As we see our planet get warmer, food companies have started to address a pressing issue in the industry: beef.
Growing cattle the way we do has severe effects on the environment and that’s a fact. Livestock are responsible for 18% of total GHG emissions, which is more than all forms of transport put together. Trending companies like Beyond and Impossible Foods have taken this opportunity to create meat out of plants, using the benefits of abstaining from meat as a marketing tool for their products.
Before getting into the discussion, there are two things I would like to point out. First, the meat industry includes a wide range of operations, being feedlot the most harmful to the environment, while on the opposite side there’s the grass-fed movement, based on the idea of regenerative agriculture. Most of the studies conducted that compare animal protein with plant-based meat are based on feedlot facilities, shifting the debate to the most impactful type of meat production.
Second, I will specifically look at Beyond and Impossible Foods as they are the major players in todays plant-based meat industry.
There are a number of things to take into consideration when comparing feedlot operations to keeping cattle on pasture.
On one hand, feedlot has several negative impacts, such as:
– Intense water consumption
– High amounts of carbon dioxide, methane and many other GHG’s
– Overgrazing, which is responsible for the massive deforestation and
desertification of land
– Intensive use of fertilizers, responsible for water pollution
– High amounts of antibiotics use, which develop antibiotic resistance in the human body
On the other hand, these are some of the effects of keeping cattle on pasture:
– Restores soil microbial diversity
– Makes land more resilient to flooding and drought
– Grasses trap atmospheric carbon dioxide
– Reduces fertilizer runoff polluting waterways
– Reduces pesticide use on conventional cropland
This information comes from the life cycle assessment study conducted in White Oak Pastures, a massive grass-fed beef producer in the U.S. The study concluded that about 1.3 kilograms of carbon is stored in their soil for every pound of produced beef.
At the same time, industrial farming of GMO soy or peas used in plant-based protein release at least 3.5 kg of carbon dioxide per kilogram of plant-based meat that’s produced.
Comparing these two operations, grass-fed beef might seem to be the answer, but the truth is that most of what’s produced by the industry nowadays is feedlot- finished beef. As the world gets richer, meat consumption increases, fulfilling the growing demand with massive feedlot operations.
When comparing plant-based meat to the average animal protein production, plant-based meat represents great improvements in terms of environmental impact. Studies conducted by Beyond and Impossible Foods show that their “meat” uses 96% less land, 87% less water, produces 89% less greenhouse gas emissions and no antibiotic resistance is developed.
There is no doubt that plant-based meat provides crucial advances compared to feedlot cattle production. However, as Marco Springmann, senior environmental researcher at the University of Oxford says “If Beyond’s products help people switch from normal beef to a replacement, its not bad, but it shouldn’t be the end goal”. Despite the implied benefits, plant-based meat has some undesirable effects such as GMO intake and mono-crop agriculture of soy or peas to supply producers, which would result in soil degradation. Furthermore, Springmann expresses that Beyond and Impossible Foods need to better assess their carbon footprint, saying that these companies make claims about sustainability that they do not sufficiently back with data.
In conclusion, plant-based meat seems to be a useful alternative to replace animal meat, even more so due to its growing demand. While it shouldn’t be a long-term thing, these are urging times and all measures should be taken in order to prevent the further escalation of the climate change crisis.
I personally don’t advocate for any way of eating in particular, but what I do believe is that eating as much meat as we do is not sustainable at all. Even with my Argentinean origin, which is famously known for its meat culture, the amount of meat that’s being consumed needs to be drastically lowered, and as it does, the quality of it should be prioritized.
Writing by Nicolás Reigl