Are Alternative Meats a Good Option For The Environment?

According to a recent report from the nonprofit organization FoodPrint, plant-based meat alternatives are unlikely to replace factory-farmed meat.

Demand for plant-based meat is on the rise around the world. An analysis from the Plant Based Foods Association and Good Food Institute finds that sales of plant-based products in the United States are up 27 percent in 2020 from the previous year. And a recent study from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine reports that the number of people who consume plant-based products has doubled from 6.7 percent to 13.1 percent in the last decade. By 2030, analysts from Barclays project that the global market for plant-based meat will exceed US$140 billion.

Much of this growth stems from an increase in environmentally-conscious consumers, looking to heal the planet by cutting back on their meat consumption. Meat production—especially beef—emits more than twice the carbon dioxide of plant-based foods.

“Most [alternative meat products] compare themselves to, and offer themselves as an alternative to, factory-farmed meat and its terrible environmental impact,” Jerusha Klemperer, Director of FoodPrint, tells Food Tank.

It’s likely, FoodPrint’s report concludes, that ultra-processed meat alternatives have a lower environmental impact than animal agriculture. Producing a four-ounce Beyond Burger, for example, requires only a tenth of the land necessary to produce a four-ounce beef burger.

But “like other ultra-processed foods and conventional meat,” FoodPrint’s report argues, meat alternatives “are still the product of industrial agriculture.”

“This type of farming uses high levels of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Producing these chemicals emits a huge amount of greenhouse gasses and using them throws natural nutrient cycles out of balance,” Klemperer says.

To make healthier and more environmentally sustainable choices, customers can look at how meat alternatives stack up against other vegetarian proteins, Klemperer says. One kilogram of Impossible Burger meat emits 3.5 times more greenhouse gases than a kilogram of tofu, FoodPrint reports.

In contrast, beans and legumes have even smaller environmental footprints, ranking as some of the best protein sources in terms of land use, water consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. As whole foods, these protein sources can offer a healthier approach to avoiding meat.

FoodPrint’s report highlights another concern: alternative meat companies. Many of the companies selling ultra-processed meat alternatives have attracted large investments. Impossible Foods, for example, has sourced nearly US$2 billion from investors including Mirae Asset Global Investments, CoatueTemasek, and XN.

But these investments come with the expectation of profits, which, FoodPrint contends, is not a viable way to build a new food system—especially as the cost of producing alternative meat remains high. The report argues that this approach may lead companies to replicate issues that already exist in the food system, including the unsustainable sourcing of ingredients and poor labor conditions.

“We would prefer to see people trade their factory farmed meat for whole, plant-based foods and to eat less meat, but better, regeneratively raised, meat,” Klemperer tells Food Tank. But, she adds, “In order for this to work there has to be a wholesale change to our system, with support of better livestock production: we won’t get there with individual choices alone.”

The report concludes that rather than attracting meat-eaters, the alternatives are only changing the landscape of existing vegetarian options. And by replacing healthier and lower-impact options like beans, legumes, and traditional veggie burgers, these new meat alternatives further complicate the problems they purport to solve.

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