Article posted in The Spoon, May 16, 2023, author: Michael Wolf
A new life-cycle analysis by researchers at UC Davis has concluded that the current path of the cultivated meat industry’s commercialization process is potentially orders of magnitude worse for the environment than beef produced through animal agriculture, producing anywhere from 4 to 25 times more CO2 than traditionally produced beef.
The analysis, which at this point has not been peer-reviewed, stands in stark contrast to previous life cycle analysis (LCA) studies that have concluded the environmental impact of cell-cultivated meat – which the study calls “animal cell-based meat” or ACBM – is significantly less than that of traditionally produced beef. However, according to the new research, the problem with previous LCAs is that they do not accurately represent the environmental impact of the current technologies being used in the assumption sets for forecasts within the techno-economic models.
In particular, the study (which was first written about in IFL Science) says the significant environmental impact associated with the purification required of growth medium has not been fully accounted for in previous studies. According to the UC Davis researchers, these previous studies had “high levels of uncertainty in their results and a lack of accounting” for what they believe is the necessary endotoxin removal required for growth media. Accounting for the required purification is essential say the study’s authors, and they believe that the fossil fuel needed for purified growth medium components using the current anticipated commercialization process is anywhere between 3 and 17 times that of the reported “high” scenario for that of traditional boneless beef production.
While the researchers state their study is more accurate than previous LCAs that didn’t accurately model the cost of the production of the purified growth medium, they go on to say that is because the cost built into these techno-economic models is based on current systems being developed for the near-term commercialization of ACBM. They say that the industry would be better off as a whole if some of the key issues were solved beforethe industry focused on commercial scaling, such as developing a more “environmentally friendly method for endotoxin removal” or “the development of a technological innovation that allows for the use of an inexpensive animal cell growth media produced from agricultural by-products.”.
“Perhaps a focus on advancing these precompetitive scientific advances might lead to a better outcome for all,” they write.
It needs to be stressed again that this paper has not been peer-reviewed, so until it has been evaluated by other subject matter experts in cell ag life cycle analysis in the research community, we should caution against pulling the alarm around the potential impact of the current path towards commercialization. At the same time, the report’s authors, such as Dr. Justin Siegel, have impressive resumes and a history of publication that indicates they likely wouldn’t put their name behind such a controversial conclusion if they didn’t believe it would hold up under scrutiny.
My guess is the conclusion in this study will cause a significant ripple of interest and could have a potentially significant impact on this industry if the findings are considered valid by the broader scientific community. Most of the currently venture-funded cultivated meat startups say they are working on technologies that will lower the costs of cultivated meat, but it’s unclear if any of them have identified ways to remediate the challenges identified by this study’s authors in the current path towards commercialization of ACBM.
We’ll follow the reactions to this study from those in the scientific community – and by extension, the investment community – over the next few months.