Lab-Grown Meat Debate Overlooks Cows' Range of Use Worldwide
By Alison Van Eenennaam
A battle royale is brewing over what to call animal cells grown in cell culture for food. Should it be in-vitro meat, cellular meat, cultured meat or fermented meat? What about animal-free meat, slaughter-free meat, artificial meat, synthetic meat, zombie meat, lab-grown meat, non-meat or artificial muscle proteins?
Then there is the polarizing "fake" versus "clean" meat framing that boils this complex topic down to a simple good versus bad dichotomy. The opposite of fake is of course the ambiguous but desirous "natural." And modeled after "clean" energy, "clean" meat is by inference superior to its alternative, which must logically be "dirty" meat.
The narrative posited by, for now let us call it cultured meat, proponents is that animal agriculture requires large amounts of land and water, and produces high levels of greenhouse gases (GHG). The environmental impacts of a product, such as a beef hamburger, is then compared to the anticipatory ones for producing a cultured hamburger patty through tissue engineering-based cellular agriculture.
I research how biotechnology can improve livestock production, and while it is true that conventional meat production has a large environmental footprint, the problem with this dichotomous framing is that it overlooks the rest of the story.
Cattle produce more than just hamburgers for well-off consumers, and they typically do so by utilizing rain-fed forage growing on non-arable land. Additionally, cellular hamburger patties are themselves not an environmental impact-free lunch, especially from the perspective of energy use.
Energy Inputs Versus Methane
Cultured meat requires the initial collection of stem cells from living animals and then greatly expanding their numbers in a bioreactor, a device for carrying out chemical processes. These living cells must be provided with nutrients in a suitable growth medium containing food-grade components that must be effective and efficient in supporting and promoting muscle cell growth. A typical growth medium contains an energy source such as glucose, synthetic amino acids, antibiotics, fetal bovine serum, horse serum and chicken embryo extract.
If cultured meat is to match or exceed the nutritional value of conventional meat products, nutrients found in meat not synthesized by muscle cells must be supplied as supplements in the culture medium. Conventional meat is a high-quality protein, meaning it has a full complement of essential amino acids. It also provides a source of several other desirable nutrients such as vitamins and minerals, and bioactive compounds.
Therefore to be nutritionally equivalent, a cultured meat medium would need to provide all of the essential amino acids, along with vitamin B12, an essential vitamin found solely in food products of animal origin. Vitamin B12 can be produced by microbes in fermentation tanks, and could be used to supplement a cultured meat product. It would also be necessary to supplement iron, an especially important nutrient for menstruating females, that is also high in beef.
The process for making cultured meat has technically challenging aspects. It includes manufacturing and purifying culture media and supplements in large quantities, expanding animal cells in a bioreactor, processing the resultant tissue into an edible product, removing and disposing of the spent media, and keeping the bioreactor clean. Each are themselves associated with their own set of costs, inputs and energy demands.
The start-to-end environmental footprint—called a life cycle assessment (LCA)—of cultured meat at large scale is not available, as no group has yet achieved this feat. Anticipatory life cycle analyses are therefore based on a range of assumptions, and vary dramatically, ranging from favorable to unfavorable comparisons to conventional meat production.
One study concluded that "in vitro biomass cultivation could require smaller quantities of agricultural inputs and land than livestock; however, those benefits could come at the expense of more intensive energy use as biological functions such as digestion and nutrient circulation are replaced by industrial equivalents."
This idea of "industrial replacement of biological functions" emphasizes the point that nature has already developed a fully functional biological fermentation bioreactor for the conversion of inedible solar-powered cellulosic material, such as grass, into high-quality protein. It is called a cow. Ruminants have evolved, along with their large vat of rumen microbes, to digest cellulose, an insoluble carbohydrate, that is the main constituent of plant cell. That is their super power.
It does comes with the trade-off that methanogenic bacteria are required to perform this conversion and they produce methane, a greenhouse gas, that is subsequently burped up (eructated) by the cow.
A comparison of greenhouse gas emissions by source. During digestion, ruminants such as cows give off methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.EPA
To keep greenhouse gas emissions from livestock in perspective, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, all of agriculture is responsible for 9 percent of GHG emissions in the U.S., and collectively animal agriculture is responsible for slightly less than 4 percent. Entirely eliminating all animals from U.S. agricultural production systems would decrease GHG emission by only 2.6 percent. By contrast, energy production for electricity and transportation are each responsible for 28 percent of U.S. greenhouse gases.
Cattle and Land Use
On a global scale, the earth's 1.5 billion cattle are found in almost all climatic zones. They have been bred for adaptations to heat, cold, humidity, extreme diet, water scarcity, mountainous terrain, dry environments and for general hardiness. More than just hamburgers, they autonomously harvest forage on marginal lands to produce 66 million tons of beef, 6.5 billion tons of milk, macro- and micronutrients, fibers, hides, skins, fertilizer and fuel; and are used for transportation, draft power, a source of income, and a form of banking for millions of smallholder farmers in developing countries. Even in developed countries, the products and ecosystem services produced by cattle extend well beyond milk and harvestable boneless meat.
Land use per unit of beef varies significantly by region. It has been estimated that globally only 2 percent of the cattle population is produced in intensive feedlot systems, with the remaining 98 percent being produced on grassland-based grazing systems, or mixed crop and livestock systems. Grass and rangelands make up 80 percent of the 2.5 billion hectares of land used for livestock production, and most of this land is considered too marginal to be convertible to cropland.
Hypothetically removing ruminants from this non-arable land would mean that 57 percent of the land currently used for livestock production would no longer contribute to global food production. This does not consider the unintended impacts of removing grazing animals, which play an important role in maintaining healthy soil and grassland ecosystems. Rain, so-called "green" water as distinct to "blue" surface and ground water, would still fall on rangelands with no cattle, but it would generate no food. And ironically, it is this green rainfall that constitutes the vast majority of beef's water footprint. Beef LCA documents large amounts of land and water, but does not reflect that rain falling on non-arable land has no alternative food production use.
Cultured meat, or whatever it ends up being called, may provide an additional source of protein to help meet projected future demands, and it may further appeal to consumers who choose not to consume conventional meat for ethical or other reasons.
However, framing cultured meat as "clean," thereby unavoidably invoking dirty as the alternative, belittles the important role that ruminants play in global ecosystems and food security. Furthermore, I believe that overplaying the role that dietary choices actually play on GHG emissions in the U.S. distracts focus from reducing the much larger source of GHG from human activities—the burning of fossil fuels for electricity, heat and transportation.
Tyson Foods Invests in 'Clean Meat’ https://t.co/OawvFDJxwk #TysonFoods @OrganicConsumer @regeneration_in @peta @foodandwater @foodtank— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1517330206.0
Dr. Alison Van Eenennaam is a cooperative extension specialist in the field of animal genomics and biotechnology in the Department of Animal Science at the University of California, Davis.
Disclosure statement: Alison Van Eenennaam does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond her academic appointment.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.
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By Emily Grubert
Natural gas is a versatile fossil fuel that accounts for about a third of U.S. energy use. Although it produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants than coal or oil, natural gas is a major contributor to climate change, an urgent global problem. Reducing emissions from the natural gas system is especially challenging because natural gas is used roughly equally for electricity, heating, and industrial applications.
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What RNG Is and Why it Matters<p>Most equipment that uses energy can only use a single kind of fuel, but the fuel might come from different resources. For example, you can't charge your computer with gasoline, but it can run on electricity generated from coal, natural gas or solar power.</p><p>Natural gas is almost pure methane, <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/" target="_blank">currently sourced</a> from raw, fossil natural gas produced from <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/where-our-natural-gas-comes-from.php" target="_blank">deposits deep underground</a>. But methane could come from renewable resources, too.</p><p><span></span>Two main methane sources could be used to make RNG. First is <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks" target="_blank">biogenic methane</a>, produced by bacteria that digest organic materials in manure, landfills and wastewater. Wastewater treatment plants, landfills and dairy farms have captured and used biogenic methane as an energy resource for <a href="http://emilygrubert.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/eia_860_2017_map.html" target="_blank">decades</a>, in a form usually called <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/biomass/landfill-gas-and-biogas.php" target="_blank">biogas</a>.</p><p>Some biogenic methane is generated naturally when organic materials break down without oxygen. Burning it for energy can be beneficial for the climate if doing so prevents methane from escaping to the atmosphere.</p>
Renewable Isn’t Always Sustainable<p>If RNG could be a renewable replacement for fossil natural gas, why not move ahead? Consumers have shown that they are <a href="https://www.nrel.gov/analysis/green-power.html" target="_blank">willing to buy renewable electricity</a>, so we might expect similar enthusiasm for RNG.</p><p>The key issue is that methane isn't just a fuel – it's also a <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/ghg_report/ghg_overview.php" target="_blank">potent greenhouse gas</a> that contributes to climate change. Any methane that is manufactured intentionally, whether from biogenic or other sources, will contribute to climate change if it enters the atmosphere.</p><p>And <a href="http://doi.org/10.1126/science.aar7204" target="_blank">releases</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2019.07.029" target="_blank">will happen</a>, from newly built production systems and <a href="https://theconversation.com/why-methane-emissions-matter-to-climate-change-5-questions-answered-122684" target="_blank">existing, leaky transportation and user infrastructure</a>. For example, the moment you smell gas before the pilot light on a stove lights the ring? That's methane leakage, and it contributes to climate change.</p><p>To be clear, RNG is almost certainly better for the climate than fossil natural gas because byproducts of burning RNG won't contribute to climate change. But doing somewhat better than existing systems is no longer enough to respond to the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2923" target="_blank">urgency</a> of climate change. The world's <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/" target="_blank">primary international body on climate change</a> suggests we need to decarbonize by 2030 to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.</p>
Scant Climate Benefits<p><a href="https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab9335/meta" target="_blank">My recent research</a> suggests that for a system large enough to displace a lot of fossil natural gas, RNG is probably not as good for the climate as <a href="https://investor.southerncompany.com/information-for-investors/latest-news/latest-news-releases/press-release-details/2020/Southern-Company-Gas-grows-leadership-team-to-focus-on-climate-action-innovation-and-renewable-natural-gas-strategy/default.aspx" target="_blank">is publicly claimed</a>. Although RNG has lower climate impact than its fossil counterpart, likely high demand and methane leakage mean that it probably will contribute to climate change. In contrast, renewable sources such as wind and solar energy do not <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/carbon/" target="_blank">emit climate pollution directly</a>.</p><p>What's more, creating a large RNG system would require building mostly new production infrastructure, since RNG comes from different sources than fossil natural gas. Such investments are both long-term commitments and opportunity costs. They would devote money, political will and infrastructure investments to RNG instead of alternatives that could achieve a zero greenhouse gas emission goal.</p><p>When climate change first <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/24/us/global-warming-has-begun-expert-tells-senate.html" target="_blank">broke into the political conversation</a> in the late 1980s, investing in long-lived systems with low but non-zero greenhouse gas emissions was still compatible with aggressive climate goals. Now, zero greenhouse gas emissions is the target, and my research suggests that large deployments of RNG likely won't meet that goal.</p>
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By Charli Shield
When an elephant dies in the wild, it's not uncommon to later find its bones scattered throughout the surrounding landscape.
Elephant Burial Grounds<p>Highly social creatures that form deep familial bonds, elephants have long been observed gathering at the site where a peer or family member has died — often spending hours, even days, quietly investigating the bodies or the bones of other dead elephants.</p><p>Although the popular idea that dying elephants are instinctively drawn to special communal graves — so-called "elephant graveyards" — is a myth, their tendency to go out of their way to visit the bones and tusks of the deceased isn't unlike human rituals at graveyards, says animal psychologist Karen McComb.</p><p>"They spend a lot of time touching and smelling skulls and ivory, placing the soles of their feet gently on top of them, and also lifting them up with their trunks," McComb, who's been studying African elephants for 25 years in Kenya's Amboseli National Park, told DW.</p><p>The most striking part of watching an elephant experience loss, Poole recalls, is the quietude. She still remembers one of the first elephant deaths she witnessed; a mother who birthed a stillborn calf. That elephant stayed with its baby for two days, trying to lift it and defending it from vultures and hyenas.</p><p>"I was so struck by the expression on her face and her body. She looked so dejected. It was really like, 'Oh God, these animals grieve…'. It was just so different," Poole told DW. </p>
Witnessing Emotions in Animals<p>Not all scientists are comfortable concluding that elephants grieve. Among the more than 30 reports of elephant reactions to death that Wittemyer co-reviewed in <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10329-019-00766-5" target="_blank">a study published in November 2019</a> were accounts of "enormous variation and nuance" he says. "It can be incredibly involved and intricate for extended periods or can be relatively cursory checks."</p><p>In Wittemyer's own experience, it can be difficult not to attribute some kind of emotional experience to the more involved interactions between elephants and their dead.</p><p>He shares the story of an "extraordinary event" involving the death of a 55 year-old matriarch in Kenya in a protected area that happened to be near his place of work. She was visited by multiple unrelated families while she was dying, including another matriarch that exerted such enormous effort attempting to lift her to her feet that she broke her tusk, which Wittemyer says, is "like breaking a tooth." </p><p><span></span>"It was a remarkable example of this heightened emotional state, it was very clearly a very stressful interaction," he says.</p>
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