Because of the myriad health and environmental concerns associated with the meat industry, eco-conscious meat lovers have pushed plant-based meat as a more sustainable alternative. These efforts have seen great success in recent years, as plant-based meat products are more prevalent now than ever. But are these truly healthy, environmentally beneficial products, or are they little more than gussied up dog food?
The recent success of plant-based meat can largely be attributed to two companies: Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods. Beyond Meat was founded in 2009 by Ethan Brown, who aimed to help combat climate change by offering a viable alternative to standard meat. Meanwhile, Impossible Foods got its start in 2011 thanks to Patrick O. Brown, a Stanford University professor who felt that the only effective method for reducing industrial meat’s influence was to provide a competitive product in the free market.
Changing the Landscape
So far, these companies’ efforts to challenge the status quo have paid off. According to a 2020 report published by Packaged Facts, around 23% of Americans, or one-fourth of the population, are consuming plant-based meat. Currently, Beyond Meat’s products are sold in 80 different countries, and it has formed partnerships with several major food companies, such as McDonald’s and Pizza Hut. Additionally, over 30,000 foodservice operators across the world carry Impossible Foods’ products, and the company even partnered with Burger King to produce the Impossible Whopper, a successful product in its own right. On top of all this, a report published by Blue Horizon Corporation and Boston Consulting Group estimates that between 11 and 22% of global meat consumption will consist of meat substitutes, or “alternative proteins” as the report calls them, by 2035.
Needless to say, it is remarkable that both Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have managed to affect the landscape of meat production this much in a relatively short amount of time. But many scientists and analysts still question whether or not the companies’ plant-based meat products are truly healthier and more environmentally sustainable than their traditional counterparts.
How Environmentally Beneficial Is Plant-Based Meat?
The key to plant-based meat’s potential eco-friendliness lies in its production process and how it compares to that of standard meat. Fortunately, even those most skeptical about plant-based meat generally agree that it is produced significantly more humanely than standard meat is, and it appears to have a much less severe impact on the environment to boot.
The processes of standard meat production may vary, but the vast majority of it involves factory farming. In fact, of the estimated 70 billion animals that are farmed for meat and other foods annually, around two-thirds of them are situated in factory farms. In the US alone, factory farming accounts for a whopping 99 percent of meat, egg, and dairy production.
What makes these statistics alarming is not so much the numbers themselves, but how notoriously brutal factory farming is. In an effort to increase efficiency and reduce costs, scores of animals are crammed into suffocatingly tight spaces that prevent them from performing essential functions such as pecking for chickens or grazing for cows. These conditions are extremely damaging for the animals both psychologically and physically, and their average lifespans are drastically reduced as a result.
Factory farming’s impact on the wellbeing of animals is harrowing enough, but what makes the practice even worse is that it is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. The sheer volume of animals in these factories means that piles upon piles of manure inevitably accumulate, and this manure can expel around 400 types of gases, such as methane and nitrous oxide, that linger in our atmosphere. And although some farmers provide more favorable living conditions and actively try to combat climate change through regenerative farming practices, many of their farms still require hundreds of acres of land, which will be especially difficult to sustain as the global demand for animal protein continues to increase.
By contrast, the production of plant-based meat is nowhere near as resource-intensive, at least on a surface level. In the case of one of Impossible Foods’ factories located in Oakland, California, much of the production process takes place in a single room. In this room, workers manipulate automated equipment to make plant-based burger patties that closely replicate the appearance and taste of real meat without using any animals. A paddle mixer combines the meat’s myriad ingredients before a turbine churns them on conveyor belts, at which point the resulting meat is shaped into patties that then get flash frozen.
Of course, the ingredients and the lab equipment are not created out of thin air. Ingredients such as soybeans require water, fertilizers, and pesticides, and even simply transporting these ingredients to the factories requires vehicle fuel. That’s why Impossible Foods has employed consulting firms like Quantis to research the environmental impact of plant-based meat production compared to that of standard meat. What Quantis found as part of Impossible Foods’ 2019 life-cycle assessment was that the company’s Impossible Burger product is made using 96% less land, and it also contributes toward 92% fewer aquatic pollutants as well as 89% less greenhouse gas emissions.
These numbers seem pretty staggering, and some may see them as definitive proof of plant-based meat’s environmental sustainability, especially since other plant-based meat companies have commissioned comparable studies that yielded similar results. But it is important to remember that plant-based meat companies have every incentive to make their products seem as attractive as possible. While this is not meant to suggest that their consulting firms completely fabricated these studies, it does mean that the studies’ results could be skewed, even unintentionally, in the companies’ favor. Even Rebekah Moses, Impossible Foods’ Head of Sustainability, had conceded that the Quantis study involved a fair bit of subjective data analysis.
Additionally, some analysts have expressed concern that Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have not been as transparent about their production processes as they ideally should. They note that neither company has revealed the total number of greenhouse gases it emits across its entire set of operations, and they also have not revealed their total water footprint or the operations’ impact on forests. Their secrecy makes it effectively impossible to know the full extent of their impact on the environment, and it raises the question of whether plant-based meat really is the most eco-friendly alternative to standard meat currently out there.
Is Plant-Based Meat Good For You?
Despite these concerns, the overwhelming consensus still suggests that plant-based meat is better for the environment overall than regular meat is. However, plant-based meat does not have nearly as big of an advantage over its traditional counterparts when it comes to its health benefits.
That being said, it does have some advantages worth pointing out. For instance, plant-based meat tends to consist of iron, fiber, and folate, all of which are beneficial components not commonly found in traditional meat. In particular, fiber seems to help combat the risk of developing serious diseases, such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease, although it remains uncertain whether other components of plant-based meat would offset the benefits that fiber normally provides.
Unfortunately, many plant-based meat products come with high amounts of salt and sodium, which can contribute toward heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure. Furthermore, some of these products lack or feature less essential nutrients that standard meat usually contains, such as vitamin B12, protein, and zinc. And while several plant-based meat products consist of less saturated fat than their traditional counterparts, others feature just as much or only slightly smaller quantities of it.
In general, the specific components of plant-based meat can vary wildly depending on the product. And some of these products, which sadly include Impossible Foods’ trademark burger as well as Beyond Meat’s Beyond Burger, contain ingredients that are alarmingly similar to those of dog food. To drive the point home, Dr. Frank Mitloehner, a professor from the University of California, challenged his followers on Twitter to look at three lists of ingredients and guess which ones belonged to which of the following three products: the aforementioned Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat burgers and a brand of vegan dog food. In the end, most of the 100,000 people who responded guessed incorrectly. No one would recommend eating something as highly processed as dog food, and yet companies are advertising plant-based meat products made through very similar means as good for our bodies.
With all this in mind, health-conscious consumers would benefit heavily from reading the ingredient labels on these products or consuming them in limited amounts to maximize the benefits and minimize the risks. In that regard, plant-based meat really isn’t that much different from regular meat.
Choosing the healthiest and most ethically produced foods is a complicated process, and plant-based meat does not change this. The meat industry may be cruel and unsustainable, but that does not mean it isn’t worth scrutinizing plant-based meat and considering whether other forms of alternative meat may be more environmentally beneficial in the long run.
But the fact that the search for healthier meat has already found so much success is worth celebrating in and of itself, as it shows that pushing powerful industries in a more eco-friendly direction is more than possible. And this trend is likely to continue, especially as we find out more about these meat alternatives and get a better sense of what is truly best for the planet.
What are your thoughts on the growing prevalence of plant-based meat? Do you see it as a positive sign of change in the meat industry, or do you believe plant-based meat presents too many health and environmental risks to be worth consuming? Let us know in the comments below!