Cultivated meat could slash climate impact of meat production by up to 92%, study finds

9 March 2021

New studies released today by independent research firm CE Delft show that — compared with conventional beef — meat cultivated directly from animal cells may cause up to 92% less global warming, 93% less pollution, and use up to 95% less land and 78% less water.

Cultured beef steak
Photo credit: Aleph Farms/Technion   Israel Institute of Technology

New studies released today by independent research firm CE Delft show that — compared with conventional beef — meat cultivated directly from animal cells may cause up to 92% less global warming, 93% less pollution, and use up to 95% less land and 78% less water

The studies model a future large-scale cultivated meat production facility and show that by 2030, the production cost of meat grown from cells – known as cultivated meat – when manufactured at scale could drop to €4.68 per kg. (Note that this figure strictly reflects the cost of goods sold and does not include markup by the manufacturer or retailer, so this is the production cost rather than the price that consumers would see.) This production cost will enable cultivated meat to compete on costs with many forms of conventional meat or serve as a high-quality ingredient in plant-based meat products.

The life cycle assessment (LCA) and techno-economic assessment (TEA) conducted by CE Delft, with support from the Good Food Institute (GFI) and GAIA, are the first to utilise data from companies active in the cultivated meat supply chain. Informed by real-world inputs, the studies paint the most complete picture to date of the anticipated environmental impacts and costs of large-scale cultivated meat production. 

The LCA analyses various scenarios, including the adoption of renewable energy by both the conventional and cultivated meat industry. In the most optimistic scenario, based on ambitious reductions in the environmental impact of conventional animal agriculture, cultivated meat outperforms all forms of conventional meat.

Cultivated meat’s environmental impact

The LCA shows that cultivated meat, when produced using renewable energy, reduces the cumulative environmental impacts of conventional beef by approximately 93%, pork by 53%, and chicken by 29%. This is compared with a scenario in which conventional products are also produced using renewable energy.

Importantly, when production is powered by an average conventional energy mix versus a renewable energy mix, cultivated meat’s carbon footprint rises but still remains significantly lower than conventional beef’s. This finding shows that renewable energy is the key to unlocking cultivated meat’s huge potential to tackle the climate emergency, and demonstrates the dramatic gains that mutually reinforcing climate solutions, such as renewable energy and modernising meat production, can deliver.

With conventional meat using up to 19 times more land than cultivated meat — which doesn’t require crops and pastures to raise and feed livestock — a transition from conventional animal agriculture to cultivated meat production can free up land to restore ecosystems and sequester carbon. While these land-use-change benefits are not accounted for in the LCA, these parallel climate strategies can act as force multipliers in global efforts to reduce and offset carbon emissions.

Beyond the environment, the LCA accounts for the impacts of pollutants on human health and shows that cultivated meat causes significantly less harm than conventional meat. Not included in the report are the global human health benefits associated with decoupling meat production from conditions that give rise to zoonotic disease transmission and antibiotic resistance. 

These analyses provide governments interested in a safer, more secure, and climate-resilient food system with data that can inform the allocation of R&D funding, considered vital to accelerating the development and global scaling of cultivated meat.  

CE Delft Senior Researcher Ingrid Odegard: “With this analysis, we show that cultivated meat presents as an achievable low-carbon, cost-competitive agricultural technology that can play a major role in achieving a carbon-neutral food system. This research provides a solid base on which companies can build, improve, and advance in their goal of producing cultivated meat sustainably at scale and at a competitive price point.”

GFI Senior Scientist Elliot Swartz said: “As soon as 2030, we expect to see real progress on costs for cultivated meat and massive reductions in emissions and land use brought about by the transition to this method of meat production. This research signals a vote of confidence and serves as a practical roadmap for the industry to address technical and economic bottlenecks, which will further reduce climate impacts and costs. 

“Government investment in R&D and infrastructure will be critical to accelerating the development of cultivated meat and help us achieve global climate goals. Favourable policies and carbon markets can incentivise the restoration of agricultural land for its carbon sequestration and ecosystem services potential, maximising the climate benefits of cultivated meat.” 

GFI Executive Director Bruce Friedrich said: “The world will not get to net-zero emissions without addressing food and land, and alternative proteins are a key aspect of how we do that. Decarbonising the global economy is impossible with the diffuse production process and range of gases involved in conventional animal agriculture. As these new models illustrate, if we can concentrate the environmental impact of meat production in a single, manageable space – and if we power that space with electricity generated from clean energy sources – that’s how the world gets to net-zero emissions.”

Alex Holst, policy manager at the Good Food Institute Europe, said: “The EU has set out ambitious targets to decarbonise energy – but without changes to the way we produce meat, animal agriculture will be responsible for a growing percentage of remaining emissions. To deliver on its plans to protect biodiversity and build a more sustainable food system, the EU must make investment in cultivated meat a central part of the Green Deal.” 

GAIA consultant Hermes Sanctorum said: “Industrial farming has a major impact on the environment and animals. That is why we and GFI commissioned a study to make the comparison between cultivated meat and conventional meat. This study is a worldwide first: it is the first time that a study on cultivated meat has been made in collaboration with cultivated meat companies and with detailed data from these companies.

Methodology

This life cycle assessment and techno-economic assessment are the first reports to be informed by data contributed by companies involved in the cultivated meat supply chain. Over 15 companies participated, including five cultivated meat manufacturers. The studies used industry data to model how cultivated meat might be produced by the year 2030 and assessed the costs and environmental impacts of a commercial-scale facility that produces 10,000 metric tons of ground cultivated meat product per year.

For the purposes of this release, “water” refers to blue water, which includes groundwater from aquifers or reservoirs, not from rainfall, and is what the LCA analysed.

Global warming refers to greenhouse gas emissions, measured in kilograms of carbon dioxide-equivalents. 

About the study’s partners and their roles 

The LCA study was commissioned by GFI and GAIA, who connected CE Delft with data partners. CE Delft was independent in carrying out the report, research, and writing. Raw data from the participating companies was not shared with GFI or GAIA. The TEA study was commissioned by GFI.