A new study has found that meat grown artificially in a laboratory could be worse for the environment than beef produced naturally in farming systems.
Scientists have warned that carbon dioxide from energy used to make cultured meat is likely to be more damaging to the environment in the long term than methane (CH4) from cattle.
The study from the University of Oxford in England compared the temperature impact of beef cattle and cultured meat production at all times to 1,000 years in the future, using four synthetic-meat greenhouse gas footprints and three different beef production systems studied in an earlier climate modelling paper.
Cattle systems are associated with the production of all three GHGs: CO2, CH4, and nitrous oxide (N2O), including significant emissions of CH4.
On the other hand, cultured meat emissions are almost entirely CO2 from energy generation. Under continuous high global consumption, cultured meat results in less warming than cattle initially, but this gap narrows in the long term and in some cases cattle production causes far less warming, as CH4 emissions do not accumulate, unlike CO2.
The researchers modelled a decline in meat consumption to more sustainable levels following high consumption. It showed that although cattle systems generally result in greater peak warming than cultured meat, the warming effect declines and stabilizes under the new emission rates of cattle systems. However, the CO2-based warming from cultured meat persists and accumulates even under reduced consumption, again overtaking cattle production in some scenarios.
The study concluded that cultured meat is not climatically superior to cattle based on early data. Its relative impact instead depends on the availability of decarbonized energy generation and the specific production system used.
“The climate impacts of cultured meat production will depend on what level of sustainable energy generation can be achieved, as well as the efficiency of future culture processes,” said lead researcher John Lynch.
“If the lab-grown meat is quite energy intensive to produce, then they could end up being worse for the climate than cows are,” he added.