Earth Matters: Meat, The Alternatives, The Problems

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In 2018 the United Nations recognized Ethan Brown and Patrick O’Reilly Brown as Champions of the Earth for their separate work developing plant-based alternatives to meat. Ethan Brown founded Beyond Meat and Patrick O’Reilly Brown founded Impossible Meat. The rise in consumer interest in such products spawned debates over the worthiness of the environmental protection kudos these products and others received.

It is widely accepted that if we have any hope of controlling the climate change impact of greenhouse gas emissions, we must significantly decrease our global meat consumption. Statistics as to the percentage of greenhouse gas emissions attributed to meat production vary. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, livestock accounts for 14.5 percent of annual worldwide greenhouse gas emissions produced by human activity. Other studies and organizations put the annual contribution to total greenhouse gas emissions as low as 2.8 percent. According to the New York Times, cattle raised for beef and milk are the greatest culprit of greenhouse gas emissions attributed to animal agriculture responsible for 65 percent of livestock emissions. This calculation accounts for the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere when forests are cleared to make room for animal feed production and livestock grazing. Animals also release methane, another powerful greenhouse gas, through burps and flatulence when digesting their food. Animal manure is also a huge source of methane.

By comparison, the meat alternative, plant-based options appear to have a significantly lower environmental impact. According to a research study conducted by the University of Michigan, a quarter-pound Beyond Burger requires 99 percent less water, 93 percent less land and generates 90 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions, using 46 percent less energy to produce in the U.S. than its beef equivalent. The Impossible Burger requires approximately 75 percent less water and 95 percent less land, generating about 87 percent lower greenhouse gas emissions than beef burgers.

It would seem, from an environmental perspective, that plant-based “burgers” are a huge improvement over meat-based versions. But the studies to date have been limited. For example, no one has analyzed the production impact of plant-based meat alternatives. What environmental impact are the factories having?

And there are other questions. To understand the environmental impact, we need to look at more than climate change. We need to consider other factors like impact on air and water quality. When the analysis is expanded to consider environmental impact broadly, according to Dr. Frank Mitloehner, a professor at the University of California, Davis, the answer is not clear cut.

So, is animal agriculture and eating meat and dairy a priority contributor to climate change and other environmental harms that we need to address or are there other more pressing behaviors and businesses? One thing is clear, as the global population grows, the impact of animal agriculture will grow. More land will be deforested and converted to pastures for raising animals; more methane will be produced, and the problem of animal waste polluting drinking water sources will expand, while more water will be needed to raise animals for eating. There is also some agreement that the amount of resources needed overall to grow plants as opposed to what is needed to produce meat and dairy is significantly smaller. But, to have a notable environmental impact these alternatives to meat options have to replace a significant percentage of meat choices globally, becoming the mealtime staple, instead of meat of all varieties.

CNET reports that most scientists agree that the evidence indicates eating a more plant-based diet is better for the environment. In terms of nutrition and health though, the plant-based alternatives, especially when prepared by and purchased from a fast food outlet, are likely high in calories, fat, and sodium.

One thing the scientists can agree on in terms of what you as the consumer can do is to waste less. Every time you waste food, regardless of what the food is, you are also throwing away all the resources that went into producing that food – the labor, water, land, energy, and transportation. And on top of that, the wasted food goes into a landfill where more methane is produced as the landfill material breaks down, thereby multiplying the greenhouse gas emissions from the production of the food. So, don’t buy more than you can eat, finish leftovers, and compost what you can. That will make a significant difference and reduce the environmental impact of many human behaviors, whether you eat meat or not.

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