Happy Earth Day!
There’s no better day to remember that taking the beef out of the burger and the chicken out of the nugget is one of the simplest, most effective ways to minimize humans’ environmental impact.
Our use of animals as production units for meat, eggs, and dairy has a greater climate effect than emissions from the whole transportation sector. According to the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, cattle ranching is responsible for 80 percent of the current deforestation rate in the Amazon. We can’t sustain this.
But even if the vast majority of consumers aren’t planning to go vegan any time soon, it’s now possible to make meat, eggs, and dairy in a much less resource-intensive way—just make these products directly from plants and skip the animal intermediary. (After all, all animal products start with the plants that animals eat.)
We reviewed the third-party lifecycle analyses (LCAs) for three of the biggest plant-based meat brands: Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat, and MorningStar Farms. These LCAs calculate the environmental footprints of their various products. We found that swapping in plant-based meat for conventional meat reduces:
- Greenhouse gas emissions by 30-90 percent;
- Water use by 72-98 percent;
- Land use by 47-99 percent; and
- Potential water pollution by 51-94 percent.
The takeaway: when a consumer chooses a plant-based meat option, it’s a win for the planet. And that’s a win for everyone and everything on the planet.
For people who can’t yet be convinced to try a plant-based burger (even though Burger King’s recent rollout of the Impossible Whopper demonstrated that Burger King’s own employees couldn’t tell the difference), cell-based meat offers another solution. By starting with a sample of cells and growing meat without raising and slaughtering animals, we can skip the concentrated animal feeding operations and shrink the environmental price tag on our meat.
We’ve seen myriad calls from researchers and NGOs over the past decades for people to reduce their meat consumption. And yet, meat consumption continues to rise globally and in the United States—at a population level and per capita. UN scientists calculate that we will need to produce 100 percent more meat by 2050.
If we’re serious about addressing climate change and avoiding environmental collapse, new forms of meat production must be on the menu.
- Governments should be investing in public research to advance plant-based and cell-based meat, eggs, and dairy;
- Policymakers should create a level playing field for companies innovating less resource-intensive plant-based and cell-based products;
- Nonprofits protecting the environment should support these innovations as crucial tools for change;
- Big food and meat companies should diversify their means of production and help accelerate these burgeoning industries; and
- Scientists and entrepreneurs interested in safeguarding our food supply and pioneering new fields should apply their talents here.
The future of our planet is inextricably tied to the future of food. Every time we eat, buy, supply, produce, research, or pass laws about food, we have the opportunity to be part of the solution.