Companies are touting alternative meat and seafood products as more environmentally friendly than conventional meat. They promise that these products will improve efficiency and/or cut emissions from the global food system. Companies are also highlighting the potential for eliminating exposure to toxins such as mercury in seafood and pathogens that limit shelf life and threaten human health.
But, the evidence for these claims is limited. While some companies and marketers claim that their cell-cultured meat and seafood substitutes will reduce these harmful ramifications and have positive environmental benefits, the environmental impacts and trade-offs associated with the entry of these substitutes into the marketplace are far from clear. And right now, that hasn’t happened.
Before cell-cultured foods come to the market at scale, it’s critical that the companies that develop them, and the agencies that oversee them ensure, ensure they are safe for the planet and human health .
What does responsible, transparent investment and oversight in cell-cultured products look like?
Getting cell-cultured meat and seafood products on store shelves that don’t compromise taste or safety, and reducing the environmental footprint compared to conventional products is a huge challenge. The technology would require tightly controlled conditions that are a significant departure from our current systems for wild-caught seafood and concentrated animal feeding operations.
Moreover, because cell-cultured foods have the potential to disrupt complex food production systems that include billions of farmers, ranchers, fishers, food processors and others, there is risk of unanticipated ripple effects and adverse socioeconomic impacts that are not consistently considered.
But when done right, forward-thinking companies can play a critical role in solving the urgent challenge of sustainably feeding a growing population and lead us forward on a path in which cell-cultured meat and seafood products benefit our environment and human health.
Companies that are considering, or have already invested in cell-cultured meat and seafood products, should demonstrate leadership by adopting the following four principles for ensuring growth happens responsibly and transparently.
1. Ensure cell-cultured meat and seafood products are safe for human consumption.
To succeed in the marketplace, cell-cultured meat and seafood must first and foremost be safe while also meeting consumer expectations for taste, nutrition, convenience and cost. A misstep by a company regarding safety can jeopardize public health and undermine both the industry’s credibility and the company’s reputation.
While we anticipate that companies will make safety a top priority, the potential for mistakes is too great and the conflicts of interest too strong for them to unilaterally make decisions without independent oversight. That’s why it is essential that companies ensure that a government agency with expertise and authority to regulate the product, such as the Food and Drug Administration conduct a thorough review and affirm that the manufacturing process is indeed safe. And, that the agency conducting the review shares its decision publicly to allow for both public and scientific scrutiny.
2. Continuously improve the overall environmental footprint of cell-cultured meat and seafood products as compared to the foods they are intended to replace.
Companies should work with partners such as academics and non-governmental organizations to conduct LCAs and systems analyses to find ways to reduce the full range of potential environmental impacts.
Studies comparing hypothetical models of cell-cultured beef production to conventional operations suggest potential climate benefits. But, right now, the majority of products are still in the developmental or pilot stages. That means, the implications on energy, water, waste streams and antibiotic use from the manufacture of these products at scale haven’t been sufficiently quantified and assessed.
Credible LCAs that address the potential scale of the market will be necessary to comprehensively evaluate these claims. And, since manufacturing technology is likely to evolve rapidly leading up to, and after, commercialization, LCAs should be revisited and refined periodically with appropriate acknowledgement of uncertainties and data gaps.
3. Advocate for programs that maximize the net societal benefits of cell-cultured meat and seafood products.
Large-scale market disruptions from cell-cultured products may have disproportionate economic and food security impacts on vulnerable, small-scale producers of conventional meat and seafood. About a quarter of the world’s ice-free land is used for grazing and nearly a third of agricultural land is used for livestock feed production. This translates into more than 1.7 billion people whose livelihoods are supported by the livestock sector globally.
Companies should identify potential social disruptions, incorporate them into any assessment of benefits and undertake measures to mitigate negative impacts. For example, choosing the seafood species to be made as new cell-cultured products carefully to maximize environmental benefits while minimizing negative social and economic impacts.
4. Enable consumers to make informed choices about cell-cultured meat and seafood products with accurate labeling and marketing.
Transparency is the linchpin to building consumer trust in a new product, particularly when it’s a new, innovative item. Mislabeling or overstating the sustainability or nutritional value of a product can undermine the credibility of the entire marketplace. The ability of consumers to choose among food options is only as good as the information made readily available to them.
Companies should ensure that “Cell-cultured” is used to describe the products in labelling and marketing, and that the labels include nutritional and food safety handling differences. Moreover, all environmental, health and safety claims should be easily accessible, reviewed by the appropriate government agency and supported by scientific evidence.
To find out how companies can ensure responsible development of cell-cultured meat and seafood, download EDF’s new Principles.
Author: Jenny Ahlen