Lab Meat Plus Smart Grazing Could Curb Cattle Climate Collision

April 18, 2023


Italy’s right-wing government provoked immediate controversy when it proposed banning the production of lab-grown meats to “safeguard our nation’s heritage.” The farm lobby cheered, scientists protested, and the conflict began to sound eerily akin to Europe’s protracted battle over genetically modified crops. I could only think: Here’s another hugely promising technological frontier stymied by false claims and misguided public skepticism.

I understand full well that it’s hard to get anyone excited about meat produced in a lab. I was a skeptic, too, before I did my research and eventually ate the stuff myself (a juicy, delicious, 2-ounce duck breast harvested fresh from a bioreactor). It doesn’t help that kitschy new products are emerging such as the “Woolly Mammoth meatball” recently produced from ancient DNA by an Australian startup — a cool idea in theory, but ill-timed at a moment when cultivated meats are misperceived by many as Frankenfoods.

Cultured proteins are in fact a serious solution, not a silly experiment. I’ve argued before that cellular agriculture can help stabilize the climate, transform land use, improve human health and protect food security. The data underscore this potential. One European studyfound that cultivated meat production requires about 40% of the energy use of conventionally farmed meat, produces about 85% lower greenhouse gas emissions and consumes 90% less water than conventionally farmed meat.

Scientists can now grow every kind of popular protein — be it heritage chicken or Kobe beef — starting with a small sample of muscle and fat cells removed in a biopsy-like procedure from a live animal. These products are not only radically less wasteful and more humane, they’re identical at a cellular level to meats harvested from animals and have notable human health advantages: They can reduce the risk of heart disease with healthy fats, and completely circumvent the threat of bacterial contamination (such as E. coli) in slaughterhouses, along with the risk of zoonotic diseases.

The cultivated meat industry is growing fast: According to a recent report from the Good Food Institute, 156 companies now produce cultivated meat and seafood worldwide, up from a few dozen in 2020. Nearly $3 billion has been invested in these startups, with about a third of that sum committed in 2022.

And here’s how cultured proteins can in fact protect food heritage: They require about 99% less land to produce and, at scale, can free up valuable terrain for the production of craft meats and regenerative farming — traditional methods of livestock production that are climate-smart but also land-intensive. The long-term vision is not that cultivated meats will entirely replaceanimal-based meats, but liberate more land for livestock and poultry production to be done right.

The success of this emerging industry is by no means guaranteed — many hurdles remain. The production process needs to be significantly scaled and costs must be sharply reduced. The ingredients also need to be fine-tuned: Currently, cells are brewed in an expensive nutrient broth that enables them to grow, but which requires animal inputs. An affordable, vegan version of this broth must be developed. Production methods also needs improvement: Muscle and fat are still grown separately and combined at the end to form the final product, processes that could be integrated to improve texture. 

This is precisely why more research and development are necessary, and why Italy should do its part to support, not stigmatize, this industry. When the EU forbade GMO agriculture decades ago — with restrictions that remain in place today — it deterred crucial research. And look where this ban has gotten the EU today: Even Italy now imports vast amounts of GMO soy annually. 

What Italy’s government seems to be missing is that it’s climate change, more than any other factor, that’s threatening Italy’s food heritage, shifting what’s possible to grow where: which wine grape can be produced in Tuscany for a good Chianti; which heritage-breed pigs can be raised in what regions for Prosciutto di Parma. We have entered an era of disruption and adaptation that is understandably painful for the food-nostalgic, but unavoidably necessary.

Canary Media:

Just as Willie Sutton robbed banks because that’s where the money was, people who care about nature and the climate should focus on pastures because that’s where the deforestation and emissions are. It would be nice if the world stopped eating beef, because beef production requires roughly 100 times as much land per calorie as grain or nuts, and cattle and other cud-chewing ruminants emit nearly a third of the world’s heat-trapping methane. But since all 8 billion of us won’t stop eating beef — I’ve stopped, but I relapsed in Brazil, because I’m weak — it will be vital to produce beef that devours less land and spews less methane.

That’s what’s happening at Nossa Senhora Aparecida, a 4,500-acre ranch that now supports more than three times as many cattle as it did before Micol started improving it, even though two-thirds of it is still a forest reserve where jaguars and capybaras roam. If the beef-per-acre yields on all of Brazil’s degraded pastures were tripled, it could free up another Germany’s worth of land for rewilding.

The ranch’s improvements have also reduced the time it takes its cattle to reach slaughter weight from four years to less than two, which means they spend half as much time burping, farting and pooping pollutants. They also looked pretty happy, resting in the shade of a Brazil nut tree, unaware of their imminent fate. And we watched two red macaws and three blue-and-yellow macaws fly over them, a magical reminder that shrinking agriculture’s footprint can help expand nature’s.

Unless you’re a livestock nerd, the actual improvements at Nossa Senhora Aparecida aren’t that exciting. Micol and his team ripped shrubs out of the pastures; replaced the existing grass with a dense, nutritious, fast-growing variety called Mombaça; periodically fertilized the grass; implemented a ​“rotational grazing” system that moves cattle to new paddocks nearly every week instead of letting them wander around munching where they please; supplemented their diets with grain and an amazingly productive silage grass called capiaçu; and created a more intensive feedlot-style pasture where the animals spend the last few months of their lives.

What’s more exciting, though more challenging, is the prospect of expanding these kinds of high-yield cattle operations in order to significantly reduce deforestation and emissions. The climate movement tends to be anti-cattle, while meat and dairy interests tend to defend the status quo, but what the world needs is more efficient, less destructive cattle.

“We need lots of solutions, but animal protein is the big solution,” says Caaporã CEO Luis Fernando Laranja, Micol’s boss at a company (named for an indigenous god believed to protect the Amazon) working on restoring degraded Brazilian ranches. ​“And it’s not rocket science: Better grass! Fertilize the fucking pasture! Feed the fucking cattle!”

In a landmark 2019 report called Creating a Sustainable Food Future, the World Resources Institute warned that the world is on track to eat much more beef in 2050 than it ate in 2010, creating pressure to deforest another two Indias’ worth of land. The report urges a shift toward plant-based diets and investments in alternative proteins to cut beef demand, plus better manure management and investments in methane-suppressing feed additives to cut emissions from beef production. But it concludes that increasing the efficiency of low-productivity cattle operations will be even more crucial to feeding the world without much more deforestation. That’s why the report’s lead author, Tim Searchinger, was in Brazil observing ranches like Nossa Senhora Aparecida.

“There’s no solution to the world’s land-use problems that doesn’t include tripling grazing productivity on more than 100 million acres in Latin America,” said Searchinger, a Princeton research scholar who is also technical director of WRI’s food program.


7 Responses to “Lab Meat Plus Smart Grazing Could Curb Cattle Climate Collision”

  1. Gingerbaker Says:

    “The cultivated meat industry is growing fast: According to a recent report from the Good Food Institute, 156 companies now produce cultivated meat and seafood worldwide, up from a few dozen in 2020. Nearly $3 billion has been invested in these startups, with about a third of that sum committed in 2022.”

    This is the only product the cultivated meat industry is good at producing – investments.

    It is almost certainly the ONLY product they will be good at making, because large-scale bioreactor meat production is and likely will always be impossibly expensive. It is impossible to do without pharmaceutical-grade equipment and procedures and that means you are talking about really big money.

    Meanwhile, livestock grow to maturity eating grass, food slops and chickenfeed – tough to compete against.

    Basically required reading on the topic:

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      “It is almost certainly the ONLY product they will be good at making, because large-scale bioreactor meat production is and likely will always be impossibly expensive.

      I don’t see any hard limits to keep the cost of producing bioreactor meat higher than the meat that comes out of the slaughterhouse (especially if we clean up the employer malfeasance in the meat processing industry). As with so many other industries, I do foresee many fake meat companies failing in these early days, but experience and increased volume should bring the costs down as with so many other food industry giants.

      By the way, here’s an excerpt from that 2021 “The Counter” article you posted:
      “Gram for gram, animals are a wildly inefficient vehicle for producing edible protein (as advocates for cultured meat like to point out). Cattle consume roughly 25 calories of plant material for every calorie of edible protein they produce, according to some estimates. Even chickens, the most efficient form of livestock from a feed perspective, eat 9 to 10 calories of food for every calorie of edible protein produced.”

      • Gingerbaker Says:

        Fake meat and bioreactor meat are two different things. Read the article I provided re reactor meat and you will see that the math is daunting.

        Yes – cattle consume a lot of plant material. But most of it is grass, which is free. It makes up 2/3 to 3/4 of a cow, with the remainder containing a lot of crop ag byproducts which are also free or cheap.

      • J4Zonian Says:

        Coturnix quail are more efficient than chickens at converting feed to meat.

  2. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    …cultivated meats are misperceived by many as Frankenfoods.

    I loathe the term “Frankenfoods” because I associate it with the fearmongering of the anti-GMO activists.

    At the genetic level, “natural” animals and especially plants recombine in a “Frankenstein” way as part of reproduction. I could call people “Dr. Frankenstein” if they combine various ingredients when preparing something in the kitchen to produce a result very different from any of the original components (ground wheat, beet sugar, cow-sourced butter, chicken eggs, and the scary processed substance called baking soda can, with the help of an oven, become a cake).

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