Meat production accounts for 18 percent of global emissions of greenhouse gases. The majority of these emissions come from deforestation to make way for pasture.

Field of dreams - Meat may soon be produced in the laboratory

Swedish meat production emits significantly less greenhouse gases than their international counterparts. But meat production is and will remain a part of the climate challenge. Meat grown in the laboratory can reduce emissions.

‘Meating’ the climate challenge

At 18 percent, meat production accounts for more global greenhouse gas emissions than the world’s cars and airplanes combined. The majority of these emissions come from deforestation but the animals also produce a large amount of methane, a greenhouse gas that is many times more potent than carbon dioxide.

In Sweden, the situation is different. There, agriculture as a whole accounts for about 13-16 percent of emissions. This figure includes all agricultural production, not just meat.

In Sweden, meat consumption is not as big a part of the climate challenge as it is elsewhere. But as more and more people are eating more, meat innovations may be required to make meat production more sustainable.

Laboratory-grown meat: a solution

The simplest and most intuitive solution to the problem of emissions from meat production is to eat less meat, but this is difficult. As people get richer, they also tend to want to eat more meat. There is a strong global trend indicating that the demand for meat will continue to increase.

Researchers hope that meat in the future will be grown in laboratories instead of coming from the slaughterhouse.

Potential reduction in emissions

The great benefit of growing meat in labs is that you avoid the emission of methane that the animals create. In addition, forests do not have to be felled to make room for grazing animals. Lab grown meat can be produced on a land area equal to one (1) percent of the area required for conventional meat production. In addition, water use is reduced by 96 percent and energy consumption by 45 percent.

Reduced methane emissions, avoidance of deforestation and significantly reduced energy and water consumption adds up to a carbon neutral meat production, given that renewable energy is used in the process.

Lab-grown meat – soon in a meat counter near you
Growing muscle cells is not difficult. The challenge is to get them to create something that looks like the meat we are accustomed to. To produce specific cuts isn’t going to happen soon, but to create ground meat is certainly possible.

So lab-grown hot dogs and hamburgers will likely be first. Researchers at Maastricht University expect to produce hot dogs and hamburgers from lab grown meat already in 2012. But it will take some time before it becomes cost effective.

Preliminary calculations indicate that lab-grown meat will become competitive as the technology develops and production becomes cheaper.

Additional benefits

There is nothing that says that artificially grown meat must be manipulated. It is perfectly possible to grow meat cells exactly similar to the cells that would occur if they grew naturally in an animal. But the possibility of further improving the quality of meat exists. For example, the fat content could be regulated and omega 3 could be added to the meat.

But to convince consumers that lab-grown meat is just as high quality as conventional meat can be a challenge. The alluring idea that grazing land could be reforested, or used more productively, means we probably will get used to the idea that meat will be grown by technicians and not by farmers in the near future.

The article was published in January 2012