Team H: Sustainability of Lab-Grown Meat

Note/disclaimer: This webpage is for instructional purposes only and the scenario described below is fictional.

This page was developed as a hypothetical report for a theoretical company interested in producing lab-grown meat as a more sustainable alternative to the current meat industry. 

UW-Madison Task Force Members:
   Kaitlyn Younger, Major in Food Science
   Erin Springer, Major in Food Science
   Thrishna Chathurvedula, Major in Genetics
    


Scenario | Abstract | Introduction | Methods | Results | Limitations | Conclusions | Citations | Acknowledgements | About the Authors |
Scenario

Scenario

A company is interested in producing a more sustainable alternative to meat on a mass scale. They are most interested in the benefits lab-grown meat has to offer. They have asked for a qualified task force from one of the best universities in the nation to evaluate how the sustainability of lab-grown meat compares to that of the current meat industry. The task force is expected to use the most recent and conclusive information relating to the field of lab-grown meat. The question is whether or not lab-grown meat could be a viable option for consumers concerned with the greenhouse gas emissions in their food. 


Abstract

Lab-grown meat is being recognized as a potentially more sustainable alternative to the meat industry. Currently, beef and cattle products are among the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. As the public becomes more familiar with the concept of lab-grown meat, the ideas of it being unnatural or unsafe are two of the most substantial factors contributing to their wariness. Before lab-grown meat could ever become a truly successful industry, many of the negative connotations with it would have to be debunked, and the best way to do so is through science. The newest scientific tools that make tissue engineering possible will aid future meat engineering labs in producing the closest approximation to the meat we desire and consume today. While price is a concern, the technological advancements being made are moving lab-grown meat towards a more affordable product that can be manufactured on a mass scale. Here we discuss the current social concerns regarding lab-grown meat, and the economic and environmental benefits it is aiming to achieve. Also analyzed are the potential benefits and specific problems we face today that lab-grown meat can address should it become a viable option. 



Introduction

As the discussion of climate change emerges, there is an increasing demand for a shift towards a more sustainable society. The beef production industry is blamed for a substantial portion of climate change, and it is constantly pressured to move towards greater sustainability within their industry. This criticism was a driving force in the development of lab-grown meat, an alternative source of protein that originates from the stem cells of cows, but would ideally have a lower environmental impact than traditionally sourced beef. Based on the three pillars of sustainability – environmental, social, and economic – lab-grown meat is most beneficial in the environmental aspect. As for the social and economic aspects, the current societal perceptions and the cost of production make it difficult to see their benefits on a mass scale. Lab-grown meat shows potential in the future to become overall more sustainable than the current beef industry if its production becomes more efficient and it becomes more socially acceptable as a protein alternative.

With backgrounds in food science, genetics, biochemistry, molecular biology, and an understanding of food systems, we can provide unique perspectives on the benefits and drawbacks of both the traditional beef industry, as well as the up-and-coming lab-grown meat industry. As many issues regarding sustainability are what are considered “wicked problems,” an issue that has no true answer based on its variety of circumstances and roles in society, the future of sustainability relies on an interdisciplinary approach to research; we will use our varying perspectives to review lab-grown meat. Scientists need to have a good handle on how to make these processes work on a molecular scale, so they can be sustainable on a mass scale. We will dive deeper into some of the most promising methods for cultivating meat on a large scale in a laboratory setting.

We will be addressing the current issues within the current meat industry, and how lab-grown meat could be used to resolve those issues. We will be using this approach for each pillar of sustainability outlined above. As a disclaimer, we recognize there are many names for meat cultured in a lab such as In vitro meat, cell-cultured meat, cultured meat, synthetic meat and clean meat. To avoid confusion, we will only be referring to the product as lab-grown meat. 


Methods

            Overview The goal of our research is to determine the overall sustainability of lab-grown meat. To do this, we are conducting a narrative literature review by summarizing the primary arguments of multiple literary sources for a comprehensive evaluation of lab-grown meat production. Many of the sources used in this determination only focused on one of the three pillars of sustainability. Because the primary focus of our research is to combine the social, economical and environmental aspects of the sustainability of lab-grown meat, our review focused on combining and evaluating each source for an overall assessment of its sustainability.



Results

            Consensus of Cultivation  The basic underlying process can manifest in two common ways: microcarriers or cultivation in an aggregate form using cell aggregates (Moritz et al 2015). Microcarriers are microscopic beads that cells can attach to and proliferate. Essentially, the flow and rotation of the bioreactor (Figure 2) that houses the microcarriers allows nutrient and oxygen circulation that allows the cells to cultivate to a high density. This process is also demonstrated in Figure 1. Another method that has gained popularity is the cell aggregation method. Cells are suspended in a medium until they can aggregate or clump together. Once these aggregates get too big in density, they are agitated (disrupted) until they split apart into a smaller density. The cell aggregation method is also outlined in Figure 1.  The benefits of both of these procedures is that they both require very little operational handling which minimizes the risk of contamination. Because lab-grown meat starts from a cellular level, there are no natural viruses or bacteria existing in the tissue that can be transferred to humans (Bhat et al. 2015). This has a profound impact on global health as previous outbreaks such as Ebola, SARS, MERS, H1N1, and COVID-19 have wreaked havoc on human wellbeing. Another benefit to cultivated meat is that it will take weeks instead of months or years. Chickens take months to reach a point where they can be consumed for meat, and cows and pigs can take years to reach that point (Bhat et al. 2015).


   
 Figure 2. Bhat et al. 2015. These figures gives an overview of how the cells are used after being harvested. Once the desired cells are collected, they are cultured and placed into bioreactors and then centrifuged. The supernatant solution is removed and the cells that have settled to the bottom are processed into the meat cake that can be sold for consumption.  Figure 3. Bhat et al. 2015. This figure shows a molecular level view in terms of what is happening in the microcarrier and aggregated cells method of making the meat cakes. From these methods cells are placed on a bioreactor where they are constantly exposed to nutrients and oxygen until they grow into the final meat product.

            Social Sustainability Lab grown meat is nebulous, and the majority of the public does not know how and where it is produced. Currently, advertising of lab meat produces what is called “technophobia” or fear of technology. Additionally, the novelty of this technique results in “neophobia” or fear of new things. However, lab grown meat is not the first of its kind to face scrutiny. Other meat alternatives have been subjected to both technophobia and neophobia and government regulations. It is only a matter of time for lab grown meat to become more widely known and have appropriate government regulations as a result. Figure 1 outlines public perception of various meat alternatives, the resources and energy used, greenhouse gas emissions, and whether or not the alternative has government regulations.


 
 Figure 1. Bonny et al. 2015. This figure shows the perception of different forms of protein available based on sustainability, safety, amd acceptability compared to traditionally sourced meat. Many of the results for lab-grown meat only show potential for improvement from traditional meat because it has yet to be tested enough, of be made on a large enough scale to accurately compare them.


Any groundbreaking approach to sustainability has always had some opposition to it on a social and political level. However, many consumers have recently started to become more concerned with sustainability (Hocquette 2016). Some of these social drivers for the mass production of artificial meat include animal welfare and cultural-level concerns about the overall impact on the environment. Currently, there is a lot of social resistance for clean meat. Some examples include veganism and plant-based diets being very expensive and not readily available for lower classes, or the fairness of regulations on these new biotech startups (Hocquette 2016). Lab grown meat is also currently advertised in a very artificial light that makes the meat products themselves appear unnatural (Figure 3). Suzuki (2020) summarizes public perception to lab grown meat in Hocquette (2016) in Figure 4.


   
 Figure 4. Suzuki (2020) In Vitro Meat Production. Presentation, University of Wisconsin-Madison This figure shows a simpler understanding of the science behind lab grown meat. Figures like these make it easier to gain social acceptance because the public may not understand structured scientific protocols, as they may be too complex.  Figure 5. Hocquette (2016) This figure represents the factors that affect the acceptance of lab-grown meat. It demonstrates that there are both positive (solid lines) and negative (dotted lines) factors, and that some basic level factors may have more detailed, potentially hidden secondary underlying forces. The positive forces tend to be more broken down because having only the basic primary force could lead to disagreements within the topic, while the negative factors seem to be more straightforward.

 

           Peer Perception of Lab-grown Meat To understand how lab-grown meat is being perceived by our peers, we surveyed 27 University of Wisconsin - Madison students with a variety of majors.  The responses were limited as we only shared it with people we knew and may contain bias, as many, but not all, of the students surveyed were in a STEM major. A definition of lab-grown meat was not included nor was the process of production. However, a brief statement was included that stated our research showed lab-grown meat seemed “promising in improving sustainability of meat production.” This statement introduced bias because it begins the survey with lab-grown meat in a positive light and may have influenced the students’ answers. The students were asked if they had prior knowledge of lab-grown meat, if they considered lab-grown meat to be meat, and whether or not they would consider eating it. Options for each question were limited to yes or no except the consideration of consumption question which had an additional option of  “I would need more information before deciding.”

The results of our survey showed an overall positive response to lab-grown meat. 23 students (85.2%) said they had heard of lab-grown before the survey and 19 students (70.4%) considered lab-grown meat to be meat.  We also found that a majority of the students surveyed, 18 students (66.7%), would consider eating lab-grown meat while the other 9 students (33.3%) said they would need more information before deciding whether or not they would try lab-grown meat. The willingness to try lab-grown meat could be due to the previously mentioned bias introduced in our survey and surveying method. Additionally, at the end of the survey, students were able to leave thoughts or comments. Students commented that their hesitancy towards lab-grown meat came from lack of information on both the original source of the product and the process of production. However, students said that if the process was indeed more sustainable, they would have a higher chance of trying lab-grown meat. While our survey showed a predominantly positive perception of lab-grown meat, this trend is not true for all consumers. Lab-grown meat would need to become accepted by the majority of the population in order for it to be considered socially sustainable. 


Economic Sustainability One crucial assumption that these biotechnology companies are making is what economists term the “substitution effect” (Stephens et al. 2018). The substitution effect assumes that the increased consumption of lab-grown meat is accompanied by a decrease in traditional meat consumption. However, this assumes that a majority of the public will support lab-grown meat, but this is not the case, as mentioned previously. It can also be as simple as preference. Much as some people prefer beef or chicken to pork, some people might just prefer traditionally sourced meat to lab-grown meat. An economic reason for a drawback of lab-grown meat is price. In 2013, one hamburger patty that was grown in a lab cost around $280,000 USD (Axworthy 2019). However, recent developments in technology have allowed a significant price decrease to $10 USD per patty by 2022. The meat and dairy industry also contributes to about 5.6% of the GDP and it provides about 5.6 million jobs per year (Mayhall 2019).

While price is the biggest obstacle, there are many ways that lab-grown meat can benefit the economy. Since each animal has trillions of cells, the amount of return per animal will be very high; this means that the lab-grown meat process will theoretically be very efficient. Furthermore, creating cell banks out of animals to cultivate meat will allow for a shift away from the genotypic selection of high yield animals, which can be an energy intensive process (Stephens et al. 2018)Stephens et al. (2018) concludes that this phenomenon will occur because traditional livestock, which can thrive in low input and low energy systems, can be used to harvest cells. With lower maintenance and lower energy systems being used, the economic benefits spill over into the environmental sector. Lab-grown meat also eliminates the financial burden of carcass management. According to Stephens et al. (2018), carcass management is the greatest challenge in terms of waste management in the meat industry. Lab-grown meat can eliminate this problem because only the cuts of meat will be produced without relying on a live animal for the meat source.

One of the common arguments against lab-grown meat is that there will be no diversity in product i.e a few major firms will dominate the market leaving consumers very little variety to choose from. Stephens et al. (2018) argues that like craft beers and cheeses, lab-grown meat will follow suit. Even though the live animal is eliminated from the process, there are different technological innovations that the producers of the meat can use to diversify their product. The major drawback is that technology simply has not caught up yet on the large scale. Saying that there will be more innovations is easier said than done. However, if the price of a lab-grown hamburger patty can decrease significantly, as predicted, then it is reasonable to be optimistic about technological developments in this field of cellular agriculture.

            Environmental Sustainability While social acceptance and economic benefits are important, the primary driver for the lab-grown meat industry is the long lasting environmental benefits it is predicted to have. As previously stated, lab-grown meat can thrive off of cell cultures that are taken from traditional livestock that are not high yield animals. Additionally, Stephens et al. (2018) concludes that moving away from traditional livestock would require lower maintenance and will have a lower environmental impact.

The World Health Organization (2019) has reported that the global meat and dairy industry contributes to 24% of greenhouse gas emissions annually. Mayhall (2019) states that the agriculture industry occupies 40% of ice-free land globally. The inefficient use of land coupled with the energy intensive process for producing meat is a huge contributor to net GHG emissions. Because lab-grown meat can be done in a building, deforestation to create space for pastures is also reduced. As seen in Figure 2, the process to create a meat product in a lab is much faster than the time it takes to raise and slaughter an animal using traditional methods; this reduces the requirement for land and energy. A counter argument to the previously mentioned Global North and South division is that any country should theoretically be able to produce lab-grown meat. This would reduce the requirement of transportation for the exporting of certain cuts of meat to other countries who may be reliant on those products (Mayhall 2019).

One of the biggest challenges to the lab-grown meat industry is that it is complicated to get mass level production started due to the current scientific challenges. However, if there were a global effort focused on tackling the beef and dairy cattle emissions, that would significantly reduce the yearly emissions. According to (Gerber et al. 2015), beef and dairy cattle contribute to 65% of the agricultural sector’s emissions; this breakdown is shown in Figure 6. Additionally, even by the tons of protein, beef is still the highest contributor by far as shown in Figure 7. Figure 6 from Gerber et al. (2015)shows that the biggest contributor to cattle emissions is enteric methane production, which accounts for 34% of cattle GHG emissions. Comparing these statistics to lab-grown meat: land use will be 99% less, water use will be 90% less, and energy use will be 45% less (Penn 2018). Other spillover effects resulting from lab-grown meat are water quality improvement and the reduction in antibiotic resistance. Livestock pastures require significant amounts of fertilizer, which creates runoff into nearby bodies of water. The buildup of nitrogen and phosphorous products in the water causes eutrophication, resulting in dead zones where no oxygen is present in the water. This is harmful for the aquatic life that lives in those water bodies. Statistics also support this claim: In the United States alone, livestock production contributes to 55% of erosion, 37% of pesticide use, 50% of antibiotic use, and 33% of nitrogen and phosphorus water pollution (Penn 2018).  Reduced livestock use will also translate into public-health benefits. (Penn 2018) cites the FDA data which shows the rise of preventative antibiotic sales by 23% from 2009 to 2014. The increased usage of preventative antibiotics contributes to the rise in antibiotic resistant bacteria, some of which can be hazardous to humans. Lab-grown meat will alleviate some of these issues because it has to be grown in an extremely sterile and controlled environment, i.e no bacteria. The same argument can also be made for hormones as well. Growth hormones that are added to processed meat have been shown to cause developmental, carcinogen, neurobiological, and genotoxic effects (Penn 2018). Some hormones used in the United States that cause these effects such as estradiol, which has been banned in other parts of the world such as Europe, would not be necessary in the production of lab-grown meat (Penn 2018).


   
 Figure 6. Gerber et al. 2013 This figure shows the equivalents of carbon dioxide per ruminant animal. Our focus in this figure was the beef cattle; it has the most amount of CO2 emissions compared to other ruminants used for meat. This was used to show that even if every firm specialized in eliminating cattle for beef production, the US would significantly reduce its agricultural sector’s CO2 emissions.  Figure 7. Gerber et al. 2013 This figure shows the global greenhouse gas emissions in kilograms of carbon dioxide comparable to kilograms of protein per product. The products they have included are within the meat, dairy, and egg industries. The largest producer, and with the widest range, being the beef industry with an average of just under 300 kg of CO2 per kg of beef protein.

Limitations

      Limited Research Because lab-grown meat is newer in the scientific world, there is limited research available to find accurate and up-to-date information on its progress. It also makes it difficult to tell how well a product such as this would do on a mass scale within all three pillars of sustainability. This is also evident in the public acceptance arguments because only a certain portion of the global population was surveyed, and is primarily conducted towards people either in the United States or developed European countries.

      Scientific Process The depictions of the scientific process and development of lab-grown meat come from science journals which can contain an inherent bias towards the topic. However, the articles we used mentioned some cons to the scientific experiments used in lab grown meat such as price and availability which helps alleviate some of the bias. To the best of our knowledge, we present the most accurate and full description for our argument in order to reduce the amount of bias as much as possible. 


Conclusions

Environmental Aspects: Lab-grown meat shows great potential to become a more environmentally sustainable alternative to traditionally farm-raised meat. Once able to produce on a mass scale, the reduction in land and resources used in its production could provide an effective decrease in carbon dioxide and methane production, while still providing the same quantity of meat for consumers. Additionally, the energy used by lab-grown production is 45% less than that of traditionally sourced beef. 

Economic Aspects: With lab-grown meat being fairly new, and largely still in the developmental stage, it is not yet an economically viable alternative to the current meat industry, especially on a mass scale. Much of the technology needed for lab-grown meat to be produced on a mass scale has yet to be developed, leading to an increase in cost per unit of meat. We have already seen great reductions in price within the last few decades as the technology has advanced, and the technique of production has been modified. 

Social Aspects: Currently, there are many negative connotations and concerns that go along with lab-grown meat; many of which come from a lack of information. Unfortunately, due to lab-grown meat still being developed, much of the information is unknown or could change as its development progresses. It is also difficult to determine the best way to market the product while also not creating negative connotations for it or the traditional farm-raised meat industry. 


Citations


Bhat, Z. F., Kumar, S., & Fayaz, H. (2015). In vitro meat production: Challenges and benefits over conventional meat production. Journal of Integrative Agriculture, 14(2). 241-248. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2095-3119(14)60887-X 










Tuomisto, H. L., Ellis, M. J., & Hasstrup, P. (2014). Environmental impacts of cultured meat: alternative production scenarios.  Proceedings of the 9th International Conference on Life Cycle Assessment in the Agri-Food Sector, San Francisco, USA, October, 2014. Vashon, WA, USA: American Center for Life Cycle Assessment. https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/38629617.pdf


Acknowledgements

This project would not have been successful without the contributions of the outstanding students in our Food Systems, Sustainability, and Climate Change class.  We would particularly like to acknowledge the wonderful and challenging questions, and the specific knowledge that students with different areas of expertise provided.


About the Authors 


Thrishna Chathurvedula is a junior studying Genetics and Genomics, and she plans on attending medical school in the Fall of 2021. Through this project, she has been able to pursue her interests in red meat alternatives. She has also been able to work on the challenges of marketing a technologically innovative product to consumers. 

Erin Springer is a sophomore studying Food Science. She is interested in improving food safety and regulations within the food industry, as well as finding more sustainable means of production of food. Through this project, she has been able to work with an up and coming product in the food market. 


Kaitlyn Younger is a sophomore studying Food Science. She is interested in research and development and hopes to one day see her own food creations on grocery shelves. This project has allowed her to learn of an up-and-coming food product and see what challenges it faces as it integrates into the market.





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