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Cell-based meat has huge environmental benefits and could be at price parity by 2030

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Cell-based meat could cause up to 92% less global warming, 93% less air pollution and use up to 95% less land and 78% less water compared to conventional beef production, according to a pair of new studies by CE Delft. The studies were commissioned by the Good Food Institute and European animal rights group GAIA.

The two studies also found by 2030, cost of cell-based meat production could drop to $2.57 per pound based on scaling and renewable energy. The studies, which conduct a life-cycle assessment and a techno-economic estimate of the nascent meat production process, use actual data from several companies in the space.

Cell-based meat became a reality to consumers last year, when Singapore gave regulatory approval to cultured chicken bites made by U.S. company Eat Just. Several other companies say they are on the cusp of having cell-based meat products available for consumers — and could potentially have some available this year — as they work toward scaling up and gaining regulatory approval.

There has been a lot of talk over the years about how cell-based meat could revolutionize the way food is produced. These studies are the closest thing so far to showing what could happen, in terms of sustainability and cost. They seem to validate what many in the cell-based space have said, as well as quantify just how much producing meat through growing cells — rather than slaughtering animals — can benefit the planet.

The meat industry has an enormous footprint. According to a 2018 analysis by Bloomberg, pasture land makes up more than a third of the land in the contiguous 48 states. Between pastures and cropland for feed, 41% of the land goes toward just cows. A total of 14.5% of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions in the world come from livestock, according to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization.

With a large footprint like this, it is easy to improve even a small amount — though some of the large improvements projected by the study seem a bit exaggerated. In a blog post, the Good Food Institute points out that some of the efficiency numbers are based on using conventional energy to operate the plants. If renewable energy is adopted, sustainability can improve a great deal more.

While sustainability is gaining more traction with consumers, it isn’t the only thing that matters. In order for there to be wide adoption of cell-based meat, its price needs to be comparable to meat that comes from animals. While the study’s cost estimate of $2.57 per pound of cell-based meat by 2030 assumes the existence of full-scale facilities that can produce 10,000 metric tons of cultivated meat per year, the numbers are believable. After all, Israel-based Future Meat Technologies announced earlier this year it can make a cell-based chicken breast for about $7.50.

The data produced by these reports comes at a critical time. Companies and governmental organizations alike are creating sustainability plans and goals to reduce emissions and pollution. This report can make it easier for cell-based meat to fit into some of these long-range plans. In an email, Good Food Institute Senior Scientist Elliot Swartz said the data can help governmental organizations decide to invest in the sector.

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

The report can also incentivize food companies and sustainability-minded funders to invest in the sector. Funds toward cell-based meat can help these business entities meet their sustainability metrics — and could be especially beneficial to conventional food companies, which are constantly working to lesson their carbon footprint. Through money and other partnerships, conventional food companies can also eventually bring cell-based meat to their product lines. Conventional food companies are already involved in this sector, with Tyson Foods, Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, Pulmuone and Müller Group joining in funding rounds for some cell-based companies.

In a 2019 report, Kearney estimated that 10% of total global meat sales would be cell-based in 2030, and that premium cultured meat would cost $40 per kilogram. In an interview about the report, a Kearney principal said those projections have little to do with current advances in the field and are more about projected global populations, food needs and resource challenges. The data in the CE Delft reports shows that greater adoption by 2030 could be feasible, as long as consumers embrace the idea of cell-based meat in the first place.

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