Cultivated Meat: Is lab-grown meat the solution to people and planetary climate risks?

With $2 billion invested in the sector since 2020, and the potential to reduce our climate impact by 92% - what's the verdict on Cultivated Meats?

Our global food systems contribute over a third of global greenhouse gases; this means that our consumption habits have a direct correlation to global climate change. The ethics of meat consumption has been disputed for decades. In recent years, this discussion has transitioned to include the dilemma of climate change, and for good reason. A staggering 60% of greenhouse gases derive from the processes involved in rearing livestock. The World Resource Institute found that it takes 9 calories of food to feed a chicken simply to get 1 calorie back from our consumption of the meat. Livestock takes up 77% of global farmland, yet provides us with just 18% of calories consumed. One of the reasons for these high emissions is because of the methane byproduct that arises from the digestive process of cows and sheep. Methane gas is 34% more times potent than CO2.

In addition, to the emissions released from the rearing of livestock, the land cleared to make room for more animals is a fatal contributor to biodiversity loss. Deforestation itself is the second largest source of anthropogenic greenhouse gases, however, the links have only partially been mapped. A report published in 2019 by Science Direct, found that between 2010-2014, the expansion of agriculture and tree plantations into forests across the tropics was associated with net emissions of approximately 2.6 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide per year. The report highlighted the need for further consumption-based accounts (simply meaning, understanding how what we eat, affects deforestation) to be included in deforestation accounts, in addition to wider international climate policy regulations.

The history behind plant-based and Cultivated Meats

Walter Willet, a nutritionist at Harvard University, said that “eating beef raised on grain produced in the Amazon, is like coal-felled power plants – the worst thing you could possibly do”. Given this, recent years have seen explosive growth in the global substitute meat market. The idea of cultivating meat has a long history. Winston Churchill predicted its popularity back in 1931, suggesting that “farming an entire chicken just to eat the breast is an absurdity, growing these parts separately under a suitable medium”. Studies conducted by the Good Food Institute indicate that cultivated beef meat would use land 2000-4000% more efficiently than conventional beef.

The effect of global food systems, particularly the meat industry, are inextricably linked to climate change action and meeting globally agreed-upon targets (including the UN Sustainable Development Goals and Paris Agreement). In 2021, the substitute meat market was valued at 9.9 billion USA and is expecting a compound annual growth rate of 42.1% between 2022-2030.

While the demand for plant-based alternatives has skyrocketed in previous years, as a ‘green alternative’ to traditional meat, there has been a recent decline with consumers criticising them as “too highly processed” leading to increased interest in “Cultivated Meat”. The process is entirely lab-based, requiring no rearing and slaughtering of an animal, with no additives or chemicals added. Cultivated Meat is genuine animal meat, that is produced by cultivating animal cells directly. To produce it, cell lines are purchased and developed for perpetual use and then the cells grow in a nutrient-rich lab environment until they reach a desired density. The cells are then harvested in a centrifugation process and prepared for distribution to create the desired product.

Cultivated meat as the solution to climate concerns?

Cultivated Meat has been hailed as the solution that allows consumers to avoid alter-processed foods (like plant-based Impossible or Beyond Meats), whilst cutting emissions by 17% for chicken and up to 92% for beef. Additionally, this alternative removes the copious amounts of antibiotics and medicine that are so often pumped into livestock, whilst freeing up thousands of acres of grassland to re-wild. A new report presented at the World Economic Forum in Davos found three ‘super-tipping points’, that could trigger a cascade of climate action for zero-carbon solutions covering 70% of global emissions. One of these three tipping points is investing in alternative proteins.

In November 2022, the USA was the first country to permit the sale of Cultivated Meat, with more than 2 billion having been invested in the sector since 2020 and over 80 start-ups across San Francisco’s Bay area alone. The report found that a 20% market share by 2035 would mean 400-800m hectares of land would no longer be used for grazing, equating to 7-15% of the world’s farmland today. This shift would create a profound difference in deforestation and methane emissions from livestock. In addition, an independent research study found that compared to traditional meat, Cultivated Meat may reduce the global warming effect by 92%, and 93% less air pollution.

The key barriers for the Cultivated Meat industry to overcome

Despite the promise of cultivated meat, there are several key issues for the industry to overcome for it to hold a significant share in the market; namely, consumers need trust in the product. The onus will be on producers to make consumers feel confident that the product is a safe and tasty alternative to traditional protein sources. Similarly, there are many social and economic concerns to address, chiefly the cost. If the cost for cultivated meat does not equate to traditional meat now, there will be little incentive for consumers make the switch. For example, if more expensive cuts of meat are replaced with cultivated options, this could increase the price of cheaper cuts of conventional meat to account for the loss of profit of pricier cuts. 

The demand for conventional meat may come at a premium and impact economies of scale. However, a McKinsey analysis found 75% of the costs of Cultivated Meat could be reduced through an increase of scale, and an additional 24-25% through fine-tuning the research and development process for mass production. Further costs could be cut by combining plant-based proteins with cultivated meats, to enhance texture and affordability. In today’s market, there is evidence that two-thirds of global consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable products. Given that cultivated meat has the potential to be both more sustainable and healthier than existing alternatives, and the market for cultivated meat is predicted to soar, it is likely that cultivated meat products will become a global staple in years to come. Indeed, helping us to reduce our environmental impact, while not compromising on health, experience, or taste.

The Verdict?

The verdict is out. Cultivated Meat, if produced on a large scale, could have an enormous effect on climate change. It has the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, cut deforestation, reduce hunger inequalities, and increase air quality and biodiversity levels. If we are able to use green energy and resources to fuel the labs, regulate supply chains and produce products that appeal to consumers’ price points and taste buds – all in, Cultivated Meat could be a global game changer in years to come.

About the author:

Georgina Murrin is a ESG Analyst in Itriom’s London Office.

About Itriom

Itriom is the global impact platform helping leading families shape a better world.  Itriom’s platform enables families to refresh and redesign their values, aligns them with the right UN Sustainable Development Goals, combining them in an agreed purpose and a Family Impact Charter.  Itriom’s platform supports the development of impact initiatives and whilst providing discrete and secure spaces for peer-to-peer messaging and collaboration. Itriom’s core practices in Leadership, Geostrategy, and Sustainability benefit clients by developing strategies to engage and support the Next Generation in building a lasting legacy of which families can be proud. 

© 2023 Itriom Limited. All rights reserved. Republication or redistribution of Itriom’s content, including by framing or similar means, is prohibited without the prior written consent of Itriom Limited. This material is provided for informational purposes only.

Alizah Beg

ESG Consultant

Alizah is an ESG Consultant and researcher. She supports Itriom developing sustainability related products and services, helping our clients identify potential opportunities for creating positive environmental, social and sustainable impact.

Georgina Murrin

ESG Analyst

Georgie is an ESG Analyst and researcher. She researches trends, develops insights and reports, and writes insight articles on sustainability and ESG related topics to ensure Itriom’s clients are up to date on the latest policy, progress and initiatives to inform the platform and help our clients maximise their positive impact.

Tim Boughton

Senior Partner
Practice Leader – Leadership & Resilience

Renowned family office thought leader, Tim works with UHNW families to ensure they are fully equipped to deliver their legacies inter-generationally and effectively.

Dr. Herb Castillo

Associate Partner
Practice Leader – Sustainability

Dr. Herb creates methodologies and frameworks for managing, measuring and assessing sustainability performance. His work identifies where maximum impact can be made.

Simon Hulland-Lucas

Senior Partner
Practice Leader – Geostrategy

Simon harnesses research, liaison and networks globally to identify opportunities for Itriom, building the knowledge needed to deliver intergeneration legacies for UHNW families.

Matthew Millard-Beer

Managing Partner
Practice Leader – Strategy

Matthew is Founder & CEO of Itriom, providing solutions and a global platform for Ultra High Net Worth Principals and their families to engage in unifying purpose, enduring legacy, and sustainable impact.