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Is eating meat sustainable?

Is eating meat sustainable?
Research shows the absence of meat on your plate won’t save the planet.

Accompanying the glitz and glam of this year’s Golden Globes was a new menu void of meat. The decision was supposed to send a message: Remove meat from your plate, save the environment. Some applauded it. Others raised their eyebrows at the hypocrisy; celebrities with lavish lifestyles and luxury, carbon-emitting transportation thinking they were saving the planet and common person by chowing down on some veggies. (In fact, not long after the Globes, Joaquin Phoenix took an airplane from Hollywood to Washington D.C. to advocate for veganism as a solution to climate change, despite research showing the switch to a vegan diet for a full year has half the impact of a single transatlantic flight). There’s no doubt celebs can have influence, but perhaps their solutions are a bit misplaced.

Is a plant-based diet better for the environment and your health?

Americans will eat more than 225 pounds of meat per capita in 2020. There’s no doubt Iowans will help the average as the 2019 Iowa Farm Bureau Food and Farm Index shows Iowans love real meat, despite headline noise. While there’s nothing wrong with adding plant-based foods to your meals—in fact, you should eat fruits and veggies!— there is also no shame or guilt necessary for also eating meat. Research shows the absence of meat on your plate won’t save the planet. And furthermore, in the case for beef, cattle are raised on marginal lands where plants are difficult to grow and cattle can also consume a lot of food we waste which, coincidentally, are vegetables.    

But honestly, the question is even more complicated than that. While some simply seek to know what diet uses less water or emits less greenhouse gases, there is a balance to strike between what is environmentally feasible while still growing food items that provide the nutrients our bodies need. These nutrients, many found only in animal proteins, are particularly important for children in the developing world who face stunting, anemia and poor brain function due to poor nutrition—something I fear is lost on those of substantial means who try to sway our food choices.

Globally, agriculture needs to scale up to meet the needs of a growing 2050 population, and at the same time research has shown a food system without animals would create a nutritional deficit. So, we can talk about elimination diets all day, but really a strictly plant-based world raises more concerns than it solves. Which leads some to believe the balance of food and sustainability can simply be, well, created?

Is lab-grown “meat” better for the environment? What is lab-grown “meat”?

First, what is being created in these petri dishes is not “meat” by its technical definition, according to Iowa State University Assistant Professor and Director of Certificate Studies in Meat Science Dr. Rodrigo Tarte. It is muscle cells. Meat, he explains, is made up of two parts—muscle fibers and connected tissue. Because cell-based protein does not have connected tissue (which provides the structure in a steak or ribeye), it is not really meat. It also does not have the fat that creates the beautiful marbling you see on a cut of beef. This is why it will be difficult for a lab product to replicate anything other than loose meat.

With that being said, lab protein is made by placing extracted muscle samples from adult cattle (although startup companies haven’t been forthcoming on exactly how this is done) into a petri dish and replicating the cells by feeding it a blood-based serum, which has properties that promote healthy cell growth. One startup claims it can bypass the animal biopsies by instead harvesting stem cells from umbilical cords. But in any case, cell-based protein is far from vegan because an animal must be used to create it.

A goal of those who want to grow protein in a lab, is to reduce dependence on animals as a protein source. But for that to really work, Dr. Tarte says it would have to take place on a large industrial scale. “Every news story,” says Dr. Tarte, “they put up a picture of a juicy burger and you hear only the positives. You never hear about the environmental footprint, which has not been discussed in detail.”

To replace animal protein, cell-based meat would become an “enormous industry with a fair amount of inputs,” he says. Early research from the University of Oxford shows lab protein may have a longer-term effect climate than cattle due to the high amount of energy it takes to make it, which includes the use of fossil fuels, and the longer-lasting greenhouse gases it would emit.

Additionally, Dr. Tarte hypothesizes water usage will be significant in creating in-vitro protein. Although the actual product may not contain a lot of water, he says the entire life cycle needs to be looked at—this could include inputs in raising an animal for cell extraction to water usage to clean and disinfect all the various lab equipment. Which, Dr. Tarte says would be imperative to growing lab cultures without the use of antibiotics. You can hear more from Dr. Tarte on the latest Spokesman Speaks podcast.

So, what’s the takeaway?

Hollywood can continue to do what Hollywood does best: play a role on the big screen or latest streaming service while also handing out terrible wellness advice. But no matter your lifestyle— the mama on her third day of dry shampoo (been there, girl), the gym rat logging their macros, the busy commuters always on the go or the retiree taking it easy— if you want to eat meat guilt-free, do it. There are other ways you can positively impact the environment, like not contributing to 40 percent of food in America that goes to waste. And although I’m far from an “influencer,” in 2020, maybe we can make leftovers or meal planning this year’s hot new trend? It’s one I’m willing to jump on!    



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