In 2013, the first lab-grown burger was cooked and eaten at a press conference for a hefty price of $330,000. The event marked the first use of cellular agriculture, a method of growing animal cells artificially in a lab to make meat from scratch. Since then the technology hasn’t changed too much, but hundreds of startups are racing to push the first lab-grown meat products into the market at reasonable prices.

Any new meat products that are artificially produced will have to compete with the biggest non-meat meat products out there already: plant-based meat products. Veggie burgers and faux meat has taken the US by storm and gained popularity quickly because of its health benefits and similarity to real meat. Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are two brands which are quickly gaining traction in the meat market as sustainable plant-based replacements for real meat. Plant-based meat sales were up 20% in 2018 from the previous year.

Additionally, now more than ever, consumers are looking to be environmentally friendly in their food choices, and plant-based meat serves that purpose well because it doesn’t require that we use animals to make it. Making real meat products requires cattle to be raised and slaughtered, taking up forest space for grazing land and producing large amounts of methane. In fact, livestock currently contribute to about 15% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. According to MIT Technology Review, a quarter of the planet’s ice-free land is used to graze them, and a third of all cropland is used to grow food for them. The effect of cattle on global greenhouse gases is expected to rise drastically as the population increases in the coming years.

Lab-grown meat (photo via Blair Kunkel)

As such, lab-grown meat could provide a necessary solution to the growing problems of the meat industry in regard to climate change. The need to raise cattle would decrease, thereby decreasing worldwide methane emissions dramatically. A large enough decrease in the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by livestock could be just the thing humans need to stop the Earth from reaching dangerous temperatures. The growing demand for sustainable food production has led to the rise of the veggie burger, and if lab-grown meat prices are lowered, it could also lead to the rise of artificial meat in our daily diets.

But a recent study in the journal Frontiers for Sustainable Food Systems proposes that lab-grown meat could be worse for the environment than regular meat. The study’s main argument is that different greenhouse gases have different effects on global warming, and previous studies have lumped all greenhouse gases together as if they were the same.

This study states the methane produced by cows, while abundant, only lasts for a decade or so, whereas carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for upwards of a century. The labs which produce artificial meat also produce a lot of carbon dioxide, meaning they could potentially be worse for the environment than the cows which produce normal meat.

Although, the model used to perform the study assumed that we would still be using the same energy-inefficient methods of making lab-grown meat in 1,000 years. This is rather unlikely, but the model still serves to show that current methods of growing meat should not carry too much hope in terms of replacing real meat and halting climate change.

Overall, lab-grown meat offers a possibly sustainable solution to the unsustainable practices of the meat industry. While it may not currently be a great solution for climate change, there is a chance that our methods of producing lab-grown meat could significantly improve in the future, meaning an eco-friendly alternative to real meat production. As of now, the science of growing artificial meat still needs to come a long way, but there is hope.

Featured Image: David Parry/Reuters