Jun. 8—Although alternative meats have been offered as a potential aid to combating climate change by reducing emissions, the opposite could be true, experts say.
With the rise in popularity of lab-grown meat, which is grown from cultured meat cells, scientists are concerned that because they take so much energy to create, these “clean meats” could release more emissions than traditionally grown beef.
The drive for alternatives to meat came after research found that farming animals was causing higher global temperatures. Now a group of Oxford researchers say that when previous studies looked at cattle emissions they failed to account for how different types of emissions would affect the atmosphere.
For example, while methane has a much larger warming impact than carbon dioxide, methane only stays in the atmosphere for 12 years. Carbon dioxide lingers much longer.
This has led industry experts to assert that the emissions to create lab-grown meat, which is almost entirely carbon dioxide, will have a far bigger contribution to climate change than traditional meat farming.
“I don’t think that there’s a single form of vegetable or plant-based meat or lab-grown meat that we have the technology for, as far as I am aware, that is more environmentally friendly than animal agriculture,” said Riley Robbins, president of Kansas Cattlemen’s Association. “Cattle and beef production in the United States is by far the most efficient, as far as the emissions go, anywhere in the world.”
Kansas ranks third nationally in beef production. Recent research found that beef production is the U.S. extremely sustainable and the industry has been able to reduce its carbon footprint by 40% while producing 66% more beef since the 1960s.
Earlier this month, Instacart, an online grocery store shopping company, found that their customers had been migrating to more plant-based and other meat alternatives.
“Plant-based food has grown from a niche category into a grocery staple over the past two years,” said Laurentia Romaniuk, Instacart Trends Expert in an email. “Searches for terms like ‘plant -based,’ ‘meatless,’ vegetarian,’ and especially ‘vegan’ took off on Instacart as consumers looked for healthy at-home meals during 2020 lockdowns. And this trend is turning into a long-term lifestyle — search popularity has been growing even more in 2021.”
While Robbins said he and others in his organization are worried about the influx in popularity of these meat alternatives, U.S. Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kansas, said that he believes cell-cultured meat will have a difficult time competing with the “sustainable, nutritious, and wholesome meat produced by Kansas ranchers.”
“But, the bottom line is the government shouldn’t be picking winners and losers, it’s up to the consumer to decide what they wish to eat,” Marshall said in an email. “The government’s role is to ensure the food is safe to consume and it’s label isn’t false or misleading. Meat comes from animals, not labs. Just like almond beverages shouldn’t be in the dairy case, cell-cultured products should remain out of the meat case.”
Additionally, a lot of the Kansas land that is used to raise cattle can’t be used for farming because of poor soil conditions or the land is too steep and rocky, Robbins said.
“In this plan of going to the total alternative meat sources or fake meat, I don’t know what their plan is to do with all this land that we are currently using very efficiently to create a very healthy protein source,” Robbins said.
And because most of the land used for cattle is filled with native grasses, since it isn’t growing crops, it is extremely efficient at sequestering carbon.
“For the most part, most cattle production is actually carbon-negative,” Robbins said. “When you take into account all the emissions that are created from tractors and pickups and the cow farts and all the bad things that happen, and then what is actually captured from the ground that they are produced on, they’re almost always carbon-negative.”
But for Kansas beef to thrive, reform is needed at the federal level on The Beef Checkoff Program, Robbins said. As it stands, the program, which was founded in 1985, requires from producers a $1 payment per cattle they market, which is then used on marketing and research.
“The rules that were established in this taxation were set up back in the 80s, prohibit it from disparaging other protein sources,” Robbins said. “So, in other words, we can’t really use it as a tool to help fight this lab grown meat.”
Robbins said he’s hopeful that as there’s currently a push to reform it, they’ll be able to use the money to show how Kansas beef can be good for the environment.
“If we could just get some help to advertise and promote our product and show it in comparison to all the other products, I think that we will come out on top,” Robbins said. “The biggest problem is this fund that we are paying into that is supposed to be doing this type of work for us is really outdated, and it actually has rules that prohibit it from working for us and helping us combat these issues.”
The office of U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, office did not immediately return requests for comment.