A Deep Dive Into the Environmental Impact of Meat Substitutes
Author bio: Dr. Christine Sanford is a Board-Certified Pharmacotherapy Specialist with a functional, whole-person approach to medicine who received her Doctor of Pharmacy degree from Ohio Northern University. Pursuant to residency training at Methodist Hospital, she served as a clinical pharmacy specialist at Stanford Health Care and Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
Additionally, she has received her graduate certificate in human nutrition and functional medicine from the University of Western States in affiliation with the Institute for Functional Medicine. She currently practices at PharmToTable and is completing her fellowship in functional nutrition at The Sandy Hook Clinic.
Plant-based meat options have become popular as both health-conscious and environmentally-friendly consumers have adopted them. Unfortunately, the processed nature of the burgers actually means that they are not likely to be good for you. Unfortunately, they aren’t likely to be good for the environment, either. Let’s look at their impact, so you can make an informed decision.
What’s the Situation?
With global warming impacting human health, as well as our environment and economy, strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions have become a global priority. Currently, more than 95% of interested parties within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change have adopted the Paris Agreement, committing governments across the world to deploy strategies addressing the rise in global temperature. Examples of such strategies within the agricultural industry include managed grazing, regenerative farming practices, food waste reduction, and the adoption of plant-rich diets, all of which aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and sequester carbon. There’s also been a massive shift toward the industrial production of “plant-based” meat substitutes, such as hydroponic and lab-grown meat.
The challenge with such solutions is that they tend to oversimplify and overcorrect the issue. The true answer to our environmental dilemma is much more nuanced and deserves a keen examination of the science and facts. We’ll do that in this post by exploring in-depth the implications of farming practices required to sustain the production of “plant-based” meat substitutes and compare them to the environmental impact of regenerative agriculture on greenhouse gas emissions and our global ecosystem.
Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Plant-Based Meat
Agriculture and land use are among the biggest contributors to climate change with the food, agriculture, and land use sectors collectively emitting around 24% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, second only to electricity production.
The unsustainability of our current food systems is evident from the many ways in which it pollutes our environment, including the release of greenhouse emissions from:
- Synthetic fertilizer application
- Rice cultivation
- Enteric fermentation from conventionally raised cattle
Carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide gasses from these practices are well-known to contribute to global warming:
- Plowing for farmland, deforestation, and burning of fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
- Industrial animal farming and the application of synthetic fertilizers respectively generate methane and nitrous oxide emissions.
- Nitrous oxide is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide and remains in the atmosphere for over 100 years. Synthetic fertilizers are the largest producer of this gas.
Source: Project Drawdown, Farming Our Way Out of the Climate Crisis
The search for solutions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the food, agriculture, and land use sectors, and the potential marketing gains that come with the “eco-friendly” tag, spurred the commercial interest to develop “plant-based” meat substitutes derived largely from cereal crops like soy, rice, corn, and wheat.
Yet, a Life Cycle Analysis conducted by the University of Michigan compared the environmental impact of the “plant-based” Beyond Burger to a conventionally raised beef burger and found the former to emit 90 percent fewer greenhouse gasses. While there is evidence to support replacing industrial meat and dairy with plant-derived or plant-rich diets, there is a lack of robust data on the net carbon footprint of processed plant foods when compared to regenerative agriculture practices.
Consequences of Industrial Agriculture
Industrial monocropping to produce cereal crops for “plant-based” meat is being touted as an environmentally sound replacement; however, these energy-intensive and often chemical-ridden farming practices do not come without deleterious consequences to our environment. Industrial agriculture depends on synthetic fertilizers to enrich the soil and maintain crop production due to poor ecological soil diversity. This in turn contributes to soil loss and increases dependence on synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, and herbicides which are a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions from natural gas. A recent study estimated the annual average methane emissions from the U.S. ammonia fertilizer industry to be more than 100 times higher than originally cited from the U.S. EPA’s Facility Level Information on Greenhouse Gas Tool (FLIGHT).
Looking at the ingredients in both the Impossible Burger and the Beyond Burger we can see that they are mainly made up of ultra-processed fractionated whole foods, flavors, and additives. And the main ingredients – soy and peas – rely heavily on synthetic fertilizers! These are also genetically modified, in the case of the Impossible Burger, to withstand glyphosate, the active ingredient in RoundUp:
|Impossible Burger||Beyond Burger|
|Ingredients: Water, Soy Protein Concentrate, Coconut Oil, Sunflower Oil, Natural Flavors, 2% or less of: Potato Protein, Methylcellulose, Yeast Extract, Cultured Dextrose, Food Starch Modified, Soy Leghemoglobin, Salt, Soy Protein Isolate, Mixed Tocopherols (Vitamin E), Zinc Gluconate, Thiamine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B1), Sodium Ascorbate (Vitamin C), Niacin, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B6), Riboflavin (Vitamin B2), Vitamin B12.Sourced from Impossible Foods 11-03-19||Ingredients: Water, Pea Protein Isolate*, Expeller-Pressed Canola Oil, Refined Coconut Oil, Rice Protein, Natural Flavors, Cocoa Butter, Mung Bean Protein, Methylcellulose, Potato Starch, Apple Extract, Salt, Potassium Chloride, Vinegar, Lemon Juice Concentrate, Sunflower Lecithin, Pomegranate Fruit Powder, Beet Juice Extract (for color)Sourced from Beyond Meat 11-03-19|
In addition to the copious amounts of synthetic fertilizers required to sustain high-yield production of monocrops, the conversion of substantial amounts of grasslands into croplands destroys the soil diversity resulting in nitrogen run-off and the release of carbon from over tillage. In 2019, the largest source of nitrous oxide emissions was due to the application of fertilizers for soil management, making up 75 percent of all agriculture emissions! This clearly shows the impact of synthetic fertilizers on greenhouse gas emissions. Such unsustainable farming practices have contributed to the more than 0.4 billion hectares of abandoned farmland, further driving the interest in regenerative farming methods. Encouragingly, it has been projected that the conversion of these abandoned farmlands via carbon-friendly practices could result in 12.5 to 20 gigatons of carbon dioxide sequestration over the next 30 years.
Regenerative Agriculture: A Conservation Strategy
Employing new conservation strategies to both sequester and decrease the production of greenhouse gas emissions is vital for our future. Especially as the global population continues to grow and food demands soar. The warning signs are already evident – methane emissions from enteric fermentation and manure management from livestock represented 38% of total emissions from the agriculture sector in 2019.
A key solution can be found in regenerative farming practices that create new carbon “sinks” via photosynthesis and store the carbon into biomasses like soil, grasses, and trees. These conservation strategies utilize managed grazing from cattle aimed at reducing the reliance on synthetic fertilizers and crop burning, thus decreasing the overall emissions from the agriculture sector. In addition, the process of carbon sequestration helps to offset the methane emissions generated by the livestock industry.
But what does regenerative agriculture actually look like? It includes practices such as:
- Crop rotations
- Diverse over crops
- Lack of pesticides and herbicides
- No tillage
- Compost application
A study out of the University of Michigan conducted a whole-farm life cycle analysis of a multispecies pasture rotation system that was converted from abandoned farmland using regenerative agriculture strategies and compared the total greenhouse gas emissions to conventional feedlot systems. Their results showed that:
- The greenhouse gas footprint was reduced by 80 percent.
- The regenerative farming strategies resulted in 66 percent fewer emissions than conventional practices.
Another benefit of regenerative farming practices is that they enhance soil health by restoring vital carbon content, the opposite of conventional practices used to grow cereal crops for “plant-based” meat alternatives.
How Can You Help?
Simply put: our current global food systems are not sustainable. We need to rethink how we eat and rethink the way we produce food.
You can opt for a diverse, whole-food, and plant-rich diet. Choose to source your meat and seafood from sustainable farming practices and buy local and organic food when possible.
Here are a few recommendations to help guide your eco-friendly choices:
- Aim for 8+ cups of varied and colorful, non-starchy vegetables per day.
- Choose organic, seasonal, whole food products whenever possible.
- Choose grass-fed, free-range, antibiotic/hormone-free animal products whenever possible.
- When opting for packaged foods, choose the least processed options available (e.g., short ingredient list, natural/recognizable ingredients, minimal preservatives/additives/flavorings/colorings).
For more information on choosing lower-carbon footprint meat sources, check out this resource.
It’s A Joint Effort
Reducing our reliance on factory-farmed animal meat and increasing consumption of natural, whole, plant foods has been shown to reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions. A complete shift to “plant-based” meat alternatives is not a sustainable solution nor a less deleterious path forward due to its reliance on synthetic fertilizers, poor land use, and subsequent soil deterioration. To avoid the environmental catastrophe towards which we are already hurtling requires an all-of-the-above approach. A major scaling back on industrial meat production and cereal monocrops, combined with reforestation, and universal adoption of regenerative agriculture practices are the central elements required to at least minimize the impact of the agricultural revolution on our planet.