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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Environmental Impact of "Cultured Meat"

Frog Legs, A Ly, Houston, TX. I'll bet we'll have better luck mass producing tissue cultured frog meat. 
I have previously described my problems with the mainstream media fascination with the "cultured meat" project. But recently, I've been contacted by journalist asking what my opinion is about the published dramatically lower environmental impact from culturing meat as opposed to conventional animal husbandry.The paper cited was published in 2011 by the American Chemical Society's Environmental Science and Technology, authored by Tuomisto and Mattos, claiming a dramatic 45% lower energy use, 96% lower greenhouse gas emissions, and an amazing 96% lower water use. Indeed, this is the paper cited by among its FAQs as a key advantage for tissue cultured meat.

So, let's see what the paper reports. Since a cultured meat production industry doesn't really exist, the paper is basically a fairly complex thought experiment. It presumes the existence of such an industry, and compares it to current beef, sheep, pork and poultry production. This is a vaporware comparison - the authors could assign all sorts of properties to the hypothetical cultured meat production, and we cannot contest it. But if we assign time to when such a pipeline would exist, the evolution of conventional meat production would have also improved in efficiency. In the end, though, this paper does not such prove anything, nor does it actually lead to testable hypotheses. In a sense, it isn't really falsifiable, and makes for poor science.

But such a thought experiment begins with a number of assumptions - and did the authors make reasonable assumptions? Aside from the laughable comparison of value since a number of products come from whole animals other than mincemeat, while culture vats will only make meat, there's the near magical creation of new technology. From the abstract:

Cyanobacteria hydrolysate was assumed to be used as the nutrient and energy source for muscle cell growth.
This is already a problem. Under no circumstance have we proven that conventional animal meat tissue can be grown using cyanobacteria hydrolysate, that raw proteins can be pumped onto cultured muscle cells and they'll metabolize it. Either the authors are ignorant of basic biology of isolated animal cells, interchanging them with yeast cells, or have conveniently cherry picked past this fundamental point. Moreover, the authors write:

The production of growth factors and vitamins are not included in the study as the quantities needed are small (under 0.1% of the DM weight of the media), and therefore the environmental impacts are negligible.
This is a grossly incorrect assumption to make. Despite the lower per weight composition of these micronutrients and growth factors, they are essential and difficult to isolate and synthesize. We have no substitute at the moment for using fetal bovine serum at the moment specifically because this fact. The cells will not grow without these growth factors, one cannot gloss over the environmental impact of harvesting and isolating this material. It's like ignoring the environmental impact of diamonds because they are so small - when in fact mountains can be destroyed to get them.

So, let's do a little background research. This press release from Oxford University (Hanna Tuomisto, the lead author, was a PhD student there at the time) hides a small note at the end: the research was funded by New Harvest, a nonprofit dedicated to cultured meat production. On the border, I would think of this as a conflict of interest. After all, it's a vaporware review that has been used in the last 3 years to claim advantages with regards to environmental impact, but it stands on fantastical unproven promises.

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