New research from the University of California, Davis, suggests cultivated meat might not be better for the environment than beef from traditionally raised cattle, and in some cases could be worse.

In the study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, researchers compared the energy needed and greenhouse gases emitted during the production process for cultivated meat to conventional beef production. 

Cultivated meat, or cell-based meat, is grown in a lab from animal cells. Several companies are seeking to commercialize products from the technology as a way to offer meat with a lighter environmental footprint, but a joint USDA-FDA regulatory framework has yet to allow any to hit the market.

The study’s lead author and doctoral graduate Derrick Risner of the UC Davis Department of Food Science and Technology said the process to produce cultivated meat is currently similar to the biotechnology used to make pharmaceuticals – which requires a high amount of energy. 

“If this product continues to be produced using the 'pharma' approach, it’s going to be worse for the environment and more expensive than conventional beef production,” Risner said in a release.

Researchers found the ingredients and methods used to help the animal cells multiply have four to 25 times the “global warming potential” compared to retail beef. 

“It’s possible we could reduce its environmental impact in the future, but it will require significant technical advancement to simultaneously increase the performance and decrease the cost of the cell culture media,” study co-author Edward Spang said in a release.

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However, developing processes to cultivate meat without those energy-intensive ingredients is one of the goals of the UC Davis Cultivated Meat Consortium. If the current substances can be replaced with food cultures, researchers say cultivated meat’s global warming potential could be significantly lower than conventional beef production. 

Given the current methods of cultivating meat in a lab, researchers conclude it may be more efficient to enhance climate-friendly traditional beef production. 

The preliminary study was financially supported by the UC Davis Innovation Institute for Food and Health and the National Science Foundation Growing Convergence Research grant.

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