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Why lab-grown meat isn’t a solution to the climate crisis

Plant and lab-based alternatives reproduce many of the problems of the traditional meat industry, argues Amy Leather
Issue 2864
Lab grown meat

Plant-based foods and lab-grown meat aren’t as sustainable as food companies may tell you (Picture: Ivan Radic)

Fake meats are the future. That is what we are being told, as they’re marketed to us as the solution to the climate and food crises

It’s common to read about a new protein being developed and now lab-grown meat is being touted. Here a clump of cells is taken from an animal, without it being harmed, and are grown in a lab to create what is known as “cultivated” meat. Apparently this offers the possibility of much more real tasting meat alternatives

So what’s the reality? The first thing to say is that food production is not the sole cause of climate change. 

The vast majority of emissions come from burning fossil fuels. To stop climate catastrophe we need to shut down the giant oil, gas and energy companies.

But agriculture and livestock production are responsible for about a quarter to a third of total global emissions. Much of the grain grown in places such as the US is used to feed livestock, and cattle ranching is a main driver of deforestation in the Amazon.

Now big food producers are promoting fake meat products in a cynical attempt to make money out of people’s genuine desire to curb emissions by switching their diets. But they don’t offer a solution to either the climate or food crisis we face.

In fact, many food companies that produce meat alternatives don’t want real meat products to be replaced.  Many of the investors in fake meats are themselves giant global meat companies, such as JBS and Cargill. 

These companies want to maximize profits and capture more markets. They are quite happy to sell plant‑based foods alongside their meat products, especially if they can then claim they are helping the environment.

So while investing in fake meats, these companies continue to produce cheap meats for mass consumption. It’s incredibly profitable, especially as there are immense subsidies paid to grow the grain that is needed to feed livestock.

Nearly 90 percent of global food subsidies—some £419 billion—have been deemed “harmful” to the planet by damaging health, climate and nature. These subsidies play a big role in deciding what food is produced. They drove the production of crops such as corn, wheat, rice and soya which continue to transform both agriculture and our food systems.

Capitalist agriculture is dominated by vast monocultures of both crops and animals. It relies on heavy inputs of fertiliser and pesticide to produce grains and animals, which are at the heart of processed foods. Its practices have destroyed biodiversity, eroded the soil and led to an array of environmental problems.

Plant-based or lab grown meat are depicted as an alternative to this. But many of these “new foods” are and will be used to make mass produced and ultra-processed foods using the same industrial techniques. 

Just because something is plant-based doesn’t mean it has been produced sustainably. The industrial processes can be very energy intensive. Meat cultivation in the lab has to replicate the heating and cooling of an animal.

Fake meats replicate many of the problems of the traditional meat industry, including the use of mass produced, monocultured ingredients. They are being used by giant multinationals to develop even more processed and ultra-processed foods as an alternative to restoring crop diversity. 

They don’t solve the wider questions of unsustainable food production. Instead they offer a false solution by rebranding or covering up harmful farm practices. A real alternative would be to stop the roll out of industrialised agriculture alongside supporting lower impact forms of farming.

 This means challenging the power of the multinationals at the heart of our food systems. 

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