Companies across the world are moving quickly to bring to the market hamburgers and other meat products that are grown from animal cells in a lab.
This month, Israeli-based company Future Meat Technologies raised $14 million to build a production plant for its cultured meat products, joining several dozen other start-ups poised to launch their first commercial products within the next couple years.
Lab-grown meat will replicate the taste and consistency of traditional meat. Many expect the move to the lab will especially appeal to people concerned about the role land-based animal agriculture has in accelerating climate change.
But as investments and research ramp up for lab-grown meat, more people are debating the environmental and health implications of widespread production of alternatives.
Some researchers speculate that depending on the efficiency of the production process, the rise of the cultured meat industry could actually make climate change worse than traditional beef production. One issue is the longer lasting impact of carbon pollution versus methane gas pollution.
"Lab meat doesn't solve anything from an environmental perspective, since the energy emissions are so high," said Marco Springmann, a senior environmental researcher at the University of Oxford.
"So much money is poured into meat labs, but even with that amount of money, the product still has a carbon footprint that is roughly five times the carbon footprint of chicken and ten times higher than plant-based processed meats," he said.
Despite these findings, commitment to protecting the environment is at the forefront of marketing efforts by plant-based protein and lab-created meat companies. Analysts project the market could be worth as much as $85 billion by 2030.
Animal agriculture remains a giant global economic force. It's responsible for nearly 15% of global greenhouse emissions, according to United Nations estimates. Roughly 65% of those emissions come from beef and dairy cattle.
Dozens of start-ups are racing to be the first to sell their lab-grown beef within the year. So far, the U.S. has at least nine cell-culturing companies out of the several dozen worldwide. The leading industries plan to release the first products, including like ground beef and chicken nuggets, by the end of this year.
Proponents of cultured meat say that producing it in a lab helps preserve endangered species and other animals, reduces greenhouse gas emissions and significantly curbs land and water use. Most of the cultured meat start-ups boast a firm commitment to protecting the environment.
MosaMeat in the Netherlands says that cultured meat generates up to 96% lower greenhouse gas emissions, and the company predicts that once cultured meat becomes a mass-market food, there will be no need for industrial farms.
Future Meat Technologies says its cultured products will take up 99% less land, 96% less freshwater and emit 80% less greenhouse gases than traditional meat production, according to its Life Cycle Assessment.
"One of the reasons that Future Meat Technologies stands out in the cultured meat field is that our proprietary high yield production process lends itself naturally to distributive manufacturing," said Yaakov Nahmias, the company's founder and chief scientist. "Because it's so efficient, I think we'll see more than an add-on to cattle production, but that it will start replacing it."
The company's process will allow farmers to shift production to a more sustainable, lower-risk and high-efficiency process, Nahmias said, and the small size of the company's production modules can also be powered by renewable energy.
Since the cultured-meat industry is in such an early stage, it's difficult to assess the actual carbon footprint of producing on a large scale without clear data on production processes.
As companies continue to develop their alternative meat products they'll likely face increasingly climate-conscious consumers or stricter regulations on emissions as the planet warms. This could encourage the growing industry to use cleaner energy and technologies for cultured meat, researchers say.
However, if large-scale cultured meat industries start producing a lot of carbon dioxide pollution, it could be as damaging for the planet as the beef and cattle emissions, according to the research published in the journal Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems.
The impact would depend on decarbonized energy generation and the production systems cultured meat companies use, the study says. The research points out that emissions from a meat lab produce energy made up of carbon dioxide, which persists in the atmosphere for hundreds of years. In contrast, methane, a potent greenhouse gas produced by raising and killing cattle, disappears from the atmosphere in about 12 years.
"In the past year, we've seen more hype and investment around cultured meat," said John Lynch, a researcher at Oxford University and co-author of the report.
"If these companies want to sell cultured meat as an environmental alternative, they will need to look at renewable energy resources for production. They need to have the drive to do it," he said.
Of course, that research is based on speculating about how labs will produce their products and contain emissions. The companies are not yet producing on a commercial scale and are still trying to cut costs as they compete to bring the product to the market.
"We'll need to take a step back and urge a bit more caution if environmental messaging continues to be a big part of advertising for cultured meat," Lynch said. "The interest of the companies is making it clear how will they produce in an environmentally sustainable way."
In a similar movement away from eating animals, companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger have gained popularity over the past few years. They produce fake meat products made from pea protein or genetically modified soy for consumers who want the taste to imitate a real burger, and market the environmental benefits of their products.
However, those fake meat products have also been debated by scientists, who argue that it's healthier and better for the environment to consume plant foods rather than processed alternatives.
Future Meat's Nahmias said that the research indicating that lab-grown meat could be worse for the environment than regular beef was widely "mischaracterized" as a claim against cultured meat.
"Under extreme cases, if you're using polluting energy, you can get to parity with traditional meat," he said. "We're far away from that extreme case, so I don't see that as a problem."
Future Meat's efficiency is expected to improve 10 times more in their new pilot production facility, he added, and the distributive manufacturing model will allow producers to couple each small facility to local renewable energy production.
"We are working in an industry with tight margins and thus a necessity for efficiency," said Cai Linton, founder of London-based start-up Multus Media, a group that's working to reduce the cost of lab-grown meat.
"As a company, our biggest environmental policy will be minimizing waste, particularly with regard to single-use plastics and fresh-water, and ensuring the electricity we use is produced sustainably and in a clean way."
Linton said that by the time his start-up is ready to scale up, he's confident the facilities will have net-zero carbon emissions.
"At this early stage, our estimations on efficiency and environmental impact will always be open to scrutiny since they are only projections," he said. "We must also consider that although the research and development required to create a commercially viable product may not have environmental protection at its core, the long term benefits of this technology far outweigh the short-term cost."