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Interpretive Summary: Study finds carbon footprint of lab-grown beef might be worse than real beef

By: Sydney Sheffield

A new preprint article from researchers at The University of California, Davis (UC Davis) has found that lab-grown meat’s environmental impact is likely to be higher than retail beef based on current and near-term production methods. Lab-grown meat is growing in popularity. It is cultured from animal cells and is often thought to be more environmentally friendly than beef due to the need for less land, water, and greenhouse gases compared to raising cattle.

“Our findings suggest that cultured meat is not inherently better for the environment than conventional beef. It’s not a panacea,” said Edward Spang, an associate professor in the Department of Food Science and Technology at UC Davis and one of the study’s authors. “It’s possible we could reduce its environmental impact in the future, but it will require significant technical advancement to simultaneously increase the performance and decrease the cost of the cell culture media.”

The researchers at UC Davis conducted a life-cycle assessment of the energy needed and greenhouse gases emitted in all stages of production and compared that with beef. The scientists also defined the global warming potential as the carbon dioxide equivalents emitted for each kilogram of meat produced. The study found that the global warming potential of lab-based meat using a purified media is four to 25 times greater than the average for retail beef.

Under the same scenario, researchers found that cultured meat is more environmentally competitive, but with a wide range. Cultured meat’s global warming potential could be between 80% lower to 26% above that of conventional beef production, according to the study. In all scenarios, beef production systems reviewed in the study outperform cultured meat, suggesting that investments to advance more climate-friendly beef production may yield greater reductions in emissions more quickly than investments in cultured meat.

This study sheds light on the possibilities of climate-smart agriculture. Under the Inflation Reduction Act, President Biden’s administration emphasizes the need for climate-smart agriculture and the importance of farmers and ranchers. 

“The Inflation Reduction Act provided a once-in-a-generation investment in conservation on working lands, and we want to work with agricultural and forest landowners to invest in climate-smart practices that create value and economic opportunity for producers,” said United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack. “We know that agriculture plays a critical role in the nation’s effort to address climate change, we’re using this funding to bolster our existing programs, maximize climate benefits, and foster other environmental benefits across the landscape.”

Read the preprint study here