To provide a rigorous comparison of the potential climate impacts of lab-grown meat and beef cattle, the researchers examined available data on the emissions associated with three current cattle farming methods and four possible meat culture methods, assuming current energy systems remained unchanged.
Using this data, they modelled the potential temperature impact of each production method over the next 1000 years. Their model showed that while cattle initially have a greater warming effect through the release of methane, in some cases the manufacture of lab-grown meat can ultimately result in more warming. This is due to the fact that even if consumption of meat were entirely phased out the warming from carbon dioxide would persist, whereas warming caused by methane ceases after only a few decades.
“This is important because while reducing methane emissions would be good – and an important part of our climate policies – if we simply replace that methane with carbon dioxide it could actually have detrimental long-term consequences,” warns Lynch.
Beef production is currently a major source of greenhouse gases: reducing consumption and improving production methods to reduce emissions can both help address this. The environmental benefits of lab-grown meat are a powerful imperative to continue and expand labriculture research, and especially to develop ways of producing cultured meat as efficiently as possible. The study also highlights that both cultured meat and cattle farming have complex inputs and impacts that need to be considered in fully appreciating their effect on the environment. For example, creating more grazing land for cattle often results in significant deforestation that could greatly increase the CO2 footprint of cattle systems (but can prove difficult to standardise in emissions footprints), while producing food in urban laboratories could free up land for storing CO2 (known as carbon sequestration) or other purposes.
Lynch concludes, “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.”