Plant-Based Meat Is Better for the Earth, to a Point

We still aren’t 100% sure if plant-based also means eco-friendly, but we’ve got some information.

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There are so many different reasons people might turn to plant-based meat alternatives, and not all of them have to do with vegetarianism or veganism. They might just enjoy the taste, or be curious, or feel less weighed down after eating it. And one major reason people turn to faux meat is because of the negative impact that factory farming has on the environment. But is this non-animal protein that much better for the planet?

We know there are pros and cons to adopting a meat-free diet, and while plant-based proteins have exploded in popularity, we know they haven’t necessarily proven to be “healthier” than their animal-based counterparts. The most consequential question, though, is whether the mass production of Beyond and Impossible meat is more eco-friendly than traditional meat, and a recent article from Knowable Magazine tries to answer that very big, complicated question.

The environmental impact of fake meat

The impact of the meat industry on our environment is already well known and well documented. Knowable Magazine notes that livestock accounts for about 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions, with grazing animals such as cattle accounting for more emissions than non-grazing, due to their methane-filled burps. The growing demand for meat worldwide will only increase that percentage as the industry tries to ramp up production. This is why plant-based meat alternatives seem like such a good solution to the issue: they satisfy meat cravings while also saving the environment. In theory.

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It is important to note that the only concrete data available indicating that fake meat like Impossible and Beyond creates a smaller environmental footprint comes from studies commissioned by the companies themselves. That doesn’t mean the findings are inaccurate, but it does mean that certain data points might have been cherry-picked and highlighted in lieu of the bigger picture, which some would argue remains murky.

To measure environmental impact, whether from an animal-based or plant-based product, scientists look at the entire life cycle of that product and its ingredients. This means tracing each ingredient, from sourcing to processing to packaging, and noting every environmental factor that is involved in that life cycle. Add these all up and you get a sense of what it takes to bring these products to market.

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An analysis of the available data by independent researchers at Johns Hopkins University found the average greenhouse gas footprint from plant-based meats was just 7% of regular beef’s footprint. The meat-free products were also more climate-friendly than pork or chicken, with greenhouse gas emissions at 57% and 37% the level of those animals, respectively. On top of that, the cultivation of plant-based meats requires less water and less land than grazing animals do.

The picture isn’t all rosy; as writer Bob Holmes points out in Knowable Magazine, “how green plant-based meats actually are depends on the farming practices that underlie them.” This means that as more and more people incorporate plant-based meat into their lives, the crops used to grow its ingredients will have to be scaled thoughtfully and sustainably. (Many of these crops currently contribute to deforestation.) And remember, mass production of anything is less eco-friendly than sourcing local foods as a staple of our diets. A package of pricey Impossible Meat won’t fix what’s wrong with the industrialization of our global food supply.

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Even considering the limitations of the available data, it does look like plant-based meat alternatives are by and large more eco-friendly than meat. More research is definitely needed, but it can’t hurt to swap out the occasional beef burger for a plant-based alternative—or, better yet, just plants.