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To Meat or Not To Meat...
How a preprint study got caught in the meat debate
Welcome to another issue of Thin Ink! This one was written on a multi-leg train journey including an overnight one, which is why it’s a little delayed. I hope you enjoy it anyway.
Earlier this month, food and science media picked up a preprint - meaning not yet peer-reviewed - and that coverage exploded on my timeline.
This study, by researchers at the University of California, Davis, found that lab-grown/ cultivated/ cultured meat produced under current and near-term production methods is likely to be much, much worse for the environment than the beef available for retail right now (in markets in the U.S., I assume).
Unsurprisingly, the findings and the coverage further entrenched positions in the debate. Meat eaters felt vindicated and advocates for alternative proteins poked holes in the study.
So of course I had to find out more about it. But let’s start from the basics since I haven’t written in detail about alternative proteins for Thin Ink.
What are alternative proteins?
These are essentially meat substitutes made using plants, hi-tech methods, or through fermentation. Unlike tofu or tempeh, Asian ingredients that have long been a staple for vegetarians, these new-generation products mimic the look, texture, and “mouthfeel” of meat.
The idea is that they will slash greenhouse gas emissions associated with conventional farming techniques and use much less land and water, two precious and finite resources on earth.
There are three main types of alternative proteins:
Plant-Based: Made from plant sources such as soybeans, peas, lentils, chickpeas, and other legumes. They are often processed and combined with other ingredients to create meat-like textures and flavors. These are already available. Example - Beyond Burger and Impossible Foods.
Cell-Based/ Cultivated/ Lab-grown: Made by growing animal cells in a bioreactor resembling beer-brewing vats. They are then cultivated and multiplied to create muscle tissue, and assembled to create meat products. Only two cell-based companies have received clearance from the US Food and Drug Administration.
Precision fermentation: Made by melding cutting-edge technology with age-old fermentation processes to turn otherwise harmful or everyday elements such as air, methane, fungi, bacteria or microbes, into essential food ingredients. Here’s a piece I wrote in 2019 about this approach. Products are already commercially available. Example - Perfect Day.
Why do we need them?
Because producing meat and dairy at an industrial scale is polluting, environmentally-destructive, and a key contributor of climate change. Often, we don’t treat the animals particularly well, either.
About 70% of food-system emissions come from livestock, particularly cattle, in high-income countries where they also eat a lot more meat, scientists have said. Livestock takes up nearly 80% of global agricultural land but produces less than 20% of the world’s supply of calories, according to Our World in Data.
Despite this, meat consumption continues to grow and is expected to continue.
You can read more in an earlier issue of Thin Ink or check out this very cool NYT interactive on the linkages between food and climate change.
What does this preprint say?
The highly technical paper looked at the environmental impact of cell-based meat from the cradle to the grave, also known as a life cycle assessment, by calculating energy usage and emissions associated with it across all stages of the production.
A key thing with cultivated meat is the use of growth factors, one of the most important, and costly, ingredients in the process and much of which is usually produced for pharmaceutical use.
In their model, the UC Davis researchers used Essential 8TM (E8), a growth medium for stem cell research, and examined six different scenarios, each involving different data sources and different growth factor requirements.
They found that in all the scenarios, the global warming potential of cell-based meat using these purified media is four to 25 times greater than the average for retail beef. Even when the medium is not purified, the potential is 25% greater.
Global warming potential = carbon dioxide equivalents emitted for each kilogram of meat produced
The researchers acknowledged they’re working with incomplete datasets in a very nascent industry and that more research is needed. Nevertheless, one thing is clear - if we want to make sure that cultivated meat is truly better than conventional meat, we need to make sure that every step of its production cycle is sustainable.
Now, if we are able to use food-grade ingredients instead of pharmaceutical-grade ones and renewable energy sources in the production processes, cultivated meat is much more environmentally competitive.
But the range is massive. “Cultured meat’s global warming potential could be between 80% lower to 26% above that of conventional beef production,” said an article by UC Davis. “While these results are more promising, the leap from “pharma to food” still represents a significant technical challenge for system scale-up.”
Some of the findings in this study comes from a companion paper, also a pre-print, that calculated the transportation requirements and environmental impacts of different growth media.
The authors said they did not take into account “product losses, cold storage, transportation, and other environmental impacts associated with the retail sale of beef” and inclusion of these post-production processes would increase the global warming potential even more.
They also didn’t consider the environmental cost of scaling up production facilities.
What do the critics say?
Proponents of alternative proteins have a few gripes about the paper.
They say the selection of growth media and the assumption made on how it will be used are too narrow and that the findings contradict earlier life cycle assessments that found cultivated meat to have lower environmental impact than conventional beef. Green Queen reported on those assessments.
The Good Food Institute (GFI), a non-profit established to promote the growth of alternative proteins, told Food Navigator that “several” key assumptions made in the study do not align with “current or expected” practices for sourcing and purification of cell culture media ingredients.
They also question why the media jumped on a preprint and made a big deal out of it, considering it hasn’t yet been peer reviewed. Others worry this is going to set back attempts to nudge consumers to adopt more planet-friendly diets.
In many ways, I understand the frustration, because there have been well-documented cases of the industry trying to shirk their responsibility, including funding academics who go on to dismiss livestock’s role in climate change or claiming their beef is climate-friendly without explaining how.
It’s hard enough to get people to change their behaviour, even if it is for their own sake, so shades of grey make their job infinitely harder.
I reached out to David Welch, co-founder of Synthesis Capital, a young, foodtech-focused VC fund, for his thoughts, because he was one of the few people who was already talking about this issue two years ago, emphasising the need to think about energy systems and starting material and why innovation is needed along the entire value chain and not just at the end.
So yes, he was disappointed with the study for assumptions “that do not make sense for cultivated meat at scale”, as well as the subsequent media coverage, particularly with specialist media like The New Scientist.
“The authors assume that the cultivated meat industry will require pharma-grade cell culture media components rather than food-grade and - more specifically - that the raw materials for the cell culture media must undergo the same level of endotoxin removal as required by pharmaceutical applications using animal cells. The industry has known for years that pharma-grade cell culture media would not be feasible from both an economic and environmental perspective.”
He said there have been multiple presentations and articles with data showing that food-grade ingredients can support animal-cell growth. But finding “low-cost, scalable, sustainable, food-grade cell culture media” that can be produced at scale takes time.
David, who remains bullish about the potential of alternative proteins, thinks the assumptions and conclusions will be challenged as the paper goes through the peer review process.
“One of the main issues has been unrealistic growth expectations based on linear forecasts of market adoption. We believe alternative proteins will be adopted in an S-curve fashion (see article).”
What do the authors say?
It seems they were taken by surprise, too.
“I did not think adding our preprint papers to the server would garner this type of reaction. We did not announce that our papers were placed on the server,” lead author and doctoral graduate Derrick Risner said in an email.
“The strength of the reaction was surprising as well. I received my first hate email the other day which I didn’t really expect.”
He said their papers have been submitted to peer-reviewed journals and preprints can be submitted (or even encouraged to be submitted) during the journal submission process.
“We are open to feedback via peer-review or other relevant avenues that makes our work more informative.”
He also said they used E8 growth medium because that was identified by GFI as a growth medium which could be scaled.
On previous life cycle assessments that came to a different conclusion, he believed they used a different approach.
“My interpretation of the study is that they asked companies in 2019 what they projected to happen to the industry in 2030. I think it would be expected that companies would be highly optimistic on the technological progress for their industry especially in a fund-raising environment.”
His recommendations for both entrepreneurs and investors in this space?
“I believe some the environmental issues can be solved at the lab/pilot level. Here are two examples related to reducing the environmental impact of the growth medium: reducing cell nutrient requirements (cells need fewer resources) and developing cell lines which are able to achieve high cell densities (cells/ml) in a minimally processed growth medium.”
This isn’t the first paper to point out the energy intensive nature of cultivated meat.
My former editor Megan Rowling wrote in Feb 2019 about a study from the Oxford Martin School which warned of long-term climate impacts from processes that use high-energy inputs.
A paper by IPES-Food early last year, which I wrote about for AgFunder, also warned that evidence for claims that alternative proteins will help save the planet is “limited and speculative” and is based on marketing hype as well as misleading and simplistic assertions around protein shortage and livestock production,
In fact, many rely on energy-intensive processes to produce key additives, source ingredients from industrial monoculture systems and could jeopardise the livelihoods of millions of food producers, it added.
Errol Schweizer, a Forbes contributor and former V.P. of Grocery of Whole Foods, is one of the industry insiders/journalists who have been asking the hard questions about cell-based meats. So I asked for his thoughts on the UC Davis paper and the blowback.
“I think (the paper) brings up some really important points, primarily when we're looking at new food technologies. Our primary concern should be the precautionary principle. We should make sure that whatever we're doing isn't worse than what we already have,” he said.
Things such as disposal of spent media that should be scrutinised too and questions should be asked where they will go and how they will be classified because cultured meat production will need to scale up significantly if it were to make an impact on the existing meat market, according to Errol.
He also believed the media jumped on the study a little too quickly and sensationalised the findings. I agree with him and see parallels in the way the media has also promoted it as a key solution to greening our emissions-heavy food systems.
“The popularity of cultured meat is a media creation. It is not on the market. The predicted consumer demand is based on surveys done by the same folks who are getting funding to be the secular priesthood proselytizing the promise of it.”
“We don't know how popular (cultured meat) is going to be. Maybe it will be popular. We have no idea.”
He recalled the launch of Beyond Meat when he was at Whole Foods. There was much fanfare but it took about 18 months before demand picked up, he said.
“This debate around cultured meat is a distraction from day to day inequities. The fact that most people can’t afford to eat healthy food and 61% consider it a luxury should be a daily headline,” added Errol.
“I would really suggest that we look at how can we put all these resources, all this funding, all this energy into helping people have more access to good food, making it cheaper, making government subsidies for fresh food at the point of sale, making sure that we're subsidizing the growing of fresh food, fruits and vegetables as opposed to commodity grains and growing ethanol and animal feed.
“So I think there's a lot of structural issues we need to address as opposed to putting our faith in one techno fix or another.”
“Eat more vegetables. Eat more whole foods. Eat things that can be grown sustainably, eat less meat.”
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