Nav: Home

Climate-friendly labriculture depends on an energy revolution, says Oxford study

February 19, 2019

Currently proposed types of lab-grown meat cannot provide a cure-all for the detrimental climate impacts of meat production without a large-scale transition to a decarbonised energy system, a new study has found.

The study, from the LEAP (Livestock, Environment and People) programme at the Oxford Martin School, found that some projections for the uptake of particular forms of cultured meat could indeed be better for the climate, but others could actually lead to higher global temperatures in the long run. Published in Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, their findings highlight that the climate impact of cultured meat production will depend on its energy demands and the availability of low-carbon energy sources.

"There has been a great deal of public interest in cultured meat recently, and many articles highlight the potential for substituting cattle beef with cultured meat to provide an important climate benefit," explains lead author Dr John Lynch.

"We show that it is not yet clear whether this is the case, partly because of uncertainties about how cultured meat would be produced at scale. An important issue in comparing farmed and cultured beef is that the different warming impacts of greenhouse gases are also not well accounted for in the standard measure used in carbon footprints."

The Culture Club: is it a miracle?

Agricultural greenhouse gas emissions are responsible for around a quarter of current global warming. Replacing conventional cattle farming with 'labriculture' - meat grown in the lab using cell culture techniques - has been widely discussed as a way of reducing this environmental impact. But these estimates are based on carbon-dioxide equivalent footprints, which can be misleading because not all greenhouse gases generate the same amount of warming or have the same lifespan.

"Cattle are very emissions-intensive because they produce a large amount of methane from fermentation in their gut," advises study co-author Raymond Pierrehumbert, Halley Professor of Physics at the University of Oxford.

"Methane is an important greenhouse gas, but the way in which we generally describe methane emissions as 'carbon dioxide equivalent' amounts can be misleading because the two gases are very different. Per tonne emitted, methane has a much larger warming impact than carbon dioxide, however, it only remains in the atmosphere for about 12 years whereas carbon dioxide persists and accumulates for millennia. This means methane's impact on long-term warming is not cumulative and is impacted greatly if emissions increase or decrease over time."

Sustainable labriculture depends on clean energy and new tech

To provide a rigorous comparison of the potential climate impacts of lab-grown meat and beef cattle, the researchers examined available data on the emissions associated with three current cattle farming methods and four possible meat culture methods, assuming current energy systems remained unchanged.

Using this data, they modelled the potential temperature impact of each production method over the next 1000 years. Their model showed that while cattle initially have a greater warming effect through the release of methane, in some cases the manufacture of lab-grown meat can ultimately result in more warming. This is due to the fact that even if consumption of meat were entirely phased out the warming from carbon dioxide would persist, whereas warming caused by methane ceases after only a few decades.

"This is important because while reducing methane emissions would be good - and an important part of our climate policies - if we simply replace that methane with carbon dioxide it could actually have detrimental long-term consequences," warns Lynch.

Beef production is currently a major source of greenhouse gases: reducing consumption and improving production methods to reduce emissions can both help address this. The environmental benefits of lab-grown meat are a powerful imperative to continue and expand labriculture research, and especially to develop ways of producing cultured meat as efficiently as possible. The study also highlights that both cultured meat and cattle farming have complex inputs and impacts that need to be considered in fully appreciating their effect on the environment. For example, creating more grazing land for cattle often results in significant deforestation that could greatly increase the CO2 footprint of cattle systems (but can prove difficult to standardise in emissions footprints), while producing food in urban laboratories could free up land for storing CO2 (known as carbon sequestration) or other purposes.

Lynch concludes, "The climate impacts of cultured meat production will depend on what level of sustainable energy generation can be achieved, as well as the efficiency of future culture processes."
-end-
Please include a link to the original research in your reporting: http://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fsufs.2019.00005/abstract

Corresponding author: John M. Lynch, john.lynch@physics.ox.ac.uk

About Frontiers

Frontiers is an award-winning Open Science platform and leading open-access scholarly publisher. Our mission is to make high-quality, peer-reviewed research articles rapidly and freely available to everybody in the world, thereby accelerating scientific and technological innovation, societal progress and economic growth. Frontiers received the 2014 ALPSP Gold Award for Innovation in Publishing. For more information, visit http://www.frontiersin.org and follow @Frontiersin on Twitter.

About LEAP

LEAP is supported by the Wellcome Trust's Our Planet Our Health Programme and is one of four major interdisciplinary research partnerships in the areas of global food systems and urbanization. The project is a collaboration between the University of Oxford, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), the supermarket group Sainsbury's and The Nature Conservancy. It also works in partnership with other researchers supported by the Wellcome Trusts Our Planet Our Health programme including Sustainable and Healthy Food Systems (SHEFS), led by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Mini-livestock: insects as sustainable and healthy food, led by Wageningen University, Netherlands, and the LSHTM and SOAS Sustainability Health Projects.

About the Oxford Martin School

The Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford is a world-leading centre of pioneering research that addresses global challenges. It invests in research that cuts across disciplines to tackle a wide range of issues such as climate change, disease and inequality. The School supports novel, high risk and multidisciplinary projects that may not fit within conventional funding channels, because breaking boundaries can produce results that could dramatically improve the wellbeing of this and future generations. Underpinning all our research is the need to translate academic excellence into impact - from innovations in science, medicine and technology, through to providing expert advice and policy recommendations.

Frontiers

Related Methane Articles:

Microbial fuel cell converts methane to electricity
Transporting methane from gas wellheads to market provides multiple opportunities for this greenhouse gas to leak into the atmosphere.
Methane seeps in the Canadian high Arctic
Cretaceous climate warming led to a significant methane release from the seafloor, indicating potential for similar destabilization of gas hydrates under modern global warming.
Methane emissions from trees
A new study from the University of Delaware is one of the first in the world to show that tree trunks in upland forests actually emit methane rather than store it, representing a new, previously unaccounted source of this powerful greenhouse gas.
Oil production releases more methane than previously thought
Emissions of methane and ethane from oil production have been substantially higher than previously estimated, particularly before 2005.
Bursts of methane may have warmed early Mars
The presence of water on ancient Mars is a paradox.
New method for quantifying methane emissions from manure management
The EU Commision requires Denmark to reduce drastically emissions of greenhouse gases from agriculture.
New 3-D printed polymer can convert methane to methanol
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory scientists have combined biology and 3-D printing to create the first reactor that can continuously produce methanol from methane at room temperature and pressure.
Arctic Ocean methane does not reach the atmosphere
250 methane flares release the climate gas methane from the seabed and into the Arctic Ocean.
Long-sought methane production mechanism identified
Researchers have identified the mechanism by which bacteria create methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
Retreat of the ice followed by millennia of methane release
Methane was seeping from the seafloor for thousands of years following the retreat of the Barents Sea ice sheet, shows a groundbreaking new study in Nature Communications.

Related Methane Reading:

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Changing The World
What does it take to change the world for the better? This hour, TED speakers explore ideas on activism—what motivates it, why it matters, and how each of us can make a difference. Guests include civil rights activist Ruby Sales, labor leader and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta, author Jeremy Heimans, "craftivist" Sarah Corbett, and designer and futurist Angela Oguntala.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#521 The Curious Life of Krill
Krill may be one of the most abundant forms of life on our planet... but it turns out we don't know that much about them. For a create that underpins a massive ocean ecosystem and lives in our oceans in massive numbers, they're surprisingly difficult to study. We sit down and shine some light on these underappreciated crustaceans with Stephen Nicol, Adjunct Professor at the University of Tasmania, Scientific Advisor to the Association of Responsible Krill Harvesting Companies, and author of the book "The Curious Life of Krill: A Conservation Story from the Bottom of the World".