Cultured meat might not be the best alternative to traditional meat, here’s why

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To avoid animal suffering and reduce energy costs, cultured meat is an interesting alternative. But the sustainability gains have yet to meet expectations. According to the Meat Atlas report, cellular meat could, on the contrary, present problems of durability. In recent years, meat made from animal cells has been in the news. The technique involves taking certain types of cells and growing them in the laboratory. Proponents claim that cultivated meat can meet the world’s growing demand for meat, while being healthier and more sustainable than farming, as well as improving animal welfare.

Initial studies have confirmed these claims: compared to conventional meat production in Europe, cultured meat consumes 7 to 45% less energy. It also emits 78 to 96% less greenhouse gases. It requires 99% less land and 82-96% less water. Not to mention the significant gains in animal welfare. Advocates say the end product is safer than conventional meat. The fully controlled laboratory environment is said to reduce the risk of foodborne illness and eliminate the need for antibiotics. However, according to the 2021 Meat Atlas report, which compiled the latest industry data and data from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), these purported benefits may be overestimated.

Energy and pathogens

Some recent studies indicate that cellular meat production is very energy intensive. If one takes into account the entire life cycle of the product, the energy expended can be even higher than that of conventional meat production, as well as the greenhouse gas emissions compared to the breeding. This is because livestock emit methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, but it does not stay in the atmosphere for long. Cultivated meat production, on the other hand, produces carbon dioxide, which persists for hundreds of years. Thus, the potential benefits of cultured meat in terms of emissions are unclear.

Another potential problem is that of pathogens. At the moment, it is impossible to know for sure whether they are actually eliminated from laboratory-grown meat or whether they change in nature. It is also difficult to know whether the muscle mass developed in vitro will have the same qualities as that which an animal develops over time, without being solicited by growth stimulators, including sex hormones. And no method has yet been developed to ensure that cellular meat contains essential micronutrients, such as vitamin B12 and iron, specific to animal products. According to the Meat Atlas report, “a rapid switch from conventional meat to cell-based meat seems unlikely in the near future.”

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