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.
By Karen L. Smith-Janssen
Colette Pichon Battle gave a December 2019 TEDWomen Talk on the stark realities of climate change displacement, and people took notice. The video racked up a million views in about two weeks. The attorney, founder, and executive director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy (GCCLP) advocates for climate justice in communities of color. Confronted with evidence showing how her own South Louisiana coastal home of Bayou Liberty will be lost to flooding in coming years, the 2019 Obama Fellow dedicates herself to helping others still reeling from the impacts of Katrina face the heavy toll that climate change has taken—and will take—on their lives and homelands. Her work focuses on strengthening multiracial coalitions, advocating for federal, state, and local disaster mitigation measures, and redirecting resources toward Black communities across the Gulf South.
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By Stuart Braun
"These are not just wildfires, they are climate fires," Jay Inslee, Governor of Washington State, said as he stood amid the charred remains of the town of Malden west of Seattle earlier this month. "This is not an act of God," he added. "This has happened because we have changed the climate of the state of Washington in dramatic ways."
'These Aren't Wildfires'<p>Sam Ricketts, who led climate policy and strategy for Governor Jay Inslee's 2020 presidential campaign, tweeted on September 11 that "These aren't wildfires. These are #climatefires, driven by fossil fuel pollution."</p><p>"The rate and the strength and the devastation wrought by these disasters are fueled by climate change," Ricketts told DW of fires that have burnt well over 5 million acres across California, Oregon, Washington State, and into neighboring Idaho. </p><p>In a two-day period in early September, Ricketts notes that more of Washington State burned than in almost any entire fire season until now, apart from 2015. </p><p>California, meanwhile, was a tinderbox after its hottest summer on record, with temperatures in Death Valley reaching nearly 130 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the U.S. National Weather Service. It has been reported as the hottest temperature ever measured on Earth.</p>
<div id="29ad9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8346fe7350e1371d400097cd48bf45a2"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1306969603180879872" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Drought-parched wetlands in South America have been burning for weeks. https://t.co/pjAKdFcKPg #Pantanal https://t.co/ImN2C5vwcp</div> — NASA Earth (@NASA Earth)<a href="https://twitter.com/NASAEarth/statuses/1306969603180879872">1600440810.0</a></blockquote></div><p>As evidenced by Australia's apocalyptic Black Summer of 2019-2020, fires are burning bigger and for longer, with new records set year-on-year. Right now, Brazil's vast and highly biodiverse Pantanal wetlands are suffering from catastrophic fires.</p>
#climatefires Started in Australia<p>Governor Inslee this month invoked the phrase climate fires for arguably the first time in the U.S., according to Ricketts.</p><p>But the term was also used as fires burnt out of control in Australia in late 2019. In the face of a 2000km (more than 1,200 miles) fire front, and government officials and media who <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/trump-climate-change-denial-emissions-environment-germany-fake-heartland-seibt/a-52688933" target="_blank">played down the link to climate change</a>, Greens Party Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and a friend decided that reference to bushfires was inadequate. </p><p>"We both just said, we've got to start calling them climate fires, that's what they are," the Australian Senator told DW.</p><p>Hanson-Young says scientists have been warning for decades that these would be the effects of global heating. "We've been told these kinds of extreme weather events and destruction is what climate change would look like, and it's right here on our doorstep," she said from her home state of South Australia — where by early September fire warnings had already been issued.</p><p>"Calling them climate fires was making it absolutely crystal clear. It is essential that there's no ambiguity," she said </p><p>Having deliberately invoked the term, Hanson-Young soon started to push it on social media via a #climatefires hashtag. </p>
How to Talk About the Urgency of Global Heating<p>The need to use more explicit language when talking about extreme weather events linked to climate change is part of a broader push to express the urgency of global heating. In 2019, activist Greta Thunberg tweeted that the term "climate change" did not reflect the seriousness of the situation. </p><p>"Can we all now please stop saying 'climate change' and instead call it what it is: climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency, ecological breakdown, ecological crisis and ecological emergency?" she wrote. </p><p>"Climate change has for a long time been talked about as something that is a danger in the future," said Hansen-Young. "But the consequences are already here. When people hear the word crisis, they understand that something has to happen, that action has to be taken."</p><p><span></span>Some terms are now used in public policy, with state and national governments, and indeed the EU Parliament, declaring an official climate emergency in the last year. </p>
Words That Reflect the Science<p>But while the West Coast governors all fervently link the fires to an unfolding climate crisis, U.S. President Donald Trump continues to avoid any reference to climate. In a briefing about the fires, he responded to overtures by Wade Crowfoot, California's Natural Resources Secretary, to work with the states on the climate crisis by stating: "It'll start getting cooler. You just watch." Crowfoot replied by saying that scientists disagreed. Trump rejoined with "I don't think science knows, actually." </p><p>It was reminiscent of the anti-science approach to the coronavirus pandemic within the Trump administration, <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/donald-trump-admits-playing-down-coronavirus-risks/a-54874350" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">at least publicly</a>. Fossil fuel companies are also benefiting from his disavowal of climate science, with the Trump administration having <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/opinion-trumps-paris-climate-accord-exit-isnt-really-a-problem/a-51124958" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pulled out of the Paris Agreement</a> and reopened fossil fuel infrastructure like the Keystone XL pipeline. </p><p>But the science community has responded, with Scientific American magazine endorsing Trump's Democratic presidential challenger Joe Biden, the first presidential endorsement in its 175-year history. </p><p>Hanson-Young says the use of explicit language like climate fires has also been important in Australia due to the climate denialism of politicians and the press, especially in publications owned by Rupert Murdoch. As fires burnt out much of Australia's southeast coast, they were commonly blamed on arson — a tactic also recently used in the U.S.</p>
Climate Rhetoric Could Help Decide Election<p>The language of climate has begun to influence the U.S. presidential election campaign, with Democratic nominee Joe Biden labelling President Trump a "climate arsonist."</p><p>Biden is touting a robust climate plan that includes a 2050 zero emissions target and a return to the Paris Agreement. Though lacking the ambition of The New Green Deal, it has been front and center of his policy platform in recent days, at a time when five hurricanes are battering the U.S. Gulf Coast while smoke blanketing the West Coast spreads all the way to the East. </p><p>People are experiencing the climate crisis in a visceral way and almost universally relate to the language of an emergency, says Ricketts. "They know something is wrong."</p>
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