Can Lab-Grown Meat Help Save the Planet?


The meat industry is a major contributor to climate change. Global food production is responsible for one third of all human-related greenhouse gas emissions, and meat production is responsible for 60 percent of that figure. A 2021 study found that plant-based food production creates only half the pollution of meat production, but while that improvement is encouraging, non-meat and reduced-meat diets only make up a small minority of global diet trends. Since adopting a plant-based diet is not a one-size-fits-all approach, scientists and engineers have created a way to replace meat with, well, meat. Lab-grown meats are proving to be a viable option to reducing meat industry emissions.

Lab-grown, or “cultivated”, meat is exactly what it sounds like: real animal meat that has been grown in a laboratory. The process of meat cultivation is to gather high-quality cells from an animal biopsy, provide nutrients to the cells under controlled conditions, and then put the cells into bioreactors where they will grow until they are ready for harvesting. The process allows specific parts of the animal to grow independently. Though this may sound like something out of a science-fiction novel, cultivated meat is already a reality, and the FDA has recently cleared a California-based company’s cultivated meat as safe to eat.

The benefits of large-scale meat cultivation could be significant. Meat consumption is expected to rise 73 percent by 2050. If the meat industry plans to meet these increasing demands, the effects on our planet could be critical. As it is today, the livestock industry creates 15 percent of human-related greenhouse gas emissions (which was greater than all 2019 emissions from the US, UK, and Germany, combined), and razing trees for livestock grazing accounts for nearly 40 percent of global forest loss. Animal welfare, the reason that many people choose a non-meat or reduced meat diet, would also greatly benefit from such a change. 55 billion land and sea animals die every year to feed the US population. If cultivated meat were to replace even a fraction of the diet of meat-eaters, billions of animal lives could be spared every year.

While the benefits of cultivated meat are encouraging, the industry faces several obstacles before it can become a staple on the dinner table. The first lab-grown hamburger was made in 2013 for a staggering $330,000. Today, the process is much more efficient, but it is estimated that the price for a similar product would still be around 50 dollars. Upside Foods, the California start-up that recently received FDA clearance, says that scale will be their next focus. Scaling up production and keeping costs down will be crucial to the accessibility of cultivated meats. Assuming engineers can successfully scale these products for the masses, then the biggest obstacle for the industry would be getting consumers to make the switch. Plant-based meat alternatives are currently widely available, yet only 16 percent of Americans consume them regularly – evidence that changing consumer food behavior is challenging. It follows that if cultivated meat is to catch on, it will need to minimize changing consumer food behavior by being nearly identical to raised meat. However, flavor and consistency are both features that engineers are still working to achieve. Even if scaling, flavor, and consistency can be surmounted, eating lab-grown meats still may not sit well with many consumers. For example, GMOs continue to fight an uphill battle, despite there being no data to indicate that consuming GMOs is bad for human health. Scientifically created and modified foods do not always win in the court of public opinion and cultivated meats will likely be held to similar scrutiny.

Combatting the climate crisis requires significant changes to be made. If the goal is to create a viable future, then we must begin by creating a sustainable present. With science and engineering presenting possible alternatives to our current lifestyles, it may be time for us to cultivate some changes.