Could lab-grown meat help tackle climate change?

BBC Minute takes a look at what lab-grown meat is and whether it could help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the future.

Video Transcript

JOSH TETRICK: Not only is lab meat going to take off globally, it is going to be the meat that we're all eating.

MORA MORRISON: Lab meat, it's making headlines globally. It's after Singapore became the first country to approve the sale of lab-grown chicken. People say it's better for the environment, but opinions are divided.

- I would personally never eat meat grown in a lab. It's gross. It's gross.

SHALOM CHIA: I would definitely eat lab-grown meat because it's supposed to be a lot more environmentally friendly.

MORA MORRISON: You can already find meat alternatives on shop shelves. But until recently, meat made from animal cells without killing the animal had not been sold commercially. This changed in December 2020, when Singapore gave approval for lab meat to be sold. It does, however, come with a premium price tag. San Francisco-based company Eat Just previously said it would sell lab-grown chicken nuggets for $50 each. So it may still be a while before it's a common thing on our plate.

Researchers all over the world have been developing products to replicate the texture and flavor of conventional meat for years. This is a BBC reporter trying a lab-grown chicken nugget in 2018.

- It tastes like chicken.

MORA MORRISON: And this is restaurant goers in Singapore in 2020. But it's not just the taste that's got people excited. It's also the potential positive impact on the environment.

JOSH TETRICK: It's a clean, safe, sustainable way to eat meat. The planet needs us to make this choice.

MORA MORRISON: That's Josh from Eat Just. He's excited about the possibility of lab meat reducing carbon emissions in the meat industry. That's important because a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions come from food. Most of those emissions are from meat and dairy, and that's set to rise as global meat demand increases.

Cows have a particularly bad rep because they burp and fart methane, which is a really potent greenhouse gas. On top of that, the meat industry also contributes to large-scale deforestation. In countries like Brazil, huge areas of rainforests are cleared to grow crops like soya for cattle to eat. And in some cases, that can result in Indigenous people being forced off their land.

OK, so how is it made? You take an animal cell from a feather, for example, and feed that cell nutrients to allow it to grow and multiply. It's then manufactured in a large-scale facility.

JOSH TETRICK: In this process of making meat, the culturing of meat is 95% better when it comes to carbon emissions, when it comes to land, when it comes to water.

MORA MORRISON: So I checked with an expert to see whether lab meat could really be a solution for people who want to eat meat that doesn't harm the environment.

ALEX SEXTON: If lab meat can reduce the amount of land needed to make meat, then this could be a significant benefit in helping to tackle climate change. But it does also depend on what that freed up land is then used for.

The technologies behind lab meat are still fairly new, so we don't really know yet what the environmental impacts might be when these technologies are produced at larger scales. Current research has predicted that the process would involve high energy use because you have to do things like keep the cells warm as they grow. You have to exercise the cell and clean the bioreactors that the cells are growing in.

Some researchers have suggested that unless the lab meat industry can decarbonize its energy supply-- in other words, only use renewable energy sources-- then any potential climate benefits that this technology could bring would be significantly undermined.

MORA MORRISON: So, with all this in mind, we asked a meat eater in South Africa and Singapore if they see lab meat taking off globally.

- I do not see it taking off in South Africa. There is no way. Number one, South Africans love natural meat. They love everything natural.

- I think it's great that they're trying to come up with all this new food technology. I think it has the potential to address not just climate change and sustainability, but also other problems like food shortages around the world.

MORA MORRISON: Of course, the meat farming industry employs thousands of people. However, it's predicted that there will be some opportunities in small-scale lab meat production. So it may still be a while before a lab meat is served up everywhere, but with more testing and research, it could be part of a climate solution.

- BBC Minute.