What are the benefits of cellular agriculture?
25 August 2020
Given the negative impact of animal-based products on human and planetary health, cellular agriculture has numerous benefits. Because cultured meat and cultured versions of traditional animal-based products are far less resource-intensive and have a lower carbon footprint, they can help to mitigate some of the problems we currently face.
In the context of our food system, cellular agriculture offers great potential for solving some of the most pressing environmental problems of our time. Animal agriculture contributes to climate change, methane emissions, extensive land use, rainforest destruction, loss of biodiversity, and soil pollution. In this blog we’ll cover the main benefits of cellular agriculture:
Benefits for the environment
A 2011 life-cycle assessment showed that cultured meat could result in a reduction of 78-96% of greenhouse gas emissions, 95% of land use, and 82-96% of water requirements, compared to conventional meat production.1 The same study suggested that cultured-beef production would require up to 45% less energy.
Some of these figures have since been challenged, postulating a higher energy input, and hence higher greenhouse gas emissions, as well as a larger water footprint.2 3 4 The different studies evaluating the climate impact of cellular agriculture show different results and are based on assumptions that are likely to change according to the type of meat produced, the equipment and processes used, the nutrients used to feed the cells, etc. As with all innovations, the process will likely be optimised over time as the technology advances.
In addition, freed-up land areas could be used for reforestation, biodiversity protection, and rewilding, all of which would allow nature to regenerate and absorb more CO2. Moreover, animal waste and pesticides used in animal agriculture would be avoided, which could lead to a reduction in soil pollution, ocean dead zones, ground-water contamination, and algal blooms. Local cultured-production facilities would also reduce ground transportation and shipping pollution.
Benefits for the oceans
Growing cultured-fish and seafood products instead of using conventional fishing and aquaculture could greatly help to protect our seas and marine wildlife. Today, more than 90% of fish stocks are considered either overfished, exploited, or close to the point of unsustainability. Overall, 12% of total global fishery production (about 20 million tonnes) is used for animal feed and fish oil.5 The use of antibiotics and industrial chemicals in aquaculture pollutes the waters and can also encourage the emergence of drug-resistant bacterial strains that could present a risk to humans. Faeces and feed residues present additional environmental burdens that lead to over-fertilisation of the waters and declines in biodiversity.6
“A global shift toward cultured fish and seafood products would alleviate the tremendous damage wreaked by fishing and aquaculture, while giving our oceans the opportunity to regenerate.”
Jasmijn De Boo,
Vice President, ProVeg International
Benefits for the animals
Animal agriculture subjects billions of animals to immense physical and emotional suffering. These sentient and intelligent beings are denied even their most basic needs, enduring extreme confinement, squalid conditions, poor health, mutilations, and slaughter. Factory farming today causes great suffering to more than 75 billion land animals,7 tens of billions of farmed fish,8 and 800 million to 2.3 trillion wild fish,9 all of whom are sentient beings and have complex social lives.
Cellular agriculture could result in a dramatic reduction in animal use and slaughter, and presents a major step towards improving animal welfare. Since there would be no need to kill animals for meat and no need for animals at all for eggs and dairy, cellular agriculture could spare tens of billions of animals a life of suffering, every year. The pioneering cultured-meat company Mosa Meat estimates that a single painless cell sample yields up to 10,000 kg of cultured meat. Consequently, a mere 150 cows would suffice to satisfy the world’s total demand for meat.10
Cellular agriculture could also contribute to wildlife preservation. Cultivating meat, ivory, and other coveted products from endangered species could help to reduce poaching and hunting.
Benefits for human health
Cultured products have the potential to be safer and healthier than conventional animal-based products. With no animal husbandry involved, there would be a vastly reduced risk of contamination from pathogens such as Listeria, E. Coli, or Salmonella, as well as a decrease in zoonotic diseases such as mad cow disease, swine flu, avian flu,11 and COVID-19.12
COVID-19 has demonstrated the devastating effects of our current food system, as the use of wild animals and farmed animals for food significantly contributes to zoonotic spillover and the spread of dangerous diseases. The effects of the COVID-19 crisis go way beyond individual and public health to include massive social, political, and economic impacts. Given the predicted sharp increase in meat demand and production, cellular agriculture can help transform the global food system to become part of the solution as a risk-mitigation strategy against future zoonotic pandemics.
By exploring the crucial connection between the current crisis and our animal-based food system, the ProVeg Food & Pandemics Report highlights how our food choices help to create a recipe for zoonotic pandemics.
As culturing environments are completely sterile environments, there is no need for antibiotics. Today, the widespread use of antibiotics in conventional agriculture to prevent diseases due to animal confinement, or to accelerate animals’ growth is the main driver of antibiotic resistance in humans.13 According to the World Health Organization, antimicrobial resistance represents “an increasingly serious threat to global public health that requires action across all government sectors and society”14 – predicting up to 10 million deaths annually by 2050.15 Cellular agriculture could provide an effective solution to help mitigate this major risk to human health.
In addition, growing cultured-animal products offers the potential for improving their nutritional composition. In meat, for example, saturated fatty acids could be replaced by omega fatty acids, creating a cholesterol-free product. This would have a beneficial effect on cardiovascular diseases, considered the leading cause of death, globally.16 Cultured seafood would also be free from plastic and mercury – two common sources of contamination in seafood today.
Cellular agriculture could also offer a solution to the multiple health issues which threaten the health of slaughterhouse workers. Slaughterhouses are considered one of the most dangerous workplaces, and it is an industry in which positions are becoming increasingly difficult to fill. The extreme violence of the job takes a toll on employees’ physical and mental health.17 A complete shift to cellular agriculture would render this difficult and hazardous job obsolete.
Benefits for food justice
In developing countries, cellular agriculture could help reduce the harsh competition between staple human foods and animal feed. People in these countries are often forced to grow crops that are destined to become animal feed for meat production (often in wealthier countries), denying them the resources to grow their own basic plant-based foods.
With a growing world population, the breeding, raising, feeding, and slaughtering of animals is an unsustainable and highly inefficient way to produce food. Animal agriculture uses enormous amounts of resources by feeding plant proteins to animals in order to produce animal proteins, resulting in a highly inefficient conversion ratio. Cellular agriculture can help to free up resources that are currently used for animal agriculture, including 75% of global maize production,18 a third of grains, and two-thirds of soya,19 as well as 20% of freshwater.20 In addition to saving resources, cellular agriculture would only produce targeted products, avoiding any wasteful surplus.
Moreover, cultured food products can be tailored to specific human needs, particularly as some groups’ or communities’ culture or traditions may require them to consume animal products. Crucially, animal agriculture can also cater to changing food preferences in developing countries – with growing economic power, many developing countries aspire to imitate western food choices, which have traditionally been rich in animal-based products. Providing fairer and more equal access to animal-based products for a growing world population, within fixed planetary boundaries, can only be obtained through cellular agriculture.
Plant-based products have a better overall balance in many regards. However, because they are often quite different to animal products and thus fail to meet people’s expectations in terms of taste and sensory experience, some consumers find it too challenging to embrace them. Even in the face of compelling rational and moral arguments, changing dietary habits and taste preferences is difficult for most people. Cultured products could offer a solution to many of the downsides of animal-based products, while simultaneously bypassing the psychological and social efforts involved in avoiding such products. In short, cellular agriculture could make the most ethical choice the easy choice.
|↑1||Tuomisto, H. L. & M. J. Teixeira de Mattos (2011): Environmental Impacts of Cultured Meat Production. Environmental Science & Technology 45(14), 6117–6123. doi:10.1021/es200130u|
|↑2||Tuomisto, H. L. & M. Ellis (2014): Environmental impacts of cultured meat: alternative production scenarios. Proceedings of the 9th International Conference on Life Cycle Assessment in the Agri-Food Sector. Available at https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/38629617.pdf [20.05.2020]|
|↑3||Mattick, C. S., A. E. Landis, B. R. Allenby, et al. (2015): Anticipatory Life Cycle Analysis of In Vitro Biomass Cultivation for Cultured Meat Production in the United States. Environmental Science & Technology 49(19), 11941–11949. doi:10.1021/acs.est.5b01614|
|↑4||Lynch, J. & R. Pierrehumbert (2019): Climate Impacts of Cultured Meat and Beef Cattle. Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems 3. doi:10.3389/fsufs.2019.00005|
|↑5||FAO (2018): The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2018 – Meeting the sustainable development goals. Rome. Available at http://www.fao.org/3/i9540en/i9540en.pdf [20.05.2020]|
|↑6||Allsopp, M., P. Johnston & D. Santillo (2008): Challenging the Aquaculture Industry on Sustainability – Greenpeace Research Laboratories Technical Note 01/2008: Available at: http://www.greenpeace.to/publications/Aquaculture_Report_Technical.pdf [09.03.2018]|
|↑7||Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2019): Livestock primary. FAOSTAT Database. Rome, Italy. Available at: http://www.fao.org/faostat/en/#data/QL [21.05.2020]|
|↑8||A Mood and P Brooke (July 2012): Estimating the Number of Farmed Fish Killed in Global Aquaculture Each Year. Available at http://fishcount.org.uk/published/std/fishcountstudy2.pdf [22.05.2020]|
|↑9||Fishcount (2019): Numbers of fish caught from the wild each year. Available at http://fishcount.org.uk/fish-count-estimates-2/numbers-of-fish-caught-from-the-wild-each-year [22.05.2020]|
|↑10||Mosa Meat (2019): FAQ. Available at https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5a1e69bdd7bdce95bf1ec33b/t/5e14698b3f8ed65e207e7137/1578396046106/FAQs_Mosa+Meat_Dec19.pdf [22.05.2020]|
|↑11||WHO (2018): Influenza (Avian and other zoonotic). World Health Organization. Available at https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/influenza-(avian-and-other-zoonotic). [Accessed: 4.9.2020]|
|↑12||Dalton, J. (2020): Coronavirus: Pandemics will be worse and more frequent unless we stop exploiting Earth and animals, top scientists warn | The Independent. The Independent. Available at https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/coronavirus-pandemic-virus-disease-wildlife-environment-farming-infectious-a9487926.html [22.05.2020]|
|↑13||Martin, M. J., Thottathil, S. E., & Newman, T. B. (2015): Antibiotics Overuse in Animal Agriculture: A Call to Action for Health Care Providers. American journal of public health, 105(12), 2409–2410. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2015.302870|
|↑14||World Health Organization (2018): Antibiotic resistance. Available at https://www.who.int/en/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/antibiotic-resistance [22.05.2020]|
|↑15||United Nations (2019): UN, global health agencies sound alarm on drug-resistant infections; new recommendations to reduce ‘staggering number’ of future deaths, UN News. Available at https://news.un.org/en/story/2019/04/1037471 [22.05.2020]|
|↑16||World Health Organization (2019): Cardiovascular disease Available at https://www.who.int/cardiovascular_diseases/about_cvd/en/ [22.05.2020]|
|↑17||Lebwohl Michael (2016): A Call to Action: Psychological Harm in Slaughterhouse Workers, Yale Global Health Review. Available at https://yaleglobalhealthreview.com/2016/01/25/a-call-to-action-psychological-harm-in-slaughterhouse-workers/ [22.05.2020]|
|↑18||Cassidy, E. S., P. C. West, J. S. Gerber, et al. (2013): Redefining agricultural yields: from tonnes to people nourished per hectare. Environmental Research Letters 8(3), 034015. doi:10.1088/1748-9326/8/3/034015|
|↑19||Willett, W., J. Rockström, B. Loken, et al. (2019): Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. The Lancet 393(10170), 447–492. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(18)31788-4|
|↑20||FAO (2019): Water use in livestock production systems and supply chains – Guidelines for assessment (Version 1). Livestock Environmental Assessment and Performance (LEAP) Partnership. Rome|