Food for thought

Catchy headlines and fake news: A case study in cultured meat

By David Burrows

- Last updated on GMT

Do we look beyond the headline? ©iStock
Do we look beyond the headline? ©iStock
The search for an exciting angle or click-bait headline means the mass media risks over-simplifying the discourse around food production.

Cultured meat might not be a climate-friendly source of protein after all, the papers reported recently. But how many people read the full story?

Pressure to secure publicity for new research is fierce, so it’s easy to see why the press team at the University of Oxford teed up a paper published in the journal Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems​, like this: “Growing meat in the laboratory may not be better for the climate in the long run than meat from cattle.”​ It sounds a lot better than: cultured meat in most scenarios seems to be better for the climate than cattle. This is the received wisdom, after all, so puncture a hole in that and you have a story.

And true to form many outlets gobbled up the findings. The BBC​ went with: “Cultured lab meat may make climate change worse.” ​The Independent​ chose: “Lab grown meat could cause more environmental damage than the real thing, scientists warn.”​ Most of the (widespread) coverage was in a similar vein.

However, as FoodNavigator’s own coverage of the research reflected​, the actual findings were a lot more nuanced than the headlines – and indeed a fair chunk of the content below them – suggested. This is nothing new, but it doesn’t make it any less concerning.

Let’s look at what the researchers did and what they found.

Agricultural greenhouse gas emissions are responsible for around a quarter of current global warming. Replacing conventional cattle farming with “labriculture” – meat grown in the lab using cell culture techniques – has therefore been touted as a way of reducing the environmental impact.

John Lynch and Professor Raymond Pierrehumbert decided to put this assumption to the test. In their paper, they highlight that the estimates being thrown around are based on carbon-dioxide equivalent footprints – and these can be “misleading​”, because “not all greenhouse gases generate the same amount of warming or have the same lifespan​”.

A fair point. Methane, for example, which is produced in huge quantities by livestock, has a much larger warming impact than carbon dioxide, but it only remains in the atmosphere for about 12 years. Carbon dioxide, on the other hand, “persists and accumulates for millennia. This means methane’s impact on long-term warming is not cumulative and is impacted greatly if emissions increase or decrease over time.”

Lynch and Pierrehumbert examined available data on the emissions associated with three current cattle farming methods and four possible meat culture methods. They found that: “Under continuous high global consumption, cultured meat results in less warming than cattle initially, but this gap narrows in the long term and in some cases cattle production causes far less warming, as CH4​ [methane] emissions do not accumulate, unlike CO2​.

Again, a fair point. However, their modelling stretched 1,000 years and “assumed energy systems remained the unchanged”​. In other words, there wouldn’t be further decarbonisation of the energy supply. And this is the (critical) bit that many reports failed to reflect upon – at least in any great detail.

What’s particularly interesting is that the press release issued by the Oxford Martin School – the part of the University of Oxford where the study was conducted – carried a different headline to the University’s one.

“Lab-grown meat’s promise for cutting climate warming depends on an energy revolution,”​ was the title used by the School, followed by: “Currently proposed types of lab-grown meat cannot provide a cure-all for the detrimental climate impacts of meat production without a large-scale transition to a decarbonised energy system, a new study has found.”

That’s much clearer but it’s not as catchy. Indeed, the authors’ point was that it isn’t yet clear whether cultured meat production would provide a more climatically sustainable alternative to rearing livestock, but decarbonise the energy system and it will help tip the balance.

Importantly, they also call for more detailed life cycle analyses of cultured meat production systems – the first of these are expected this year. And they can’t come too soon. As the think-tank Chatham House noted recently, LCAs of cultured meat currently are “highly speculative”,​ being based on modelled rather than actual production methods.

The ingredients and methods used remain loosely-guarded secrets, too, making precise calculations in relation to resource intensity pretty tricky. “Until such time as cultured meat is being produced at scale in industrial bioreactors […] it is not possible to assess fully the resource intensity of production,” ​Chatham House noted.

So, where does this leave us? Is cultured meat better or worse for the climate than real cattle? We don’t know. As the Oxford experts suggest, cultured meat is not prima facie​ climatically superior to cattle, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have the potential to be. The whole cultured versus cattle thing is – as the authors are at pains to highlight – shrouded in ambiguity.

The unknowns are what makes it all fascinating. However, as Maria Konnikova put it in an article on the subject of headlines​ in the New Yorker​ a few years back: “Caveats don’t fit in single columns and, once people are intrigued enough to read the story, they’ll get to the nuances just the same.”

Konnikova actually reported research showing that wasn’t always the case. And what if they don’t read the whole story?

Look a figure up and Google will tell you that eight out of 10 people don’t read headlines, but there doesn’t appear any study proving this (at least in the past 50 years). What we do know – according to Ofcom – is that social media is the most popular type on online news, used by 44% of UK adults. However, most might not be digesting anything more than the title: one study in the US showed that 59% of the links shared on social media haven’t been clicked on, which means “people are sharing articles without ever getting past the headlines​”, according to an article on Forbes. “The body copy of your content is still important, but these days, headlines are the true kings of content,”​ the writer, an expert in marketing, noted. “Without a solid headline, you’ll have no chance of achieving meaningful social shares and new visibility, so take your time polishing every word to absolute perfection.”

A lot of thought went into the Oxford headline, and I’m sure it garnered more coverage because of it. This will have raised awareness of a serious topic – the impact of our consumption patterns in relation to climate change – and that’s to be applauded. But you have to wonder what readers took away from it if all they read was: cultured meat bad – traditional steak good.

Source​​ 
‘Climate Impacts of Cultured Meat and Beef Cattle’ ​​
Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems​​
Date: 19 February 2019
DOI: https://doi.org/10.3389/fsufs.2019.00005
Authors: John Lynch* and Raymond Pierrehumbert 

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