Science·What on Earth?

Is lab-grown meat the next frontier in ethical eating?

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, we look at the feasibility of lab-grown meat and why universities and colleges are leading the way on sustainability.

Also: A decade of green energy investment

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(Sködt McNalty/CBC)

Hello, people! This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world. (Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)

This week:

  • Is lab-grown meat the next frontier in ethical eating?
  • Green energy investment in the last decade: A success story
  • Canada's colleges and universities are among the greenest in the world

Is lab-grown meat the next frontier in ethical eating?

(David Parry/Reuters)

The meatless burger is surely one of the biggest food trends of 2019. The rising popularity of options like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods burgers come as scientists implore consumers to switch to a more plant-based diet to help tackle climate change.

But there's another option lurking on the horizon: lab-grown meat. Or, as scientists prefer to call it, "cultured" or "clean" meat. It has the potential to be better for both the environment and your health.

Amy Rowat, associate professor of integrative biology and physiology at University of California, Los Angeles, is one of six scientists who received a grant earlier this year from the Good Food Institute in Washington, D.C., to further develop cultured meat. 

Born and raised in Guelph, Ont., Rowat spent years studying cells and has years of academic experience in the science of food.

"All the food that we eat is made of cells," Rowat said, so developing cultured meat was a natural fit. In the simplest terms, stem cells are taken from an animal's muscle and put in a nutrient-rich broth, of sorts, to encourage them to multiply and grow into muscle fibres. So, it is real meat, but with one key difference: Animals don't have to be raised or killed to produce it.

Rowat and her grad student, Stephanie Kawecki, determined that to produce one billion quarter-pounder burgers (113 grams each), it takes 1.2 million cows living for three years on 8,600 square kilometres of land (and then slaughtering them). The same number of cultured burgers would require the muscle stem cells of just one living cow, and they'd take only about a month and a half to grow.

Right now, those cultured burgers would be pricey. The first lab-grown burger was produced in a Netherlands lab in 2013 at a cost of about $425,000 Cdn, although Israeli company Future Meat Technologies said last year it could bring the cost down into the range of $3.00 to $6.00 Cdn a pound (453 g) by 2020. Rowat believes cultured meat will eventually be on par cost-wise with organic beef. 

Some believe it could be available in two to five years. But the pivotal question is: Will people eat it?

Lab-grown meat "is a foreign concept," said Kara Nielsen, who analyzes food trends at CCD Innovation in Emeryville, Calif. But she sees a definite advantage. It will have the familiar taste and texture of farmed meat, and it's a good alternative for people concerned with animal rights. "It certainly wins on you-didn't-kill-a-cow-to-eat-this-burger," she said. 

Another plausible selling point: it could be healthier than farmed beef. "Imagine modifying genetically the cellular components so that they produce healthier molecules in your cultured meat," said Rowat. For example, to make a lower-fat meat, or one with more healthy fat.

On the environmental front, if people move away from farmed beef, there would be less need to clear cut land to raise cattle, and less methane from those gassy cows. 

A recent Oxford University study, however, highlights a potential hurdle. It found that the amount of heat and electricity required to produce cultured meat could be worse, environmentally, than some cattle farming if energy systems remain dependent on fossil fuels. 

The researchers suggested that to be more environmentally responsible, companies producing cultured meat would have to do something to mitigate carbon emissions. That could be crucial to cultured meat's success. 

Nielsen said the potential positives may be what push people past any feelings of strangeness about eating lab-grown meat.

"It could be that we'll leapfrog to an acceptance …  like, 'You know what? I still want to eat my beef. And my beef just comes from a separate place.'"

Stephanie Hogan

Reader feedback

Our story on tree-planting efforts last week spurred a number of people to write in with comments and suggestions. 

Laurence Thompson said, "As a Scout leader for many years, we (Beavers, Cubs, Scouts, Venturers) voluntarily planted thousands of trees as part of a 'reforestation' program. Clear-cutting was rife, and it was our contribution, with suitable seedling donations, to try to repair some of the damage caused by this practice. This was 40 years ago and was not an endeavour based on money and donations!!!! Times have changed and so has the imperative, given the global warming and climate crisis, but the message is still the same."

Shirley Barnea chimed in to say, "another great way to take part in tree-planting (without having to pay or do it yourself) is to switch your search engine to They use their profits to plant trees in deforested areas around the world and empower people in poverty by hiring them to plant them. It is available as an extension for many browsers and as an app for phones."

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Old issues of What on Earth? are right here.

The Big Picture: Green energy investment in the last decade

Given the scale of the problem of climate change, and the challenges posed by some of the solutions, progress may seem slow. But a study by Bloomberg New Energy Finance suggests that between 2010 and the end of this year, $2.6 trillion US will have been invested in new renewable energy worldwide. As you can see, the biggest beneficiaries have been solar and wind energy projects, but biomass and biofuels have also received significant funding (although when it comes to pollution, bioenergy has both pros and significant cons).


Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

Canada's colleges and universities among the greenest in the world

(TapBike Solutions)

As students head back to college and university campuses across Canada this month, they might be proud to know they're studying at some of the greenest schools in the world. That's according to the 2019 Sustainable Campus Index put out recently by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), an international organization.

Nova Scotia Community College and Thompson Rivers University topped the sustainability rankings for associate colleges and masters institutions, respectively, while Université Laval and the University of Calgary made the Top 10 for doctoral institutions.

Some Canadian campus green initiatives highlighted by AASHE include:

  • The Joyce Centre at Mohawk College in Hamilton, which opened in 2018. At 96,000 square feet, it's Canada's largest net-zero energy institutional building. Its features include solar panels, a solar-thermal array, geothermal wells, stormwater harvesting and a green roof.

  • Programs at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C., that allow students and staff to sign out conventional bicycles and e-bikes (see photo above) and allow employees to buy an e-bike using payroll deductions. The e-bike programs are designed to encourage cycling in the hilly city.

  • A water efficiency project at the University of Saskatchewan that's expected to save 13 million litres of water a year by replacing 75 per cent of toilets and urinals and installing aerators in 85 per cent of the faucets on campus.

Because universities teach about sustainability, they have a responsibility to make their operations sustainable, said Rochelle Owen, who runs Dalhousie University's Office of Sustainability and sits on the steering committee for the Canadian Alliance of College and University sustainability professionals. "We should model that through walking the talk."

The size and unique teaching and research mandates of post-secondary institutions allow them to test and implement green solutions that may be beyond the reach of most businesses, she said. "We will step out ahead of the pack there, because we're trying to be innovative."

That can include big projects like district energy systems that heat buildings centrally with one heating system and reclaim waste heat. Or demonstrations like a building with solar panels at Dalhousie that just installed a battery to show how solar plus storage can solve a problem — that the sun doesn't always shine when people need power. 

Monika Urbanski of AASHE, the author of the Sustainable Campus Index, said other organizations can take ideas from what's happening on campuses.

"Higher education is so unique in that we are in the business of educating future leaders of our world," she said. "Students can see how a sustainable organization should function, and then they can take that message to their future employers."

Emily Chung

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty