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ISSUE NO. 01 DECEMBER 2021Is Plant-Based Meat Better for the Environment?Written by Keagan Mattison When it comes to the environment, meat is bad and plants are good. But what about plant-based meat? We asked the experts to explain. We all need to do our part to curb the effects of climate change by reducing our carbon footprint, and the best way to do that isn’t by switching to LED lightbulbs, driving hybrid cars, or even recycling. It’s by changing our diets to include a lot less meat (or none at all!) and a lot more plants. One way to do that is by swapping your beef, chicken, and poultry for plant-based meat.
Livestock produces 14.5 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, takes up 83 percent of all farmland, eats 34 percent of crops grown globally, and drinks over 50 percent of our freshwater supply. Plants, on the other hand, are good for the planet. That’s why so many people are declaring every Monday a Meatless Monday and choosing meatless meat, like the Impossible Burger or vegan meat substitutes, over animal products. Which begs the question: Is meatless meat healthier − for you or the planet?
We asked experts to weigh in on the plant-based meat trend. Here’s what you need to know. Is fake meat better for the environment?There’s no question that so-called meatless meat wins when it comes to the health of our planet. Plant-based meat, like all foods, has some impact on the environment, but it doesn’t come close to having the sort of impact on the planet that meat does.
To really see the difference, we have to look at a few key elements of environmental impact: water usage, land usage, and carbon emissions.
Studies have shown that it takes between 2,000 and 8,000 gallons of water to produce a single pound of beef; in contrast, it takes only about 300 gallons to produce one pound of tofu. Plus, livestock production contributes to more groundwater pollution.
Large swaths of the world’s forests have been deliberately slashed and burned to create more room for raising cattle, including 15 percent of the ever-shrinking Amazon rainforest. “Replacing a share of farmed meat in the diet with plant-based substitutes could theoretically free up cropland to feed more people or provide other ecological services such as reforestation,” write the authors of a 2020 study published in Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems. They estimate plant-based meat uses 41 percent less land than fish farming, 77 percent less land than poultry, 82 percent less land than pig farming, 89 percent less than beef from dairy cows, and a whopping 98 percent less land than beef from beef herds.
According to Stephanie Feldstein, director of the population and sustainability program at the Center for Biological Diversity, the environmental impact of meatless meats is a fraction of that of the animal products they’re replacing. “The most popular plant-based alternatives, Beyond [Meat] and Impossible Burgers, produce about 90 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions in comparison with beef,” she says. “They reduce land use by at least 93 percent and water use by 87 percent to 99 percent. They also generate no manure pollution.” How do fake meats impact the environment? Plant-based meat isn’t perfect. All food production requires resources, and meat-free meat is no exception. According to Mark Hyman, MD, the author of Food Fix, most of the environmental concerns around fake meat have to do with industrial farming—particularly the use of tillage, which destroys soil carbon.
“Thirty to 40 percent of all the atmosphere carbon comes from the destruction of soil, through tillage and agricultural chemicals. That leads to climate change,” Dr. Hyman says. “Of the one trillion tons of carbon in the atmosphere, about 30 to 40 percent, or 300 billion–plus tons, is caused by the damage to the soil, and the current growing of industrial crops is contributing to that problem.”