The Environmental Impacts of Plant-Based Meat Substitutes

The Environmental Impacts of Plant-Based Meat Substitutes
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Environmental assessment of 50 different plant-based meats show them to be vastly more sustainable.

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Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

“There is increasing consensus that transitioning towards reduced meat consumption and more plant-based diets is a key feature to address important health and sustainability challenges” facing humanity; yet this has been the trajectory of global meat consumption.

According to the United Nations, we would “have to double the production of meat and dairy to meet the predicted demand [for] animal proteins in 2050,” when, in fact, we’d have to do the exact opposite if we were to contain the ecological damage. “[N]early every credible forecast shows that if we’re to have any chance of meeting future food in a sustainable fashion, lowering our meat consumption will be absolutely essential.”

While more centralized governments may be effective in influencing consumption patterns, since the main drivers of global meat consumption are things like rising incomes, urbanization, and Western culture, “the main identified drivers of meat demand are difficult to influence through direct policy intervention.” Thus, we have to take our case directly to the consumer; but information and education may not be enough. We may need the increased availability of ready-made plant-based products.

Too often, “ethics and sustainability alone does not stand much of a chance in a world of consumers.” “Many consumers seem deaf to ethical arguments,” which may be quickly forgotten when it comes down to buying food. When it comes to consumer-perceived barriers to following a plant-based diet, the largest barrier may simply be meat appreciation. People enjoy the taste of meat. So, in practice, if we want people to shift over to plant-based options, “the taste, structure, and nutritional value of vegetarian meals could be developed to more closely follow the preferences of meat eaters.” I mean, no point in designing a veggie burger for vegetarians—they’re already not eating meat. So, when Pat Brown founded Impossible Foods, his goal was to create something “a burger-lover would say is better than any burger they’ve ever had.” Or, the Beyond Burger created by Beyond Meat, a company founded to tackle climate change by creating plant-based products that were “Juicy, Meaty and Delicious.”

But how much better are they for the climate? Both the Beyond Burger and the Impossible Burger have had environmental lifecycle assessments published by reputable groups. I did a little piece for the Swiss investment firm UBS summarizing the results, and, indeed, switching to either drops greenhouse gas emissions, land use, and water footprints down about 90 percent.

Similar analyses have been done on more than 50 different plant-based meats. All such studies found them to be vastly more sustainable, with no real differences in greenhouse gas emissions observed between the different sources of protein they used, whether it’s wheat or soy or whatever––though, obviously, any products containing egg binders would be significantly worse.

Now, of course, if you went straight to the unprocessed peas and soybeans from which the Beyond and Impossible Burgers are made, you could get not just a 90 percent lower impact, but like a 99 percent lower impact. But that impact drops to zero if no one is willing to eat it.

A review on consumer research of meat substitutes found that although things like health and environment can persuade consumers to try a meat substitute, it’s the “appearance and taste…that are crucial factors for their consumption on a regular basis.” Interestingly, these days plant-based foods may actually have a leg up. If you give college students actual animal-based chocolate milk, mac and cheese, chicken tenders, and meatballs, but lie to them and tell them they’re actually made from plants, surprisingly and unexpectedly, the researchers found that when “subjects tasted the food and rated how much they liked the taste, those who were told the food was vegan liked the food significantly better than did those who were told the [truth].” Just “thinking a food was vegan actually increased liking for the taste of that food.” Other demographics may have a different reaction, though, in which case there’s always sustainability by stealth, using blended products that substitute out some of the animal protein for plant protein. In the last year, such hybrid products have made a promising entrance––so much so that major meat producers, Perdue and Tyson, are bragging about the incorporation of plant protein into their blended products.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Video production by Glass Entertainment

Motion graphics by Avocado Video

Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

“There is increasing consensus that transitioning towards reduced meat consumption and more plant-based diets is a key feature to address important health and sustainability challenges” facing humanity; yet this has been the trajectory of global meat consumption.

According to the United Nations, we would “have to double the production of meat and dairy to meet the predicted demand [for] animal proteins in 2050,” when, in fact, we’d have to do the exact opposite if we were to contain the ecological damage. “[N]early every credible forecast shows that if we’re to have any chance of meeting future food in a sustainable fashion, lowering our meat consumption will be absolutely essential.”

While more centralized governments may be effective in influencing consumption patterns, since the main drivers of global meat consumption are things like rising incomes, urbanization, and Western culture, “the main identified drivers of meat demand are difficult to influence through direct policy intervention.” Thus, we have to take our case directly to the consumer; but information and education may not be enough. We may need the increased availability of ready-made plant-based products.

Too often, “ethics and sustainability alone does not stand much of a chance in a world of consumers.” “Many consumers seem deaf to ethical arguments,” which may be quickly forgotten when it comes down to buying food. When it comes to consumer-perceived barriers to following a plant-based diet, the largest barrier may simply be meat appreciation. People enjoy the taste of meat. So, in practice, if we want people to shift over to plant-based options, “the taste, structure, and nutritional value of vegetarian meals could be developed to more closely follow the preferences of meat eaters.” I mean, no point in designing a veggie burger for vegetarians—they’re already not eating meat. So, when Pat Brown founded Impossible Foods, his goal was to create something “a burger-lover would say is better than any burger they’ve ever had.” Or, the Beyond Burger created by Beyond Meat, a company founded to tackle climate change by creating plant-based products that were “Juicy, Meaty and Delicious.”

But how much better are they for the climate? Both the Beyond Burger and the Impossible Burger have had environmental lifecycle assessments published by reputable groups. I did a little piece for the Swiss investment firm UBS summarizing the results, and, indeed, switching to either drops greenhouse gas emissions, land use, and water footprints down about 90 percent.

Similar analyses have been done on more than 50 different plant-based meats. All such studies found them to be vastly more sustainable, with no real differences in greenhouse gas emissions observed between the different sources of protein they used, whether it’s wheat or soy or whatever––though, obviously, any products containing egg binders would be significantly worse.

Now, of course, if you went straight to the unprocessed peas and soybeans from which the Beyond and Impossible Burgers are made, you could get not just a 90 percent lower impact, but like a 99 percent lower impact. But that impact drops to zero if no one is willing to eat it.

A review on consumer research of meat substitutes found that although things like health and environment can persuade consumers to try a meat substitute, it’s the “appearance and taste…that are crucial factors for their consumption on a regular basis.” Interestingly, these days plant-based foods may actually have a leg up. If you give college students actual animal-based chocolate milk, mac and cheese, chicken tenders, and meatballs, but lie to them and tell them they’re actually made from plants, surprisingly and unexpectedly, the researchers found that when “subjects tasted the food and rated how much they liked the taste, those who were told the food was vegan liked the food significantly better than did those who were told the [truth].” Just “thinking a food was vegan actually increased liking for the taste of that food.” Other demographics may have a different reaction, though, in which case there’s always sustainability by stealth, using blended products that substitute out some of the animal protein for plant protein. In the last year, such hybrid products have made a promising entrance––so much so that major meat producers, Perdue and Tyson, are bragging about the incorporation of plant protein into their blended products.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Video production by Glass Entertainment

Motion graphics by Avocado Video

Doctor's Note

This is the first of nine videos in a series on plant-based meats that includes:

If you don’t want to wait for all nine of the videos in this series to roll out on NutritionFacts.org, you can get them right now in a digital download from my webinar a few months ago.

For background on food and climate change, see Diet and Climate Change: Cooking Up a Storm.

If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here.

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