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Here’s what we know about lab-grown meat and climate change

Cultivated meat could eventually have major climate benefits, says Hanna Tuomisto, an associate professor at the University of Helsinki and the lead author of the 2011 study. Tuomisto recently published another study that also found potential climate benefits for cultivated meat. However, she adds, the industry’s true climate impacts are yet to be determined. “There are many, many open questions still, because not very many companies have built anything at larger scale,” Tuomisto says.

Till the cows come home

Scaling up to make cultivated meat in larger production facilities is an ongoing process.

Upside Foods, one of the two companies that received the recent USDA nod, currently runs a pilot facility with a maximum capacity of about 400,000 pounds (180,000 kilograms) per year, though its current production capability is closer to 50,000 pounds. The company’s first commercial facility, which it’s currently in the process of designing, will be much larger, with a capacity of millions of pounds per year.

“In all innovative technologies, there’s an enormous learning curve.”

Pelle Sinke

According to internal estimates, Upside’s products should take less water and land to produce than conventional meat, said Eric Schulze, the company’s VP of global scientific and regulatory affairs, in an email. However, he added, “we will need to be producing at a larger scale to truly measure and start to see the impact that we want to have.”

Eat Just is currently operating a demonstration plant in the US and constructing one in Singapore. Those facilities include reactors with capacities of 3,500 and 6,000 liters, respectively. Eventually, the company plans to produce millions of pounds of meat each year in a future commercial facility containing 10 reactors with a capacity of 250,000 liters each.

There are already “plenty of reasons to be hopeful” about the climate impacts of cultivated meat, said Andrew Noyes, VP of communications at Eat Just, in an email. “However, achieving those goals is dependent on several factors tied to the optimization and scale-up of our production process, as well as the design of future large-scale manufacturing facilities.”

Even though recent regulatory approvals have been celebrated as a milestone for the cultivated meat industry, these products won’t be in your burger joint anytime soon. To cut their production costs, companies still need to build those larger facilities and get them running smoothly.

Part of that growth will mean turning away from the more expensive equipment and ingredients the industry has borrowed from other businesses, says Jess Krieger, founder and CEO of Ohayo Valley, a cultivated meat company: “This is not how we’re going to be doing it in the future.” The factors that led to Spang’s worst-case emissions scenario, like intensive purification, expensive reactors, and pharmaceutical-grade media, aren’t necessary for production, she says.

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