The Downside of “Alternative Meat” That No One’s Talking About

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Find out if alternative meats really are the healthier option for you—and the planet.

At this point, we know that cutting back on meat consumption is good for our health and the environment. According to the Mayo Clinic, people who eat red meat in particular are at an increased risk of death from heart disease, stroke, or diabetes. Not only is eating a lot of meat bad news for our bodies, it’s also not great for the environment. A 2018 study published in the journal Science found that while meat and dairy provide 18 percent of calories and 37 percent of protein in our diets, they use 83 percent of farmland and produce 60 percent of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Because of the environmental impact, some people have opted to make the switch to plant-based meat alternatives, like the Impossible Burger. Even some major chains are jumping on board, which is apparent in these ways fast food is changing in 2020. But as it turns out, these highly-processed fake meats aren’t necessarily great for the planet—or our diets— either. Here’s what you need to know about plant-based meat alternatives.

Are fake meats better for the environment?

In short, it all depends on who you ask. According to Stephanie Feldstein, director of the population and sustainability program at the Center for Biological Diversity, a non-profit group that aims to protect endangered species, the environmental impact of plant-based meats is a fraction of that of the animal products they’re replacing. “The most popular plant-based alternatives, Beyond and Impossible Burgers, produce about 90 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions, in comparison with beef,” she tells Reader’s Digest. “They reduce land use by at least 93 percent and water use by 87 percent to 99 percent. They also generate no manure pollution.” Here’s exactly what’s in those “impossible” burgers.

But, as the New York Times pointed out in a 2019 article, many of these statistics come from a 2018 report commissioned by Beyond Meat, one of the largest plant-based meat alternative companies. In other words, more independent research is needed to better understand the impact of fake meat on the environment.

How do fake meats impact the environment?

Any food production will have some impact on the environment, and plant-based meat alternatives are no exception. According to Mark Hyman, MD, the author of Food Fix: How to Save Our Health, Our Economy, Our Environment, and Our Communities, most of the environmental concerns around fake meat have to do with industrial farming—particularly the use of tillage, which destroys soil carbon. “Thirty to 40 percent of all the atmosphere carbon comes from the destruction of soil, through tillage and agricultural chemicals, that leads to climate change,” Dr. Hyman tells Reader’s Digest. “Of the one trillion tons of carbon in the atmosphere, about 30 to 40 percent, or 300 billion–plus tons, is caused by the damage to the soil, and the current growing of industrial crops is contributing to that problem.”

In a 2019 article from NBC News, Marco Springmann, a senior researcher with the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food, explained that even with more studies, fake meat production doesn’t offer the best solution when it comes to carbon emissions. For example, plant-based meat alternatives produce the same amount of emissions as chicken, which is about five times the emissions created by the agricultural production of legumes and vegetables. Find out what would happen if an entire country went vegan.

How does actual meat impact the environment?

This is a huge topic with so much already written about it. First, there are issues with water usage. We’re running out of fresh water and nearly one third of it goes to animal production. Livestock farming also contributes significantly to water pollution, in the form of substances like pesticides, metals, hormones, and feed additives, among others. Then, there’s all the land that is used not only to raise the livestock, but also to grow all the feed the animals need. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, livestock production is the world’s largest user of land resources. On top of all that, there are the carbon emissions that come from raising animals for consumption. Though we don’t have an accurate figure on how much of the Earth’s carbon emissions come from livestock, estimates range from six to 32 percent.

How do genetically-modified crops factor in?

According to Feldstein, a concern occasionally raised by certain groups about fake meat relates to the processed nature of these products and their use of genetically engineered crops. “But these are out of proportion,” she says. “It takes as much as 89 times the amount of genetically engineered crops to produce one pound of beef as it does to produce a pound of plant-based meat.”

Hyman notes that plant-based meat alternatives are made from GMO soy, which he says is about ten times better than factory-farmed meat in terms of carbon emissions. “So it is better, but it’s still not great because we’re using industrial agriculture with tillage which destroys soil and causes soil carbon loss,” he explains.

Are fake meats healthier than the real thing?

Again, this depends. For instance, the Impossible Whopper at Burger King is lower in calories, fat, and cholesterol than the traditional Whopper made with beef. But it also has significantly more sodium (1,240 mg) compared to the original (980 mg). Hyman also wants people to keep in mind that these plant-based meat alternatives are highly processed foods, which is something we should be staying away from, not increasing, in our diets. “Coca-Cola and Doritos are plant-based,” he says. “That doesn’t mean they’re healthy.”

Of course, industrially produced beef also has plenty of chemicals in it, too—not to mention antibiotics. But when comparing fake versus real meat, Hyman says it’s important not to lump all meat in the same category. “Clearly eating more plants is good and it’s better than factory farm meats, but that’s a false dichotomy between factory farm meats and plant-based meats,” he says. “It should be really measuring against the gold standard, which has been regeneratively raised animals.” Eating this much meat each day could shorten your life.

What is the ideal sustainable diet?

When it comes to finding the most environmentally friendly diet, Feldstein recommends one that is plant-forward and grounded in organic, regionally appropriate, and minimally processed foods. “Unfortunately, the ideal diet isn’t realistic for most Americans right now because our food system isn’t set up for it,” she says. “In the meantime, the most sustainable thing you can do is replace at least half of the meat and dairy in your diet with plant-based foods, ideally reducing your beef consumption by 90 percent.”

For those seeking a more sustainable diet, Hyman suggests what he calls a “regenetarian diet.” “Essentially it’s trying to aspire to eating in a way that you’re sourcing from farms and farmers that are adding value and benefit to the environment and reversing climate change rather than contributing to it,” he explains. And yes, this can include eating meat, as long as it’s coming directly from ranchers or from places like ButcherBox. He also encourages people to shop at farmer’s markets, where the produce is more locally sourced, coming from conscious farmers that are probably adding benefit to the land and the community. Finally, Hyman suggests sticking with whole foods as much as possible and avoiding foods that are produced by the industrial food system. Next time you’re food shopping, also consider the downsides of reusable bags more people need to be thinking about.

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Elizabeth Yuko
Dr. Elizabeth Yuko is a bioethicist and writer specializing in health and the intersection of bioethics and popular culture. She is an adjunct professor of ethics at Fordham University and has written for print and online publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, Salon and Playboy, and has given a TEDX talk on The Golden Girls and bioethics.