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The Rise of Plant-Based Meat and Its Environmental Impact
The Rise of Plant-Based Meat and Its Environmental Impact
In recent years, plant-based meat has become increasingly popular as consumers seek out alternative protein sources to conventional proteins such as animal-based meat. This growing interest is driven by a range of factors, including health, nutrition, and sustainability.
Combining plant-based ingredients, such as beans, lentils, peas, and grains in novel ways can deliver the complete culinary experience of meat without the need for a single animal. With the advent of plant-based meat, you can have your burger and eat it too - without the guilt of harming the environment or contributing to animal cruelty.
From vegetarian to (kind of) mainstream: The evolution of plant-based meat
In the past, plant-based meats were primarily intended for vegetarians and vegans, as they were seeking alternatives to animal protein. These products were often marketed and sold in health food stores and speciality markets, rather than mainstream grocery stores and restaurants.
However, recent concerns about sustainability, food security, and the negative impacts of industrial animal agriculture have increased the demand for meat alternatives. Mimicking the texture and taste of meat, new plant-based products aim to appeal to mass consumers. As GFI noted, the trend of trying to replicate the texture and taste of animal meat through plant-based ingredients began with Beyond Meat's chicken strips in 2012 and gained popularity with the release of the Impossible Burger and the Beyond Burger in 2016.
Thanks to scientists, startups, incumbent food companies, investors, and technological breakthroughs, the plant-based meat industry has exploded since then (Refer figures 1 and 2). Today, plant-based meat products are popular among flexitarian consumers who are increasingly choosing to include more plant-based options in their diets.
Even though the majority of the headlines in 2022 make it seem like the plant-based industry is done and dusted (to be fair, 2022 was a rough year for most industries), the reports of the plant-based meat industry’s death are greatly exaggerated, as pointed out by Sonalie Figueiras.
But beyond just being a tasty alternative to animal meat, plant-based meat offers numerous environmental benefits over animal-based meat that make it an important tool in the battle against global warming.
Environmental benefits of plant-based meat
Despite growing numbers of vegetarians and vegans in some countries, the global demand for meat is projected to rise 50% between 2013 - 2050. On average, Americans consume more than 200 pounds of meat per person annually. While other countries typically consume less meat, global demand for meat is increasing rapidly, primarily due to the rising affluence of the middle class in Asia and Latin America.
Animal agriculture has a disproportionate impact on the environment, potentially leading to severe consequences for the natural systems that support life on Earth.
1. Greenhouse gas emissions
Farming animals for food emits more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than the entire global transportation industry, according to FOA.
Cows produce methane as a byproduct of the fermentation process that takes place in their stomachs as they digest grassy food. As there are ~1.5 billion cows in the world that are raised for both beef and dairy production, this contributes to about 9% of all global greenhouse gas emissions. Even though the most commonly farmed animals on the planet, pigs and chickens, do not release methane through belching, they still produce large amounts of manure which leads to the production of nitrous oxide, another powerful greenhouse gas. In addition, these animals require a diet of crops that have been fertilized, such as corn and soy, which also contribute to emissions.
Plant-based meats have a much smaller carbon footprint compared to animal-derived meats (Refer 3). Most of the environmental impact of plant-based meat comes from the initial production of the primary ingredients, which have low greenhouse gas emissions. Additional processing only contributes a small percentage (13-26%) to plant-based meat’s climate impact.
2. Land usage
Although animal agriculture only accounts for approximately 17% of the food consumed by humans, it utilizes 77% of all agricultural land globally.
"If you add up the whole of India, South Africa, France and Spain and you have the amount of land devoted to crops that are then fed to livestock” stated Chris D Thomas on Green Queen Media
This lack of efficiency leads to the need for expanding agriculture. As a result, animal agriculture often leads to land deforestation as forests are cleared to create pastures and grow feed crops. In contrast, plant-based meat requires considerably less land, between 47% and 99%, compared to traditional meat production (Refer figures 5 and 7).
By replacing a portion of meat from farming with plant-based alternatives, it could potentially allow for more land to be used for producing food or other environmental benefits such as reforestation for carbon sequestration. According to GFI, in America, if all cropland was used to grow food for human consumption, instead of feeding animals, farmers would be able to feed more than double the number of people. This would increase the availability of food by three times, compared to saving all the food that is wasted or discarded before being consumed.
3. Water consumption
Plant-based meat uses significantly less water than conventional meat. A study from Johns Hopkins University found that one kilogram of pork requires over five times more water than a plant-based alternative (Refer figure 6).
Animal farming consumes a significant amount (~⅓) of the water used for agriculture worldwide, with the majority (~99%) of that water being used to grow crops for animal feed. This depletes underground water sources and hinders the ability to use rainwater to cultivate food for human consumption.
GFI reported that plant-based meat uses 72%–99% less water than conventional meat. The production of plant-based meat greatly reduces the amount of water used in conventional meat production by eliminating the need to grow crops for animal feed. While the processing of plant-based meat does require some water, the overall water usage of plant-based meat is much lower than that of conventional meat.
4. Nutrient pollution
Eutrophication, which is caused by high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in bodies of water, is a major problem for water quality worldwide. One of the main causes of eutrophication is animal agriculture, as it can result in runoff of these nutrients into rivers and streams, causing excessive growth of algae. As reported by GFI, plant-based meat causes 51%–91% less aquatic nutrient pollution than conventional meat.
Researchers predict that in the next 100 years, the eutrophication of the world's lakes will lead to a significant increase in methane emissions, ranging from 30-90%. This would result in methane emissions equivalent to 18-33% of the annual carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels.
In terms of the environment, plant-based meat has lower greenhouse gas emissions, requires less water and land, and has a smaller carbon footprint compared to animal-based meat. These benefits make plant-based meat a vital tool in the fight against global warming
However, plant-based meat currently makes up less than 2% of the total meat market. In order to capture a larger share of the global meat market and have a greater impact, plant-based meat should reach parity with animal meat in terms of taste, texture, and price. Achieving parity on these three metrics will increase the affordability and availability of plant-based meat products. Here are four ways to achieve wider adoption according to BCG and Synthesis Capital:
Further efforts from scientists, startups, established food companies, and investors to continue to work towards significant advancements in technology and products
More supportive policies and regulations to support the transition to alternative proteins
Funding open-access research that benefits the entire sector to address the industry’s biggest technical challenges, inspire additional research, and create new opportunities for growth
Strategic incentives such as investment tax credits, loan guarantees, and other forms of financial support could stimulate progress for alternative protein infrastructure.