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Cellular Agriculture: Environmental Impacts – The Meaty Topics

Apr 1, 2021 | Animal Cells

We are digging into the Cellular Agriculture industry, finding out more on the ‘meaty’ topics for companies and end users. From the environmental impacts to costs and regulation, join us as we explore the most important considerations for the sector.

Environmental impacts

For the Cultivated Meat industry, as in many sectors, the environmental impact of production and how to minimise it is an important issue. The Good Food Institute recently released a lifecycle assessment (LCA) of the impact of producing cultivated meat – which gave us some great food for thought.

What should we pay attention to?

The three areas that the GFI found had the highest influence on environmental impact were: energy sourcing and usage at the production facility; energy sourcing and usage for cell culture media inputs; and efficiency of the media usage. That is not to say these are the only areas where cultivated meat can reduce the environmental burden compared with traditional meat-derived protein production.

Sustainable inputs

In a world hyper-familiar with the impacts of climate change, sustainable methods for energy generation are crucial to nascent industries. As an energy-intensive sector, unlocking the full capacity of renewable energy will be vital for the long-term growth of the Cultivated Meat market.

One thing the GFI noted, and is particularly apt for Roslin Tech, is that location matters. There needs to be sustainable energy infrastructure in place in order to take advantage of the creation of sustainable and renewable energy. We are based in Scotland, and more specifically, at the Roslin Innovation Centre on the University of Edinburgh’s Easter Bush campus. The Easter Bush campus has received multiple sustainability awards for its energy usage and reduction tactics, many of which are aimed at increasing energy savings and reducing environmental impact. The Charnock Bradley building itself, where Roslin Tech are based, has a BREEAM Excellent rating and an ambitious 60% CO2 saving over 2007 Scottish Building Regulations.

Panorma shot of the outside of the Charnock Bradley Building

As a country, Scotland generated 97.4% of the national gross electric consumption from renewables in 2020 – an increase of nearly 8% on 2019. This is still below the stated Scottish Government goal of 100%, however moving forwards, this is a fantastic baseline to have. Especially in Scotland, there is a real drive to put our natural resources – wind and rain – to good use.

The use of renewable energy will only become more standard and embedded as time goes on. By 2030, Scotland has a target of 50% renewable energy for total energy consumption. While we are nearly at 100% for electricity generation, electric consumption is only a small fish in the energy usage pond. Heating and transportation are the two big sectors that renewable energy needs to make inroads into, to ensure that the 50% target is met.

The numbers are quite exceptional. Comparing conventional energy with renewable sources, there is an 80% reduction in carbon output when using renewable energy. Renewable sources will help cultivated meat production hold on to their carbon footprint reduction even when traditional meat production reduces its carbon footprint. This is most pronounced with beef production, but even cultivated chicken reduces its environmental burden by 17% when compared to conventional chicken production, as shown by the table below, showing the environmental impact comparison between traditional and cultivated meat production (Good Food Institute).

Graph from GFI report highlighting environmental impacts of cultivated meat production

Giving space back to the natural environment

While using more sustainable energy sources can limit climate change and carbon emissions, the sheer efficiency of cultivated meat production can change how land is used. With 3.5 times more efficiency in production when converting feed into protein compared with conventional chicken (which is already the most efficient form of traditional meat), GFI found that land use can be reduced by between 63-95% when using cultured methods – a huge decrease.

In addition, cultivated meat production facilities will not have anywhere near the land use footprint compared with traditional counterparts. Once the land no longer needs to be used for animal protein production, it can be repurposed. Carbon emissions can be offset through rebuilding local flora and creating carbon-rich sinks, or land could be used for growing other food for human consumption.

Protecting populations

While cultivated meat production has clear climate change and land use benefits, the wider environmental impact on the food chain and with humans is notable. In general terms, there is improved food safety, as there is no potential for zoonosis that is associated with traditional animal agriculture or other food-borne illnesses. There is also no antibiotic usage which will impact the threat selection for resistance – the process of cultivated meat production is “animal-free” and sterile, no antibiotics are needed.

Meat, but not as you know it

The production of cultivated meat is an efficient process. The feed conversion ratio, measuring the effectiveness with which an animal converts feed into the desired output, is more efficient for all species when producing its cultivated meat counterpart. The GFI report found that cultivated chicken had a 3.5 times more effective conversion rate, while cultivated beef was 16 times more efficient. Cultivated meat production appears to be better at utilising resources to generate the same level of output.

The media in which cultivated meat cells grow is hugely important and cultivated meat production is at the mercy of cell line resilience. A failed production run could mean that media could not be used again. As Roslin Tech’s induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cell lines are immortal, they are likely to be more resilient than other types of cells currently used in cultivated meat production, which senesce after multiple passages.

What does the future hold?

The future for cultivated meat is bright. With countries making concerted efforts to focus on and build new sustainable energy infrastructure, the environmental benefits that can be gained through cultivated meat production will be key to producing a sustainable source of protein for a growing world population.