More myths busted around cellular meat?

Posted: 17 May 2023 | | No comments yet

In his latest column for New Food, Professor Chris Elliott questions climate claims around cellular agriculture and its potential impact on our food system.

chris' corner

In a previous column for New Food, I wrote about my thoughts on the viability of producing large amounts of meat using cellular technologies. I was, to put it politely, rather dubious about this, as I could not see the economics stack up. I have also been skeptical about some of the environmental claims made that replacing livestock-based meat systems for factory based ones will in the end be food for the planet.

Up to now this was based more on intuition than evidence. But a very interesting article appeared in New Scientist this week which was (to me) very enlightening.

Claims about the environmental credentials of different types of food must be based on robust ‘Life Cycle Assessments’, or LCAs as we call them in the sustainability arena. These measure a range of parameters regarding the inputs needed and pollution produced to grow/produce food. There are quite a number of different ways to calculate LCAs which doesn’t really help when comparing one set of data with another.

In the article two different studies were reported, one claimed cellular meat was better for the environment than animal-based, while another stated exactly the opposite, claiming that cellular meat generated a “Global Warming Potential” 25 times greater than that of retail beef.

So here we go again. One group of scientists saying one thing, only to be contradicted by another. So, who to believe? Looking into these two studies there is a very clear reason why they are so very different. The University of California study (in which I could not see a funding source mentioned and has not yet been peer-reviewed) was based on an LCA assessment of the current techniques being applied in cellular meat production, ie, similar to how the pharma industry operates in growing cell-based products (safety first).

The CE Delft consultants report, which was part-funded by the Good Food Institute (a group that has advocated for cultured meat in the past) decided it would use a rather futuristic approach. If all the problems of cellar meat production can be overcome in terms of quality, safety etc, then its figures are reliable.

Personally, I don’t mind looking into a crystal ball from time to time but to base a serious report on things, which in my opinion, will take many decades to resolve (if ever) isn’t an approach many scientists would think appropriate.

So where does the UK currently sit in cellular meat production? We are far from having a regulatory framework in place , though it was recently announced that the UK Government will invest £12 million in a new Cellular Agriculture Manufacturing Hub (CARMA). In the global scale of things this is a tiny amount of funding compared with the £2 billion invested to date in various cellular protein initiatives across the world.

So, a few questions then come to mind. Will CARMA make any significant contributions to achieving the massive scale up in knowledge needed to crack this technique? Secondly, in light of the sizeable food security challenges facing both the UK and the world, should any government pump £12 million into such a hub?

I am but a lone voice, but my answers are a resounding “no” to both.

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