Is Plant-Based Meat Better for the Environment?
When it comes to the environment, meat is bad and plants are good. But what about plant-based meat? We asked the experts to explain.
We all need to do our part to curb the effects of climate change by reducing our carbon footprint, and the best way to do that isn’t by switching to LED lightbulbs, driving hybrid cars, or even recycling. It’s by changing our diets to include a lot less meat (or none at all!) and a lot more plants. One way to do that is by swapping your beef, chicken, and poultry for plant-based meat.
Livestock produces 14.5 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, takes up 83 percent of all farmland, eats 34 percent of crops grown globally, and drinks over 50 percent of our freshwater supply. Plants, on the other hand, are good for the planet.
That’s why so many people are declaring every Monday a Meatless Monday and choosing meatless meat, like the Impossible Burger or vegan meat substitutes, over animal products. Which begs the question: Is meatless meat healthier—for you or the planet? We asked experts to weigh in on the plant-based meat trend. Here’s what you need to know.
Is fake meat better for the environment?
There’s no question that so-called meatless meat wins when it comes to the health of our planet. Plant-based meat, like all foods, has some impact on the environment, but it doesn’t come close to having the sort of impact on the planet that meat does.
To really see the difference, we have to look at a few key elements of environmental impact: water usage, land usage, and carbon emissions.
Studies have shown that it takes between 2,000 and 8,000 gallons of water to produce a single pound of beef; in contrast, it takes only about 300 gallons to produce one pound of tofu. Plus, livestock production contributes to more groundwater pollution.
Large swaths of the world’s forests have been deliberately slashed and burned to create more room for raising cattle, including 15 percent of the ever-shrinking Amazon rainforest. “Replacing a share of farmed meat in the diet with plant-based substitutes could theoretically free up cropland to feed more people or provide other ecological services such as reforestation,” write the authors of a 2020 study published in Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems. They estimate plant-based meat uses 41 percent less land than fish farming, 77 percent less land than poultry, 82 percent less land than pig farming, 89 percent less than beef from dairy cows, and a whopping 98 percent less land than beef from beef herds.
According to Stephanie Feldstein, director of the population and sustainability program at the Center for Biological Diversity, the environmental impact of meatless meats is a fraction of that of the animal products they’re replacing. “The most popular plant-based alternatives, Beyond [Meat] and Impossible Burgers, produce about 90 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions in comparison with beef,” she says. “They reduce land use by at least 93 percent and water use by 87 percent to 99 percent. They also generate no manure pollution.”
How do fake meats impact the environment?
Plant-based meat isn’t perfect. All food production requires resources, and meat-free meat is no exception. According to Mark Hyman, MD, the author of Food Fix, 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 says. “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.”
But pound for pound, ounce for ounce, there’s no doubt that plant-based meat is better for the environment. According to a report from the Good Food Institute, in comparison to conventional beef, an Impossible Burger reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 89 percent.
And the Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems study found that plant-based meat’s greenhouse gas emissions were 34 percent lower than farmed fish, 43 percent lower than poultry, 63 percent lower than pig, 87 percent lower than beef from dairy cows, and 93 percent lower than beef from beef herds.
What are some of the environmental concerns surrounding plant-based meat?
Even though meat substitutes are more environmentally friendly than factory-farmed meat, critics worry that plant-based meat might not be as good for the planet as it implies. According to the New York Times, neither Impossible Foods nor Beyond Meat—the two biggest players in the plant-based meat game—have disclosed the amount of greenhouse gas emissions they produce across the entirety of their operations.
Farming is only one part of the total climate equation. Without more information about the supply chain, water usage, and other operational factors, there’s no way of knowing the real carbon footprint associated with the plant-based meat industry.
How do genetically modified crops factor in?
The secret ingredient plant-based meats use to “bleed” is heme, an iron-rich molecule mostly found in red meat. In the meatless meat industry, a heme-containing protein from the roots of soy plants is inserted into genetically engineered yeast, which is then fermented to produce large amounts of savory, 100 percent vegan heme.
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are certainly controversial. In fact, GMO crops are either partially or fully banned across most of Europe, including in some of the most eco-friendly countries on the planet.
But according to Feldstein, in the case of meatless meat, its usage of GMOs is nowhere near as concerning as the alternative. “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,” she says.
Dr. 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 that cause air pollution. “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.
Other scientists agree that in spite of the controversy, GMO crops have a key part to play in the fight against climate change. According to environmental economics researcher Connor Waldoch, senior market operations manager at climate tech start-up Leap, the immediate benefits of GMO crops may outweigh any possible negatives. “Genetic modifications to crops are generally done with an eye toward efficiency; lower resource use for greater yields,” he says. “Conversely, factory farms generate substantial negative externalities, such as concentrated pollution outputs, that can affect a community for decades.”
Are fake meats healthier than the real thing?
Whether or not meals made with vegetarian meat are better for your body than animal products depends on the recipe. Think about it this way: A steamed chicken breast may be worse for the planet, but it’s better for your body than a triple-decker Impossible Burger. But an Impossible Burger may be better than a thick slab of beef. (After all, eating too much red meat can shorten your lifespan.)
According to research funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, plant-based meats are healthy. They’re a good source of fiber, folate, and iron. But while they contain less saturated fat than ground beef, they have less protein, zinc, and vitamin B12 than animal-based meat—and a lot more salt as well.
Dr. Hyman 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.”
- Stephanie Feldstein, director of the population and sustainability program at the Center for Biological Diversity
- Mark Hyman, MD, author of Food Fix: How to Save Our Health, Our Economy, Our Environment, and Our Communities
- Connor Waldoch, environmental economics researcher and senior market operations manager at climate tech start-up Leap
- Science: “Global food system emissions could preclude achieving the 1.5° and 2°C climate change targets”
- Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems: “Considering Plant-Based Meat Substitutes and Cell-Based Meats: A Public Health and Food Systems Perspective”
- European Commission: “Several European countries move to rule out GMOs”
- United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: “Special Report: Climate Change and Land”
- Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations: “Cattle ranching in the Amazon Rainforest”
- Good Food Institute: “Plant-based meat for a growing world”
- Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: “Nutrient Composition of a Selection of Plant-Based Ground Beef Alternative Products Available in the United States”
- The New York Times: “Plant-Based Food Companies Face Critics: Environmental Advocates”
- The New York Times: “Is the New Meat Any Better Than the Old Meat?”
- U.S. Department of Agriculture: “Soil Tillage and Crop Rotation”