Meat: The Future
If the global community is to meet the goals set in the Paris Agreement, many things must change, including our diet. Meat is a major contributor to climate change, with cow meat (“beef”) production alone responsible for 25% of all food-related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This report outlines the environmental, health, and economic effects of replacing cow meat with several alternative proteins. This list of alternatives includes animal products – chicken and pig meat (“pork”) – but also many vegan options, like nuts, peas, beans, jackfruit, tofu, wheat, and mycoprotein (mushrooms). Also included are experimental alternatives, like lab-grown meat, insect protein, and spirulina (algae).
According to the report, on an environmental level, non-processed plants represented the greatest reduction in emissions. Insect protein also performed well in this regard – better than many vegan options. Tofu and algae represented moderate reductions in emissions; they were comparable to those of chicken and pork. Lab-grown meat and mycoprotein were the least effective in reducing emissions, but much of this is because of the high electricity requirements of production as it currently stands. Advances in clean energy would greatly reduce the emissions of these products, potentially bringing them in line with other vegan proteins.
The authors of this report note that emissions are only one aspect of the environmental impact of food production. Land and water use are also of great importance to the environment, but modeling these is much more difficult due to the variations between regions. The effects of emissions are the same wherever they come from – Chinese GHGs are just as harmful as American GHGs.
However, using ten million gallons of water in Ireland is much different than using ten million gallons of water in Egypt, and using land in the Brazilian rainforest is different than using land in the Canadian prairie. While land and water use must be considered when looking at alternative proteins, this report simply did not have the space to look at them in the detail that they require.
Health-wise, plant foods generally performed much better than animal protein. Two scenarios were run for this section, measured through mortality rates: in one, the world population keeps eating the same amount of cow meat, but adds 200kcal of the alternative protein. In the second, the world’s consumption of cow meat is replaced with an equivalent amount of the alternative. Mycoprotein, beans, and peas performed the best in both scenarios, followed by wheat, jackfruit, and tofu.
Unsurprisingly, substituting ordinary beef for lab-grown has little effect on health; from a health perspective, adding an extra portion of lab-grown beef is roughly the same as adding a portion of ordinary beef. Pork and chicken only represented small reductions in mortality when substituted, and pork actually raised mortality when added. Consuming Insects resulted in moderate reductions in mortality, though their high sodium and cholesterol content doesn’t make them as good an option as plants. Algae also has a high sodium content, though it, too, reduced mortality. The factor that seems to work the most in plants’ favor is their high fiber content, as well as their high potassium content. Beans and peas also have a high amount of iron.
The report notes that a shift away from meat would undoubtedly disrupt the economy. While it is crucial that we change our methods of food production, we should try to make it as painless as possible to the humans that are employed in that sector. It’s important to stress here that the primary target that would be disrupted by alternative proteins would be intensive cow farming in industrialized nations, not sustenance farming in the developing world.
Furthermore, pro-alternative advocates should focus on the opportunities to increase global food yield by using land currently used for animal feed to grow human-edible crops. Farmers that are currently dependent on the livestock industry could shift to growing the components of alternative proteins, such as soybeans for tofu or wheat for seitan.
Finally, pro-alternative advocates should mention that many alternatives are already cheaper than cow meat on a per-calorie basis, including beans and wheat. Others, like lab-grown beef, have the potential to become cheaper once they can take full advantage of economies of scale and advances in technology.
The authors emphasize that alternatives will only become viable if people choose them over beef. To this end, they mention several narratives that are helpful. First, they note that meat consumption is expected to rise in Asia, but that parts of Asia have a long history of using plants and insects as alternatives – tofu and seitan hail from China, and tempeh comes from the island of Java in Indonesia. People in certain Asian cultures may therefore be more receptive to plant-based alternatives than Westerners. Furthermore, Asian consumers tend to be more safety-minded than Westerners, and the controlled and (relatively) clean production of alternatives could be a sticking point for many. In the West, the authors believe that environmental, moral, and taste-based arguments could all be useful.
In summary, plant-based alternatives to meat are going to become a necessity if we are to meet our emissions-reduction goals. Many of these alternatives, especially unprocessed plant foods, are already cheaper, more sustainable, and healthier than meat. More experimental alternatives, such as mycoprotein, spirulina, and lab-grown meat are promising, but currently lack the economies of scale to work effectively. Advances in renewable production could make them more sustainable, and increases in demand could drive down prices as supply increases.
Advocates should take heed of concerns that eliminating meat production could have on the communities that rely on it for income, especially in the developing world. Advocates should also prepare to focus efforts on Asia, as the continent’s meat consumption is expected to rise in the coming years as it becomes wealthier. The region’s history of plant-based meat alternatives, as well as its consumers’ concern with safety, could be useful in reducing meat consumption.