-for-different-scenarios
4. Bomkamp, C., Swartz, E. (2022). The science of cultivated meat. Good Food Institute. https://gfi.org/science/the-science-of-cultivated-meat/
5. No author listed. (2020).Food Made with Cultured Animal Cells. Food and Drug Administration. https://www.fda.gov/food/food-ingredients-packaging/food-made-cultured-animal-cells
6. Huling, R. (2020). World’s first approval of cultivated meat sales. Good Food Institute. https://gfi.org/blog/cultivated-meat-singapore/
7. Bryant, C., Szejda, K., Parekh, N., Deshpande, V., and Tse, B. (2019). A Survey of Consumer Perceptions of Plant-Based and Clean Meat in the USA, India, and China. Frontiers. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fsufs.2019.00011/full