Lab-Grown Meat Can't Fix the Planet That Capitalism Broke

A recent study argued that we shouldn’t assume lab-grown meat is more emission-friendly than beef. The whole truth is much more structural and bleak.

Feb 28 2019, 5:05pm

Earlier this month, an article published in Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems asked a very reasonable question: is lab-grown meat actually more emission-friendly than conventionally farmed meat on a long-term timescale—say, a millennium?

Many media outlets reported the findings because on its face, this research seems like proof that it’s dangerous to rely on science and technology to save the world from climate change. But there are many caveats to this research. And more broadly, the research highlights an uncomfortable duality in stories about finding alternatives or solutions to sources of emissions: it’s dangerous to rely on technological or scientific advances to fix things, but it’s also both inevitable and good that technology and science will change things.

In the end, the researchers argue that lab-grown meat isn’t necessarily more sustainable than certain beef-production scenarios because making lab-grown meat emits carbon dioxide, which stays in the atmosphere longer than methane produced by live cows. But there are a few catches. First, the paper only considers carbon emissions from transportation in one of the three scenarios for beef transportation, and none of the scenarios for lab-grown meat.

The research also doesn’t consider food waste, food access, or food distribution with conventional farming, which affects its environmental impact. It also doesn’t consider the massive emissions from deforestation, which destroys carbon sinks, or places that carbon can be sucked up by the land. Most deforestation is done in order to support livestock. In regions like the Amazon, as much as 80 percent of deforestation has been done to support livestock. According to the chapter 11 of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report, greenhouse gas flux associated with agricultural land use accounts for about 9–11 percent of all human greenhouse gas emissions. For perspective, the livestock supply chains accounts for another 14.5 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.

The study says that carbon dioxide emissions from lab-grown meat could be higher than methane emissions from regular beef. But the study still admits, “It should be noted that all cultured meat carbon dioxide equivalent footprint estimates, including the high end of the sensitivity analysis, are lower than those of every cattle system in this study.”

In other words, beef will always emit more carbon dioxide and methane than cultured beef.

John Lynch, one of the lead researchers behind the study, told Motherboard in an email, “this is one of the key points of the study: that our conventional carbon dioxide equivalent footprints cannot give a complete account of how different emissions affect the climate.”

These researchers are not the first people to examine the environmental impact of lab-grown meat. But practically all prior studies of the environment impact of lab-grown meat, four of which are cited in the article, conclude that lab-grown meat are more emission-friendly than regular beef. The researchers argue that these studies fail to account for the fact that carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for a thousand years, while methane stays in the atmosphere for just twelve years, which is fair.

But in this study, the 2013 to 2015 versions of lab-grown meat continue to emit less greenhouse gases than regular beef for almost 200 years. In most scenarios, multiple versions of lab-grown meat never emit more greenhouse gases than regular beef. (The researchers introduce four methods of lab-grown meat, and three methods of beef agriculture. They also map out three scenarios of consumption: perpetual consumption, a century-long phaseout ending in zero consumption, and an increase in consumption followed by a decline.)

It’s very, very unlikely that methods of lab-grown meat production will stay the same and not become any more carbon-efficient in the next 10-20 years—nevermind 200-1,000 years. Lab-grown meat didn’t even exist until 2013. It’s incontrovertible that scientific advances will happen, and in fact, they’ll probably happen quickly. Tissue engineering efforts are expanding very rapidly, and it could reach commercial markets in less than five years.

 Screenshot from the study, edited by Caroline Haskins to show the points at which emissions for lab-grown meat surpasses the emissions for regular beef.
Image: Screenshot from the study, edited by Caroline Haskins to show the points at which emissions for lab-grown meat surpasses the emissions for regular beef.

Still, it’s good that these researchers hold lab-grown meat to a higher level of scrutiny, because studies like these establish the fact that future versions of lab-grown meat should be designed to emit less carbon. It’s not only fair, but necessary to prioritize emission-lowering innovations.

Yet as highlighted in Nathaniel Rich's piece "Losing Earth"—a historical examination of the 1980s as it relates to inaction on climate change—relying on the nebulous idea of scientific or technological advances has historically served as an excuse that encourages complacency.

Similarly, today, carbon recapture is receiving hundreds of millions of dollars of funding, but the results are mediocre, at best. Right now, it’s not a financially or logistically realistic technology to implement at a large scale. In the IPCCs October “1.5 Degree Report,” scientists from around the world said that carbon recapture is necessary, but it should only be expected to skim off a small amount of excess emissions in a scenario where carbon emissions are barely above zero.

“The speed of transitions and of technological change required to limit warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels has been observed in the past within specific sectors and technologies,” the report states. “But the geographical and economic scales at which the required rates of change in the energy, land, urban, infrastructure, and industrial systems would need to take place are larger and have no documented historic precedent.”

Right now, we’re emitting more than 32 gigatonnes of carbon annually (a gigatonne is one billion metric tonnes). In short, carbon recapture technology isn’t a solution for our consumption levels as they are.

There isn’t danger in technological innovation in and of itself. Rather, there’s danger in how that technological innovation plays out within a larger global economy.

“I think we actually do need a fair amount of innovation,” Matthew Huber, a professor of geography at Syracuse University told Motherboard in a phone call. “But I think in our current society, innovation is narrowly guided by what is profitable. That’s the problem. We only ask what innovations are going to make private investors money.”

Daniel Nyberg, a professor of business at the University of Newcastle in Australia, told Motherboard in an email that technological innovations are in service of the economy as it is. “We are basically trying to materially reconfiguring the Earth so that we won’t have to reconfigure our economy,” Nyberg said.

In a large sense, however, this duality between needing technological innovation yet not being able to rely on it exists in very niche conversations about preventing the worst effects climate change. Climate change is a sickness of world institutions.

Charles Derber, a professor of political economy at Boston College, told Motherboard in a phone call that technological innovation is good and necessary for a rapidly changing world. But it often functions as a political buzzword that stifles more complex conversations about economic institutions and climate change.

“Innovation, in my view, is a language of legitimization of denial of structural forces that are really central to dealing with climate change issues,” Derber said. “If you say ‘well, we innovate our way out,’ you’re essentially not only saying that the basic structure of the economy is compatible with solving climate change, but that it’s the best way. It’s a really dangerous discourse because it not only heightens technology as the basis of both the solution and the problem, but it leads to digging people more deeply into the economic system that’s driving the problem.”

The IPCC’s 1.5 Degree Report states that the public and private institutions that organize the world as we know it have to change if we want to prevent the worst effects of climate change. The report states that major shifts in “technical choices and institutional arrangements, consumption and lifestyles, infrastructure, land use, and spatial patterns” will need to occur in order to support changes in energy production and use, transportation, land use, and urban infrastructure.

When it comes to food, this means that factors like “conservation agriculture, improved livestock management, increasing irrigation efficiency, agroforestry and management of food loss and waste” will have to be institutionally regulated. Even at the individual level, the report states that institutional support should enable choices like dietary shifts like eating less meat. (Granted, the report does note that it’s unclear how institutional support for dietary shifts would occur, in practice.)

It’s clear that we need structural societal change in order to address climate change. The problem is that countries around the world are governed by neoliberal institutions that are designed to make the world safe for capitalism.

In his book Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism, Quinn Slobodian explains that extra-national market institutions like the World Bank, World Trade Organization, and the International Monetary Fund were designed to protect capitalism as an economic system. Now, as the saying goes, “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.”

In pretty much every industry, maximum profits are incompatible with appropriate climate change adaptation. We see this in the utility industry, for example. Private utility companies are driven by the “hand of the market” to maintain their dirty fuel assets and never transition to clean energy, despite the fact that these assets are unsafe and often fuel wildfires. According to a new Yale Program on Climate Change Communication report, 85 percent of registered American voters want their local utility companies to transition to clean energy. Private sector forces have fundamentally undemocratic business methods and incentives.

Across party lines, a majority of American citizens want corporations to fight climate change. But companies have consistently proven that they won’t act on their own accord, and even tech companies have realized that they can make a buck off accelerating the climate crisis. In Brian Merchant’s recent Gizmodo report, he found that companies like Amazon, Google, and Microsoft are all lending computing services to oil and gas companies in order to streamline their operations and maximize these companies’ profits.

On a macro-level, Trump has justified attempting to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord by stating that the agreements propose “financial and economic burdens” on the US specifically. But a majority of registered voters think that the US should do what it has to do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, regardless of what other countries do, as of December 2018. Trump’s capitalist justification for not acting on climate change doesn’t matter to voters.

Now, let’s talk about beef. 80 percent of American beef is processed by just four companies: Tyson Foods, Cargill Meat Solutions, JBS USA, and National Beef Packing Co. The neoliberal, “market-friendly” conditions that allow these companies to make as much profit as possible isn’t compatible with limiting greenhouse gas emissions from beef. Regulation that’s aimed at “conservation agriculture, improved livestock management, increasing irrigation efficiency, agroforestry and management of food loss and waste,” like the IPCC recommends, will hurt profit margins for companies that buy, package, and sell meat.

Our problem isn’t that lab-grown meat may, under very specific conditions, emit more greenhouse gases than certain types of beef several hundred years from now. Our problem is that we’ve built global economic institutions designed to protect private profits at the expense of human lives. Our problem isn’t lab-grown meat. It’s capitalism.