Five Different Ways To Look At Plant-Based & Cell-Based Meats
In the past decade, two types of farmed meat alternatives have been increasingly part of the mainstream discussion: plant-based meat and cell-based meat. The global market for plant-based meats was $4.6 billion in 2018 and is projected to grow to $85 billion by 2030. Projections suggest that plant-based and cell-based meats may end up being cheaper than farmed meat by a factor of five, resulting in demand for beef and dairy in the U.S. plummeting by about 80-90% by 2035.
Plant-based meats are generally understood as food products that intend to mimic the textures, flavors, and possibly the nutrient profiles of farmed meat or seafood using non-animal ingredients. In this review, plant-based meats are considered distinct from “less-processed” forms of non-animal protein foods that are not necessarily designed to resemble meat (such as pulses, mushrooms, jackfruit, tofu, tempeh, seitan, or bean burgers); rather, plant-based meats consist of food products that are viscerally equivalent to animal meat (such as the items manufactured by brands like Gardein, Morningstar Farms, Quorn, Field Roast, Beyond Meat, and Impossible Foods).
Cell-based meats, on the other hand, are food products that are grown from animal stem cells and currently involve the use of other animal-derived ingredients. These products may also be referred to using the following terms: cultured meat, in-vitro meat, lab-grown meat, cellular meat, cultivated meat, or clean meat. For the most part, cell-based meats are still in the development and prototyping stage.
We have an extensive selection of writings in our Research Library regarding plant-based and cell-based meats — and that list is always growing. In the blog that follows, we take a deep and dispassionate dive into a study (click through for a full list of references) that presents an overview of five perspectives (public health, environmental, animal welfare, economic, and policy) from which to compare farmed meat to plant-based and cell-based alternatives.
Public Health Considerations
Consumption of farmed meat, as well as fish and other “seafood,” and being in or near animal farming operations, pose several public health risk factors and consequences. Diets with high levels of animal product consumption have been linked to heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and colorectal cancer. Red meat contains high levels of the amino acid derivative L-carnitine, with new research suggesting it plays a role in the production of metabolites associated with a higher risk for cardiovascular disease and inflammatory bowel disease. While regular consumption of seafood rich in omega-3 fatty acids is linked with health benefits such as reduced cardiovascular disease risk and improved cognitive development in human infants, there are not enough fish, both wild-caught and farmed, available for everyone globally to consume at recommended levels to capture these health benefits.
Many pathogens that cause foodborne illness (Salmonella, E. coli, Campylobacter, and Listeria, for example) live in the guts of animals, and can then enter the food supply from animal manure runoff and irrigation water contamination, or through cross-contamination with meat if digestive tracts are severed during slaughter and processing.
Workers in farmed meat operations can be exposed to zoonotic pathogens and contend with bacterial infections; an estimated 25% of such workers in indoor operations suffer from a respiratory illness.
People living near farmed meat facilities also face health risks from waterborne bacterial and chemical hazards from these operations, in addition to respiratory hazards and exposure to zoonotic pathogens.
Plant-based meats often have a comparable nutritional profile (calories, protein, and iron) to the meats they are designed to replace. They are food products that are typically primarily composed of wheat gluten, pea protein, or soy protein isolates, have undergone high levels of processing, often have high levels of sodium, and contain additives such as flavorings, colorings, and binding agents. The inclusion of coconut oil in some plant-based meats results in a saturated fat content similar to or higher than chicken or pig meat, but lower than that of cow meat. There is little evidence so far whether these ingredients and additives are beneficial or harmful to human health.
In contrast to plant-based meats, there is stronger evidence in the literature that less-processed soy foods such as tofu, tempeh, and soymilk, are associated with health benefits such as improved blood lipid levels, bone health, and reduced risks of type 2 diabetes and breast cancer. One plant-based meat additive that deserves further consideration though is heme iron, in the form of soy leghemoglobin, used specifically in products manufactured by Impossible Foods; since high levels of heme iron consumption from animal products is associated with increased risk for type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, colorectal disease and cancer, and lung cancer, there may be a similar disease risk resulting from consumption of Impossible Foods products.
The chiefly known food safety concern of plant-based meats are allergens, as plant-based meat products commonly contain wheat and soy. Rarer allergic reactions can result from pea protein, lupin protein, and mycoprotein. Additives and gums in some plant-based meat products may also aggravate intolerances; carrageenan has the potential to cause gastrointestinal inflammation, alter intestinal microflora, and may be related to irritable bowel syndrome and colon cancer.
There is relatively little research on occupational exposure risks in plant-based meat manufacturing, but it is probably less hazardous compared to the risks faced by workers in farmed meat operations. There is concern about the exposure of workers in plant-based meat production to hexane, which is a solvent that can be used to process soy and pea protein isolates; hexane is neurotoxic and is a hazardous air pollutant. Little data exists on the magnitude of hexane usage in plant-based meat manufacturing, or on measures by plant-based meat manufacturing facilities to protect workers, prevent environmental releases, and monitor exposures to hexane.
Of course, plant-based meat production relies heavily on crops, such as soy, wheat, and corn, which contribute to groundwater contamination due to nutrient runoff. The production of these crops often requires pesticide, herbicide, and fungicide application, which are associated with health problems for people working on and living near farms. The use of herbicides and fungicides also pose the potential for inducing resistance in pathogens and fungi to antibiotics and anti-fungal medicines, respectively. Still, a soy-based plant-based meat product requires far less soy production than a comparable farmed meat product that uses much more soy as an input for animal feed.
Since cell-based meats are still in their development and prototyping stage, there is little information about their nutritional profiles and associated health consequences. It is still unclear if it is technically feasible to exactly replicate farmed meat in vitro. However, cell-based meat does present the opportunity of enhanced nutritional profiles compared to farmed meat, through fortification of the product with vitamins or omega-3 fatty acids.
Cell-based meat production could theoretically reduce the incidence of foodborne illness if produced in sterile environments, since animal carcass processing would not be involved. Fully sterile conditions are practically difficult to attain and antibiotics would probably still need to be applied to the tissue culture medium to suppress bacterial pathogens, though the antibiotic usage would likely be less intense compared to farmed meat operations.
Occupational safety concerns related to cell-based meat are unclear due to the many unknowns of manufacturing processes and regulatory requirements surrounding cell-based meat production.
Finally, it is unclear whether the antibiotic usage and waste management practices involved with cell-based meat production pose risks to people who work on or live near such production facilities.
The sub-areas of environmental consideration in this review are 1) greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, 2) land use, 3) freshwater use, 4) eutrophication, 5) pesticide use, and 6) biodiversity and ecosystem impacts.
About 15% of anthropogenic GHG emissions come from farmed meat production. Although some research suggests there are specific grazing practices that may sequester carbon (requiring certain soil conditions, climate conditions, and animal densities), other research shows that the carbon sequestration effects from these practices are time-limited, reversible, and may be dwarfed by other GHGs generated by grazing operations. Cow meat is by far the most GHG-intensive terrestrial farmed meat (18-89 kg CO2eq/100 g protein), followed by pig meat (4-11 kg CO2eq/100 g protein), chicken meat (2-9 kg CO2eq/100 g protein), and insects (1-2 kg CO2eq/100 g protein). Among aquatic meat, farmed crustaceans are the most GHG-intensive (4-24 kg CO2eq/100 g protein), followed by farmed fish (3-10 kg CO2eq/100 g protein) and wild tuna (1-2 kg CO2eq/100 g protein). Significant future reductions in GHG intensity of farmed meats is unlikely, though developing technologies involving enteric fermentation may reduce beef methane emissions.
Farmed meat also occupies 2.5 to 3.7 billion hectares of land; this is about 50-75% of the land used globally for agriculture, yet farmed meat only provides 18% of global calories and 25% of global protein. Land intensity of terrestrial farmed meats mirrors that of GHG-intensity; cow meat is much more land-intensive than other types of farmed meats (42-375 m2/year/100 g protein), followed by pig meat (5-19 m2/year/100 g protein), chicken meat (4-9 m2/year/100 g protein), and insects (2 m2/year/100 g protein). For aquatic meat, farmed fish and farmed crustaceans have similar land-use intensities of about 0-5 m2/year/100 g protein. It is important to note that, although beef production has an outsized land-use intensity compared to pork and poultry, cows can graze on land unsuitable for crop production – about half of the land that is used for terrestrial farmed meat is non-arable grassland; therefore, reducing beef production and consumption doesn’t necessarily free up a proportional amount of land that can be used to grow crops. Despite this potential for grassland production systems to increase protein security, most cows are grain-fed anyway; in the U.S., only 1% of cow meat is produced from pasture-raised cows, while on average globally, beef production currently relies on cropland to the same extent per unit of protein as other terrestrial farmed meat.
The freshwater usage of farmed meats varies greatly. Among terrestrial farmed meat, pigs require the most freshwater at 260-575 L/100 g protein, followed by cows (120-275 L/100 g protein), chickens (90-380 L/100 g protein), and insects (75-210 L/100 g protein). Aquatic farmed meat has far greater freshwater requirements at 4,000-8,000 L/100 g protein for farmed crustaceans and 2,500-5,000 L/100 g protein for pond-farmed fish. Non-pond-farmed fish have much lower freshwater usage intensities of 110-130 L/100 g protein.
Greater amounts of other inputs, such as pesticides and fertilizers, are required to produce the same amount of farmed meat calories and protein compared to plant foods. It also follows that terrestrial meat production results in greater biodiversity loss, groundwater pollution, and eutrophication compared to crop production for human consumption.
Plant-based meats are much less GHG-intensive (1-6 kg CO2e/100 g protein) compared to beef or farmed crustaceans, roughly range about the same in GHG-intensity as pork, poultry, and farmed fish, and are generally more GHG-intensive than insects. However, less-processed plant protein foods, such as tofu, pulses, and peas, are less GHG-intensive than plant-based meats at about 0-3 kg CO2e/100 g protein. Since much of the GHG intensity of plant-based meats comes from the energy used during manufacture, there is potential for the GHG intensities of these products to decrease in the future as the mix of electricity generation shifts more towards renewable sources.
The land-use intensity of plant-based meats (0-2 m2/year/100 g protein) is also much less than that of cows, pigs, and chickens, and is generally about the same or lower than the estimated land-use ranges for insects, farmed fish, and farmed crustaceans. As mentioned before, substituting plant-based meats for beef would not necessarily free up land by a proportional amount because about half of the land used globally for farmed meat is non-arable grassland; however, there would still theoretically be some cropland freed up by replacing farmed meat consumption with plant-based meat consumption, which would then be available to grow crops for direct human consumption or reforestation. Interestingly, on a global average, the land-use intensity for plant-based meats is also lower than that for pulses (5-19 m2/year/100 g protein), peas (1-6 m2/year/100 g protein), and tofu (2-3 m2/year/100 g protein), but the authors note that this is a result of the data being skewed by the fact that their land-use intensity values include data from low-yielding countries, while plant-based meats generally have crop inputs from high-yielding countries.
The freshwater usage intensity range for plant-based meats is lower than that of all terrestrial and aquatic farmed meats, at only 5-120 L/100 g protein. Similar to land-use intensity, the freshwater usage intensity for less-processed plant proteins is greater than that for plant-based meats (5-95 L/100 g protein for both pulses and soy) due to the inclusion of data from low-yielding countries.
Plant-based meats contribute much less to eutrophication (the gradual increase in the concentration of phosphorus, nitrogen, and other plant nutrients in an aquatic ecosystem) compared to farmed meat. As most plant-based meats are derived from legumes, which are plants that can take atmospheric nitrogen and convert it into a form accessible to plants, these products are less dependent on synthesized nitrogen fertilizers. While nitrogen can still leach from legume-based cropping systems into water bodies and contribute to eutrophication, studies indicate that the eutrophication potential of plant-based meats ranges from 6 to 100 times less than some farmed meat products. In addition, farmed meats require 3.4 times more fertilizer per unit protein compared to plant-based meats made from peas.
Pesticide use for conventional pork could be 1.6 times greater per unit of protein than that required for plant-based meats derived from peas. The pesticide reduction potential for plant-based meats derived from soy is less clear – one study showed that farmed meat requires 6 times more pesticides and disinfectants per unit product than soy-based plant-based meat; however, it is also worth noting that conventionally-grown soy is a crop that is commonly genetically modified to be herbicide-tolerant, and growing resistance to these herbicides has led to a cycle of increased herbicide usage to control weeds.
Plant-based meat production can have both positive and negative implications for biodiversity and ecosystems. Since many plant-based meats are legume-derived, and legumes can improve soil biodiversity and above-ground biodiversity, there can be beneficial effects such as resistance and resilience to stress, improved water and nutrient use in crop production, and suppression of soil-borne diseases. On the other hand, many plant-based meats are also derived from monoculture production systems and genetic uniformity of crops, which reduces biodiversity and ecosystem resilience. The use of ingredients other than soy and wheat in plant-based meats could diversify diets and support agrobiodiversity. Another negative impact of plant-based meats on ecosystems is the use of coconut or palm oil in many of these products; their reliance on these two oils threatens biodiversity-rich tropical regions and contributes to deforestation and biodiversity loss, especially in the case of palm oil plantations.
Since cell-based meats are still in their developmental stage, the GHG intensity is uncertain and estimates range widely from 2-36 kg CO2eq/100 g protein – that is, it could be as low as that for less-processed plant proteins like tofu or it could be within the range of GHG intensity of beef. The proprietary nature of the inputs for the cell medium makes it difficult to estimate the GHG intensity. Hypothetical models of cell-based meat production using cyanobacteria, soybean-, and corn-derived compounds were used to estimate the GHG intensity of cell-based meats in this review, though these inputs are not even necessarily viable for cell-based meat production.
The estimated land-use intensity of cell-based meats also has a large range of 0-11 m2/year/100 g protein. Models using cyanobacteria had the smallest land-use footprint, while those using soy- or corn-derived inputs as nutrients for the cell culture medium result in higher estimates. The estimated freshwater usage for cell-based meats is quite large, ranging from 55-405 L/100 g protein, making it generally more freshwater-intensive than all terrestrial farmed meats except pork.
The hypothetical eutrophication potential and pesticide use of cell-based meats is dependent on the input source. If it is assumed that the inputs are soy hydrolysate and corn-derived glucose and glutamine, then the eutrophication potential and pesticide use of cell-based meats is similar to that of conventional poultry production. However, if it is assumed that the input source is cyanobacteria, then nitrogen-fixing species of cyanobacteria could reduce the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer used to produce cell-based meats, and there could potentially be no pesticide usage required. The ecosystem and biodiversity consequences of cell-based meat production are unknown at this time.
Animal Welfare Considerations
In this review, “animal welfare” only relates to the welfare of farmed animals specifically, and ignores animals that are not the intended product or are not an intended input for production.
Industrial animal farming operations are engineered to output as much meat as possible at the lowest cost, usually by packing animals in crowded facilities, confined crates or cages, and denying access to outdoor spaces or the abilities to express natural behaviors. Keeping farmed animals in crowded conditions also encourages standard industrial practices of bodily mutilations such as debeaking, dehorning, and castration. Even small-scale, organic, or pasture-based farms may have animal welfare problems too; contrary to prevailing wisdom, it is not necessarily true that these smaller operations have higher animal welfare standards than industrial operations. Globally, about 75 billion terrestrial animals per year are slaughtered for meat, with over 9.5 billion in the U.S. alone. Global farmed meat tonnage has increased by a factor of 4.5 from 1961 to 2018, which is almost twice the rate of human population growth.
Contrary to farmed meat, the production of plant-based meat does not necessarily require animal inputs and thus there are theoretically no animal welfare consequences inherent to plant-based meats. However some plant-based meat products still use egg and dairy ingredients, which raises animal welfare concerns for egg-laying hens and dairy cows. In addition, some coconut plantations use wild-captured or bred monkeys that are chained and used for coconut harvesting, and there are no welfare standards for enslaved monkeys in the coconut harvesting industry. Finally, as mentioned earlier there are ecosystem impacts from palm and coconut oil production and harvesting, which can result in the displacement and slaughtering of tropical animals, but this is not in this review’s scope of “animal welfare.”
Currently, cell-based meat requires the use of animals in the supply chain; there are many technological challenges remaining before animals can be removed from the production process, for both 1) the source of animal cell lines and 2) the inputs required.
The source of animal cell lines can require only one animal. Under ideal conditions, eggs from a female animal are fertilized by sperm, and the embryonic stem cell line can be used indefinitely. Recent research suggests that these cells could then be manipulated into muscle fibers; however this is a new technology, has not been thoroughly tested, would be labeled as a genetically modified organism, and could undergo genetic mutations which would pose additional challenges.
Due to the above challenges of trying to make cell-based meat using cell lines from a single animal, the industry standard instead is to obtain adult muscle stem cells from animal biopsies. Since adult muscle stem cells can only replicate about 50-60 times, the industry standard currently for producing cell-based meats thus requires a continuous stream of animals. In theory, more cell-based meat could be produced per animal involved compared to farmed meat, but no estimate in the literature exists so far as to how much more meat cell-based production could bear. There are also currently no animal welfare assessments of the animals used in the production of cell-based meat, nor is there information currently on the use of cells for the production of cell-based seafood.
The other animal welfare impact of cell-based meat comes from the choice of inputs used for growing the product. Currently several of the inputs used for cell-based meat are animal-derived, for both technological and financial reasons. Fetal bovine serum is used as a growth supplement for cell and tissue culture media, and it is extracted from live cow fetus blood after its mother has been slaughtered. Other animal-based inputs used include the scaffolds used to grow the muscle tissue into thick pieces and animal-derived hydrogels that mimic natural tissue.
In industrialized nations, farmed meat production is dominated by large operations specializing in specific animals. These operations employ mechanization, standardization, and reliance on off-farm inputs such as pharmaceuticals to control disease spread in crowded facilities. Large multinational corporations have consolidated entities to gain more control of the different stages and aspects of the farmed meat supply chain. The consequences of consolidation in the farmed meat industry include declining worker wages, loss of farmers’ and the public’s autonomy over their food system, and the decline of rural communities, economies, and property values.
Industry consolidation also affects the plant-based meat sector. Some of the initial investors and funders of research and development of plant-based meat products were those producing farmed meat; additionally, some of them are now developing their own plant-based meat products, such as Tyson Foods, JBS, Nestle, Cargill, Hormel Foods, and Perdue. Other consolidation efforts include the acquisition of existing plant-based meat brands, such as Kellogg’s acquisition of Morningstar Farms and Unilever’s acquisition of The Vegetarian Butcher.
The origins of cell-based meat production are largely in university-based research, with a few instances of public-private investments. However, it is now venture-capital-backed companies, sometimes with investment from large farmed meat corporations, which primarily drive cell-based meat production efforts. It is unclear whether cell-based meat will lead to opportunities for small producers or instead serve as another venture accessible only to large corporations. Some researchers have suggested that cell-based meat production could present market opportunities for small businesses akin to microbreweries. It is also possible that, since consumer attitudes and expectations toward cell-based meats would be more relaxed regarding product freshness, they could possibly be produced in more remote regions and thus serve as an economic driver in less industrialized nations. On the other hand, access to government subsidies and grants, as well as the technical expertise to produce cell-based meat, would likely be harder for small-scale producers of cell-based meats to obtain compared to large corporations. More concerning, cell-based meat production might only serve as another means for multinational meat companies to gain more power in the food value chain, as well as perpetuate economic and political disparities between industrialized and less industrialized nations.
The rise of both plant-based and cell-based meats has the potential to cause massive layoffs and unemployment in the animal farming and meat processing sectors. Some of these job losses will be offset by a shift in the protein production labor workforce, from one which is dominated by farmers, meat processors, and veterinarians, to one that would employ more cell biologists, engineers, and factory workers; however, it is unclear how many new jobs would eventually be created by the plant-based and cell-based meat industries. Another source of uncertainty is future trade agreements and tariffs, which would determine if farmers would still continue to produce farmed meat and simply export their products to other countries. One report predicts that the 1.2 million jobs in U.S. beef and dairy production will be reduced by 50% by the year 2030, and that farmland values would decrease by 40-80% based on a projection that plant-based and cell-based meats will eventually be cheaper to produce by a factor of five compared to farmed meat.
These workforce disruptions could also compound the pre-existing mental health burdens faced by farm workers, due to financial stress, pesticide exposure, and climate variabilities. American farmers notably suffer from high rates of suicide due to agricultural recessions, decreased incomes, high debts, and flooding events that impact their business operations. Additionally, the rise of plant- and cell-based meat production closer to urban areas could further drive rural population loss and rural economic disintegration.
Currently plant-based meats are more expensive than, but are increasingly becoming price-competitive with, farmed meat. Plant-based meats today make up only a small portion of market share for protein food products. Should plant-based meats continue on their trajectory of affordability, they may achieve widespread market uptake and farmed meat might then become a luxury product.
The accessibility outlook for cell-based meats is more difficult to predict, as currently they are much more expensive than farmed meat, and there are not enough precedents of cell-based meat production costs coming down to project whether they ever will be cheaper than farmed meat. In addition, the cost of inputs for cell-based meats is quite high; the cost of animal-free growth medium alone is currently 50 times higher than needed to be price-competitive with farmed meat. It is possible that cell-based meat products would remain a niche product for wealthy consumers.
The decline of farmed meat consumption could lead to accessibility impacts on other products that rely on the byproducts of farmed meat production, such as vaccines, wool, cosmetics, and pet food. On the other hand, technological advances in cell tissue engineering from the development of cell-based meat production could increase accessibility for certain therapeutic and biomedical technologies.
Food Safety Approvals
There are concerns about how novel ingredients are approved, as the use of novel ingredients is frequent in plant-based meats. Many novel ingredient approval processes, such as those for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), are voluntary and industry-led; that is, a company can conduct their own risk assessments on a novel ingredient and declare them to be “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS). In addition, FDA notice or pre-market approval is not even required for novel ingredients to be introduced into the food supply.
One of the most high-profile novel ingredient controversies involved soy leghemoglobin in Impossible Foods products. Impossible Foods voluntarily submitted a GRAS determination to the FDA, which then ruled that this ingredient was classified as a color additive and thus actually required FDA approval before it could be sold to consumers in uncooked Impossible Foods products. The novel ingredient was ultimately approved by the FDA for use as a color additive, but the decision raised many concerns about the approval process itself. Similar concerns about the GRAS process also exist for cell-based meats, and a lawsuit was filed in 2017 challenging the GRAS self-certification process.
The labeling of plant- and cell-based meats has also been a source of controversy. Some representatives of the livestock industry allege that these alternative meat products could mislead consumers who think they are purchasing farmed meat. At least 25 states passed laws restricting the usage of the words “meat” or “beef” on alternative meat products. Following that, federal legislation was introduced in 2019 to limit the usage of certain terms such as “meat”, on the labels of alternative meat products, as well as require the usage of the word “imitation” immediately before or after the name of the product.
It is likely that the intention of such labeling laws is to denigrate alternative meat products rather than inform consumers, since there are negative connotations to the word “imitation” and consumers probably already know that these products are not farmed meat. In addition, the word “imitation” already has FDA guidelines around its usage to apply to a product that resembles another food but is nutritionally inferior. Therefore if a plant- or cell-based meat product is either nutritionally equivalent or superior to the farmed meat product it intends to replace, then it could be legally argued that these products are not “imitations”. It is also notable that it is meat producers lobbying for these labeling laws, rather than meat processing and manufacturing companies who instead may be more receptive to these new products as sources of profit.
Oversight of Cell-Based Meat
Debate exists over whether cell-based meats should be considered “meat” or not. Beyond philosophical considerations, this debate also raised questions of which federal agency would be responsible for oversight of cell-based meat. In 2019 the FDA and the United States Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service (USDA-FSIS) agreed to jointly regulate cell-based meats. The FDA would oversee the initial stages of production (from cell collection up to cell harvesting) while the USDA-FSIS would oversee the latter stages of meat production and labeling. (Note that cell-based seafood would however remain fully under the oversight of the FDA.) This joint agreement between the two agencies may pose challenges since neither agency is allowed to spend additional resources on regulating cell-based meats, which would limit their oversight capacity, unless Congress authorizes additional funding for the agencies. Not only that, but the regulatory frameworks surrounding cell-based meats will likely change anyway due to the rapidly changing technology involved in cell-based meat production. There are also other aspects of cell-based meat production oversight that will be up for debate, such as whether bioreactors would be considered agricultural facilities, whether waste from cell-based meat production would be considered an animal byproduct, food fraud and labeling challenges associated with cell-based meats, and how to regulate cell-based meat that is produced using animal species that are not typically used for food.
As animal advocates, we seek to make the world a better place for animals, and part of that process is venturing to understand every angle of an issue. For example, many vegans understand that, while a substance like palm oil may be technically free from animal products, the production process can be incredibly harmful to both animals and the environment. Even setting aside such pointed examples, we know that agriculture at scale often involves the unintentional deaths of many animals. There is no entirely perfect way forward, so it’s important to understand each animal issue in all of its complexities; with clear eyes and a comprehensive understanding of ethical tradeoffs, we show ourselves to be both nuanced thinkers and informed advocates. This type of nuanced knowledge only serves to bolster our credibility with a general public that is both thirsty for and wary of black-and-white messaging and solutions.
The review above shows just how complicated the tradeoffs of farmed / plant-based / clean meat can be, and how much we need to take into account in our advocacy. That being said, while there is no “perfect” solution, we are clearly convinced that plant-based meat leads the way in terms of reducing harm to animals. Furthermore, if clean meat can evolve away from an animal ingredient-dependent production process (and address some of its associated environmental concerns to boot), it has the potential to serve as a perfect complement to plant-based meat: a product for those who could “never give up meat,” but who are open to reducing their impact on animals — and we have reason to believe that’s a huge constituency.
What is clear from the above is that, while the production of conventionally farmed meat may be efficient, cheap, and scalable, it has achieved this primarily by externalizing all of its negative effects: it is efficient because it devalues animals’ welfare and lives at every turn, it is cheap because it is part of a larger economic system that allows it to run smoothly, and it is scalable because it ignores all of its environmental impacts, which are numerous and serious. The way forward from the system we have now will be complex and multifaceted, but it’s clear that we need to move away from farmed animal production and consumption if we hope to truly make a positive impact.