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Meat cultured in laboratory conditions from stem cells. | Getty Images/iStockphoto

Cell-based meat’s sustainability complex for pet food

Although rare in the pet food market, animal muscle tissue grown from cell cultures already has many names. Cell-cultured, lab-grown, slaughter-free, cultivated or in vitro meat goes by many aliases, each with different implications about the products. Other aspects of cell-cultured meat are just as complex. Over the years, researchers have questioned the environmental sustainability of cellular agriculture, largely because of the amount of energy used to produce meat outside of an animals’ body. Although animal welfare advocates favor laboratories over feedlots, the wider effects of cell-based meat could have negative effects on wildlife and interconnected ecosystems of the planet. Considering the importance of the environment to many pet owners, cellular agriculture may need to reduce its carbon footprint before pet food buyers accept the products, even as costs drop from the third of a million dollars that the first cell-cultured burger cost in 2013.

Supporters believe cell-culture technology will fulfill demand for animal muscle tissue without the need for farms. Growing meat in vitro hypothetically could reduce pollution and habitat loss associated with rearing, slaughtering and transporting livestock. Along with resource use reduction, animal rights advocates hope cell-cultured meat will decrease demand for cattle, chicken and other livestock kept in captivity. Cell-cultured meats also reduce the chance of zoonotic disease spreading from livestock and wild game to people. Nevertheless, production of cell-cultured tissues requires specialized infrastructure, and the lifetime sustainability assessments of the products need to incorporate construction and other start-up costs. Producing meat the old-fashioned way remains much less expensive than cell-cultured novel pet food proteins.

Environmental effects of cellular agriculture

Along with higher prices for consumers, cell-based meats may take a heavier toll on the environment. The October 2023 issue of the journal Nature Food focused on cellular agriculture. In one of the articles, a researcher at the University of Helsinki, Finland detailed challenges to assessing the ecological effects of the technology. With cellular agriculture in its infancy, assessing the environmental impact of a full-grown industry remains difficult.

In an earlier study, scientists at the University of Oxford assessed the effects of cellular agriculture on climate change. Their findings suggested that, over the long term, cultured meat production methods may require large enough energy inputs that the technology could increase global warming more than some types of cattle farming. Their analysis assumed that energy production remained dependent on fossil fuels. If people transition to renewable resources, the energy demands of cellular agriculture become less of a problem. The Oxford scientists simulated carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O) produced as a result of beef from cattle versus cell-cultured meat, and compared how global temperatures would rise.

“Cattle systems are associated with the production of all three greenhouse gases above, including significant emissions of CH4, while cultured meat emissions are almost entirely CO2 from energy generation,” the scientists wrote in a 2019 paper published in Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems. “Under continuous high global consumption, cultured meat results in less warming than cattle initially, but this gap narrows in the long term and in some cases cattle production causes far less warming, as CH4 emissions do not accumulate, unlike CO2.”

While future developments in cellular agriculture may be able to beat conventional livestock at resource conservation and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, current technologies have limited environmental sustainability credibility. Especially for pet food, plant-, fungus- and insect-based protein sources may remain the ecological choices into the near future.

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