Plant-Based Protein Could Be a Solution to Climate Change
Replacing juicy meat with fibrous veggies seems like a silly, unreal concept. The idea that you can replace the nutrients of animals with the nutrients of plants doesn’t even seem possible. Meat is meat right? But, in our civilization’s new age of climate crisis, people are embracing a new plant-based concoction designed to embody meat. Why? Well, large-scale meat production contributes lots of damage to the environment. The rise of plant-based meat alternatives will potentially spur big changes in the way we raise, grow, engineer, and eat our food. Most importantly, the environmental benefits could be massive, it might make people healthier, and it might actually taste pretty good.
Agriculture is Changing
Currently you can purchase “plant-based meat” at grocery stores, restaurants, and even at the drive-thru burger chain. In due time, most Americans will have encountered it. Apparently, some people are adopting it as a new kind of staple item, buying faux meat alongside typical grocery items. Imagine your grocery list: “eggs, bread, milk, potatoes, chicken breasts, plant burgers…” Notice how it included some old-fashioned animal meat. After all, people might be open to the idea of eating vegetable burgers on a regular basis, but will they ever let go of their deeply ingrained meat-eating habits? At this point, the important question here regarding sustainability is: Will plant-based meat be a sustainable market and have the disruptive power to reduce the world’s environmental footprint.
Who’s Selling Plant-Based Food?
Now let’s dig into the real meat of the animal agriculture vs plant agriculture issue, starting with the companies who began this strange food revolution. Notably, the first plant-based food was basically peanut butter, and “veggie burgers” have existed for decades. Recently, two innovative startups, Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, started today’s frantic race to create vegetable products that far exceed expectations, with plant-based products that feel and taste exactly like meat.
The Start of a Food Revolution
Dr. Patrick O. Brown was a biochemist at Stanford who took a sabbatical to rededicate his career to the environmental cause. His idea was to make meat, fish, and dairy products out of plants to relieve the footprint of animal agriculture. Particularly, cows have a large footprint on our environment that continues to get worse. The product debuted in 2016 when scientists crafted the “Impossible Burger.” They designed it to mimic the physical properties of meat; meaning it should taste, smell, feel, and cook like meat.
The Redwood, CA startup currently sells the Impossible Burger in the US, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Macau. According to CNET, Applebees, Red Robin, Qdoba, Cheesecake Factory, and every single Burger King in the U.S. has adopted the Impossible Burger onto its menu. Additionally, CNET mentions that it’s available at select grocery stores in the US. You can purchase delicious plant-based at a bunch of smaller grocery stores including Vons, Jewel-Osco, Wegmans and other supermarkets.
Impossible Foods is yet to issue an IPO, and isn’t looking to do so soon, according to Sophia Kunthara at crunchbase.com. Impossible Foods has raised $687.5 million in total funding and its investors include Temasek Holdings and Horizons Ventures. Lastly, the company last raised its $300 million Series E in May.
Making Meat Meatless
Ethan Brown began a startup with similar motivations. In an LA Times article, he recalls his experience weaning him off of meat. He was waiting in line for one of his favorite burgers thinking, “This is like an orgy of animals I am eating… I started to feel different about it,”
Ethan was dead-set on starting an innovative food business to help fight stop the scourge of meat harming our planet. To that end, he invested in a vegan restaurant that sold a faux meat soy product from Taiwan. This led him to start a business importing it. Then, he got whole foods to sell it in the Mid-Atlantic region.
From Academic Research to IPO
Researchers from University of Missouri, Fu-hung Hsieh and Harold Huff, experimented with making meat-like products by creating textured soy protein from a machine called an “extruder.” They played with moisture, pressure, temperature and ingredients. Subsequently, Brown was convinced of the product’s potential, and thus he acquired a licence to the technology.
After convincing skeptical investors to bite, the company had slow beginnings. Eventually, in 2016, Whole Foods Began selling the Beyond Meat Burger in the meat section. This led other grocers to follow.
The LA Times highlighted the success of their IPO last May. Beyond Meat raised about $240 million, issuing 9.6 million shares at $25 a piece. The stock price managed to reach 65.75 the next day, a 163% jump. Seeing that the company’s value reached $3.8 billion, investors clearly project the economic potential for this new food product to be huge.
The Big Boys
Mixing It Up
Tyson announced, in Summer of 2019, a new brand called “Raised and Rooted.” Products include plant-based nuggets and “blended” beef mixed-with-plants-burgers. So, under the Aidells brand they will sell Whole Blends sausage and meatballs, made with a mix of chicken and plants.
Notably, they claim that the blended burgers have fewer calories and less saturated fat than their 100% plant-based counterparts. On the health front, perhaps these blended versions of meat products will prevail.
They have fallen under criticism by animal activists for selling meatless nuggets with egg whites as an ingredient. Similarly, their blended burgers are equally baffling to those truly concerned about the future of food.
Tyson Ventures, the company’s venture capital arm has investments in multiple alternative protein start-ups. MYCOTECHNOLOGY is a producer of mushroom-based protein. Memphis Meats and Future Meat Technologies develop cell-based meat.
Hormel, with its brand Applegate, has chosen to take only a small step into the plant-based meat arena with the introduction of their mushroom-infused turkey or beef Great Organic Blend Burger. Apparently meat, mushrooms, and rosemary extract are the only ingredients.
I think this product will allow Hormel to enter the space without a huge commitment outright. Thus, they will want to look and see where the market goes before they make a big investment into developing more complicated and realistic 100% plant-based meat.
In like fashion, Perdue has chosen to make a blended products in their decision to enter this new market. According to Food Dive, they introduced a brand of chicken nuggets, tenders, and patties called Chicken Plus. They partnered with The Better Meat Co., a plant-based food supplier based in Sacramento, to source some of its ingredients. They claim to have a half serving of vegetables in each serving of the product. Interestingly, main ingredients include cauliflower, chickpeas, plant protein, and, of course, white meat chicken.
Surely this type of product is clearing the way for Perdue and similar companies to start offering wholly plant-based meat products. Perdue’s size and distribution means it will be a powerful force in the conversion of meat consumption to vegetable consumption. Of course, a meat company is always going to sell meat, so who knows if these products will even have an effect on total meat consumption.
A new plant burger from Sweet Earth Foods, a Nestlé owned brand, copies the Beyond Burger and Impossible Burger. They branded the burger via their Twitter page as #BeyondImpossible. The recipe consists of yellow pea protein and contains 26 grams of protein.
It appears that Mickey D’s will be adopting the Sweet Earth brand for its own plant burger plans. According to Delish, McDonald’s is already selling it in Germany, one of Nestle’s top markets. I’m assuming if all goes well, we will soon see this in the United States and worldwide.
According to Forbes, Nestlé is the largest maker of food in the world, employing about 350,000 people. In short, their ability to market new heavily processed products coupled with their global distribution network means they will likely wind up as front-runners in this competition.
Plant-Based Deli Meats
Nestle plans on introducing an array of deli and other meats including ham pepperoni, sausage, bacon, and even chicken breast. Their SweetEarth brand now has loads of products. Take a look at their product page here.
Long Term Goals
Additionally, Nestle has plans for its company to produce net zero emissions by 2050. Therefore, this aligns with the Paris accord’s ambitious goal to remain below a temperature rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius. The company says it plans to develop more products that are healthier and have a lower footprint (plant-based foods), scale up agricultural and land use initiatives, and be using 100% renewable energy. Also, they have ambitions to contribute to 0 deforestation and drastically reduce the amount of water used in their plants.
The Plant-Based Showdown Begins
The real question concerning each of these companies is which one will be able to invent the most realistic, tasty, nutritious “meats” made with plants in all most popular meat forms. It’s hard to imagine that they could perfect the intricate flavors of each and every form of meat we already love to devour today. How could they emulate the various fish from all different environs that we catch in the wild. All the companies I just described seem to think that it is possible, otherwise, there wouldn’t be so much investment in the technology.
A battle of ethics is being waged. Nestle is not going to stop selling dairy and meat products no matter how much plant-based meat they sell. Concerned consumers and citizens will refuse to support companies with these large footprints. Indeed, there is a wave of counter-culture around the world that is denying corporatism, and embracing a more local and personal way of doing business. These large multinationals might have trouble hiding behind their brand facades.
Who Can Innovate?
Initial Innovations in Alternative Protein
Impossible Foods and Beyond meat have the first-mover advantage with successful hamburger products the “Impossible Burger” and the “Beyond Burger.” The Big Boys will have to play catch-up in that game. And the original two have already secured prominent brand positions in the market with their initial success and advertising campaigns. Possibly the greatest success will come to the company with the ability to market directly to consumers that their product is the best alternative to meat available. The pie must be large if you look at the variety of ways companies sell meat or grocery products. By expanding and extending product lines, each company can carve out a position in the market.
Food Production Know-How
The chicken experts like Tyson and Hormel ought to have an edge considering their great “innovations” in raising chickens. They’ve managed to cram thousands of chickens in a small space creating a factory filled with the chickens’ own poop and dead brethren. Farmers feed livestock grains, an unnatural source of food for many animals, and fatten them up to a level of absurdity. If someone in the 19th century saw our factory farms, they would seriously freak out. Perhaps they can employ their agricultural expertise in developing alternative forms of protein.
The large companies will continue to jump on the business opportunities presented before them. In the New York Times, spokeswoman Susan Wassel of Tyson mentioned, “it’s really about the business opportunity.” They just want a piece of the pie; and they’re not going to give it to two small startups. Consequently, they are liable to release some sub par products such as “almost-meatless meat.”
They have the supply chain and marketing capabilities to get affordable products on the shelves quickly. Although, that doesn’t mean they will necessarily be the greatest quality.
Companies that offer blended burgers are throwing an interesting curveball. They see that they can still feed people the meat they love, but make the product significantly healthier at the same time.
These burgers and various meat products contain, aside from real meat, ingredients such as pea protein isolate, flax seed, cauliflower, chickpeas, and bamboo fiber. For example, Hormel is selling blended burgers using mushrooms.
Compromise or Innovation?
This is genius from a marketing standpoint: develop a real meat product that incorporates cheaper ingredients like beans or even veggies and market it as a healthy alternative. As mentioned previously, these versions can also have less fat and calories than 100% plant-based meat. Using quality lean meats, along with plant ingredients, these companies will have concocted a cheaply made (maybe legitimately healthy) product made for consumers not fully ready to give up their lust for animal blood. I would argue most people fall into that description, considering how much meat we eat now.
Considering how picky children are these days at the dinner table, parents will be happy to feed their children nuggets filled with fibrous plant-protein as opposed to tender white meat. In this case, parents can feel less guilty about failing to feed their children vegetables.
I’m not sure this is exactly what our nation needs to improve its sad, malnutritious diet. However, it might mean that meat is going by the wayside, while people begin to understand how excessive their protein intake is.
As far as intellectual property goes, we consider each company’s recipe a “trade secret.” A trade secret is essentially protected from theft, but it is not immune to being copied. Furthermore, food recipes generally aren’t novel and are borrowed from others anyhow.
In the case of food, you are technically allowed to reverse engineer and attempt to copy another’s product. There is no way to get a patent and stop others from attempting to produce your unique version of plant-based meat. Stealing a trade secret is a huge crime. Therefore, each producer will have to pour research and development dollars into their products in order to compete.
It may be possible to patent novel manufacturing methods or other technologies that produce plant-based food. As a heavily processed food, with a high need for tweaks and improvements, recipes will likely call for GMOs to provide sought after characteristics in beans, peas, or other ingredients. Consequently, companies will have to set aside the GMOs in some markets such as Europe or as consumers in GMO-legal markets begin to resist GMOs due to increased health consciousness.
This is a strange competition for crafting an entirely new food product never before ingested by people. It’s almost like we are becoming healthier as a society is by tricking ourselves into eating vegetables.
Who Will Bite? (Buyer Segmentation)
One interesting aspect of this emerging market is the variety of market segments that may be targeted. This new type of food can take many forms. Plant burgers allow the gen Z and gen Y age groups to wean themselves off of meat. Perhaps, moms will trick kids into eating “chicken nuggets” that contain mainly beans or peas, rather than meat. Its acceptance is mostly dependent on the ability of companies to craft and creatively market new products that mimic existing ones.
The Market Strategy to Hook People
At restaurants, consumers are already paying a premium to eat out, and they are more willing to try new things. Thus, it seems like the strategy of Impossible Foods and Beyond meat might be to introduce the world to its creation by featuring their product on restaurant menus. Seeing it on the menu and other people ordering it and enjoying it will normalize its consumption and drive people to buy it on their regular grocery visits.
In the meantime, certain consumer segments are already picking up on the plant meat trend. Slowly consumers are starting to normalize its consumption. It no longer is a silly vegan thing, it’s a solid choice considering the negative health and environmental consequences of animal agriculture.
According to The Conversation, “In February 2018, 48% of respondents said they were unlikely to “purchase foods that look and taste identical to meat, but are based on ingredients that are produced artificially.” By September 2019, that number fall to 40%.”
The price currently sits too high for many consumers to seriously consider regular purchases of plant-based meat. As supply increases over the years, I can see the price of plant-based meat sitting below that of regular meat. Meat is already resource intensive and highly processed, thus it is one of the most expensive products to buy in the store. Economies of scale will kick in, a handful of large manufacturers will compete, then the price will come down. Then, soon, fridges everywhere will be stocked with juicy, rare, meaty… vegetables.
Millennials with Kids
Plant-based meat offers a healthier alternative to feeding kids fried chicken nuggets all the time. Millennial families with children appear to be the largest and fastest growing segment. These parents are more environmentally conscious and health conscious, making them open up their minds to plant meat. Furthermore they are willing to pay the price for this novel food item.
Forbes has an article quoting a study by YouGov and WholeFoodsMarket that claims over 60% of Gen Y are trying to eat more plant-based food. Millenials are clearly the market that an innovative product like this has the most appeal. Millennials are highly aware of global environmental issues and the pollutive plight of beef is one of them.
According to an article published on The Conversation by Sheril Kirshenbaum & Douglas Buhler of Michigan State,
“Nearly half (48 percent) of respondents under 40 were already eating plant-based meats, while just 27 percent of those aged 40 and over had tried these products.”
Vegans, Vegetarians or just Flexitarians?
Vegans might be expected to bite into the market for plant meat as well. Considering some might miss chomping into a cheeseburger after making their diet change.
Assumedly, the overproduced nature of the product might turn some people off, or even the fact that it contains GMOs. According to Business Insider, plant-based food often doesn’t meet vegan requirements. Restaurants use the same grills to cook both real and faux meats.
In contrast most, companies are dedicated to changing meat-eaters’ minds, however. Vegans and vegetarians have already cut out meat from their diet. That wouldn’t necessarily align with Impossible and Beyonds’ goal of dismantling animal agriculture, since the vegans are already ahead of the game. The real opportunity comes from converting meat-eaters, people who sat they enjoy meat but don’t want to eat it so often. So the “Flexitarians” will be the target consumer for plant-based meat products.
A Healthy Population
People, fortunately for them, are becoming more health conscious, yet they are always buying more meat and eating fast food.
It doesn’t seem like there’s any slowing down burger establishments like McDonalds, who serves … Or the fact that US beef consumption has …. Or the fact that x amount of the population is still obese.
Health related foods have increased in prevalence. I remember when you couldn’t buy avocados for $2 a pop at every grocery store in America. Just take a look at the alternative milk section. You could call it “milk,” but it really only consists water and plant juices made from soy, oats, almonds, or what have you.
Also, education plays a huge role in health outcomes for children, but some countries manage to be better than others in this regard.
Plant-based foods are poised to disrupt the meat industry as people become more and more aware of animal agriculture’s consumption of resources and pollution-riddled operations. Hence, Impossible Foods founder called animal agriculture, in an interview with Yahoo Finance, “the most destructive technology on Earth by Far.” More and more people are “waking up” to the horrors of factory farming and the health crisis the world faces/
According to Gallup, 62% of Americans believed the government was “doing too little to protect the environment.” That poll, from 2018, revealed a 12 year high of environmental concern in the populace. Therefore, everyday citizens now discuss concerns such as alternative energy, electric cars, and agriculture in households throughout the world. Over the past few decades, we have made significant progress despite squabbles caused by the fossil fuel companies and our government’s fondness of it. It’s not just the hippies who care about the environment; regular people at least say they do. If lawmakers paid attention to the sentiment for the environment ringing out amongst the populace, true progress could be made.
Consumers might overlook big food companies, with their huge footprint and global reach, in search of companies they believe are socially responsible. For instance, Nestle produces bottled water, an industry viewed as excessively wasteful and pointless by the eco-conscious consumer.
Caught Red Handed
Specifically, meat companies like Tyson, Perdue, and Hormel cannot deny the fact that they are taking part in factory farming animals no matter how much plant-meat they make. I fear that consumption of plant-based protein will not reduce the consumption of meat, and total consumption of food will increase. Similar to how renewable energy has only added to total energy capacity, without making a dent in fossil fuel consumption. These huge companies are in direct conflict with Pat Brown’s ambition for people to totally stop eating animals by 2035. After all, large companies will do anything in order to keep maintain market share and profit margins, but they may never stop mass-producing animals for slaughter.
Impossible and Beyond have an edge given their lack of history of pumping out products in polluting industries.
Plant-Based Protein Nutrition Overview
- Soy-protein concentrate
- Coconut oil
- Sunflower oil
- Natural flavors.
Impossible “meat” also contains 2% or less of:
- Potato protein
- Yeast extract
- Cultured dextrose
- Food starch, modified
- Soy leghemoglobin
- Soy-protein isolate
- Mixed tocopherols (vitamin E)
- Zinc gluconate
- Thiamine hydrochloride (Vitamin B1)
- Sodium ascorbate (vitamin C)
- Pyridoxine hydrochloride (vitamin B6)
- Riboflavin (vitamin B2)
- Vitamin B12
“Impossible Burger has as much bioavailable iron and protein as a comparable serving of ground beef from cows, but has 0 mg cholesterol, 14 grams of total fat and 240 calories in a quarter-pound patty. (A quarter-pound, conventional “80/20” patty from cows has 80 mg cholesterol, 23 grams of total fat and 290 calories.)”
*Note: The rest of Impossible Foods’ products are similar in ingredients but with unique formulas to achieve different textures and tastes.
Contains soy protein, coconut oil, sunflower oil, and heme, no potato protein like in burger.
Impossible Pork contains no gluten, no animal hormones and no antibiotics. It has 16g protein, 3mg iron, 0 mg cholesterol, 13g total fat, 7g saturated fat and 220 calories in a 4-oz. serving. (Conventional “70/30” pork from animals contains 17g protein, 1mg iron, 86mg cholesterol, 32g total fat, 11g saturated fat and 350 calories in a 4-oz. serving.)
Contains soy protein, coconut oil, sunflower oil, and heme. No potato protein.
Impossible Sausage contains no gluten, no animal hormones and no antibiotics. A raw, 2-ounce serving has 7g protein, 1.69mg iron, 0 mg cholesterol, 9g total fat, 4g saturated fat and 130 calories. A 2-ounce serving of conventional Jimmy Dean’s raw pork sausage made from pigs contains 7g protein, 0.36mg iron, 40mg cholesterol, 21g total fat, 7g saturated fat and 220 calories in a 57-g. Serving.
Beyond Meat Nutrition
Ingredients for US product RETAIL:
Water, Pea Protein*, Expeller-Pressed Canola Oil, Refined Coconut Oil, Rice Protein, Natural Flavors, Cocoa Butter, Mung Bean Protein, Methylcellulose, Potato Starch, Apple Extract, Pomegranate Extract, Salt, Potassium Chloride, Vinegar, Lemon Juice concentrate, Sunflower Lecithin, Beet Juice Extract (for color).
Ingredients for US product FOOD SERVICE:
Water, Pea Protein*, Expeller-Pressed Canola Oil, Refined Coconut Oil, Rice Protein, Natural Flavors, Cocoa Butter, Mung Bean Protein, Methylcellulose, Potato Starch, Apple Extract, Pomegranate Extract, Salt, Potassium Chloride, Vinegar, Lemon Juice Concentrate, Sunflower Lecithin, Beet Juice Extract (for color).
Nutritional value looks to be exactly the same as the retail version.
Beyond Breakfast Sausage™
Water, Pea Protein*, Expeller-Pressed Canola Oil, Refined Coconut Oil, Natural Flavors, Inactivated Yeast, Rice Protein, Methylcellulose, Yeast Extract [niacin (Vitamin B3), pyridoxine hydrochloride (Vitamin B6), thiamin hydrochloride (Vitamin B1), riboflavin (Vitamin B2), folic acid (Vitamin B9), cyanocobalamin (Vitamin B12)], Apple Extract, Salt, Pomegranate Extract, Vinegar, Lemon Juice Concentrate, Sunflower Lecithin, Beet Juice Extract (for color), Carrot
Ingredients in US product:
Water, Pea Protein*, Expeller-Pressed Canola Oil, Refined Coconut Oil, Rice Protein, Natural Flavors, Cocoa Butter, Mung Bean Protein, Methylcellulose, Potato Starch, Apple Extract, Pomegranate Extract, Salt, Potassium Chloride, Vinegar, Lemon Juice Concentrate, Sunflower Lecithin, Beet Juice Extract (for color).
Water, Pea Protein*, Refined Coconut Oil, Sunflower Oil, Natural Flavor, Contains 2% or less of: Rice Protein, Faba Bean Protein, Potato Starch, Salt, Fruit Juice (For Color), Vegetable Juice (For Color), Apple Fiber, Methylcellulose, Citrus Extract (To Protect Quality), Calcium Alginate Casing.
Beyond Beef Crumbles
Water, Pea Protein*, Expeller-Pressed Canola Oil, Spice, Rice Flour, Tomato Powder, Natural Flavors, Sugar, Potassium Chloride, Contains 0.5% or less: Citric Acid, Paprika Extract (for color)
The striking thing about the Beef Crumbles is that they have a fairly short ingredients-list. So, a product like this product requires less processing, and might be more appealing that over-processed, over-engineered products. I can’t attest to how these taste. But I speculate, since they are simpler, that might make them relatively healthier. But they might not really taste authentic without the intensive processing required to trick our taste buds.
Does it Even Taste Like Meat?
It tastes a lot like meat. Burger 2.0 is designed to actually work on a grill not a restaurant-style flattop. From what I’ve read, I wouldn’t be surprised if no one noticed you mixing it in with normal burgers and BBQ. I would go buy it and try it for the sake of this article but I’m too cheap and I don’t crave meat so much anyway, so I doubt I would enjoy plant-based meat.
CNET reporter Joan Solsman, a vegetarian says that the Impossible Burger “comes close enough to cow to gross me out.” She thinks this could be taken as a compliment. They really have managed to make it taste like meat.
The Impact of Meat
Humans Love Meat
There is just no getting past the fact that people absolutely love eating other animals. While some countries are more guilty than others, unsustainable animal agriculture is practiced worldwide and has a huge impact on local ecosystems and the overarching climate system. Meat consumption is increasing worldwide to the detriment of our health and the planet.
According to Rob Smith writing for the World Economic Forum, Americans eat more meat than anyone else, at an average of 97kg of meat a year. Next in line is Australia at 94.8 kg per person. Then Argentina at 86kg per person. In the EU, they still eat 69.2kg of meat per person. Take a look at the average meal in an American home or restaurant; meat or carbohydrates will dominate the plate, leaving little room for a colorful array of vegetables. Furthermore, consider the fact that Americans eat out frequently; and much of the time they are eating fast food (A third of Americans do every single day), which almost always features meat-filled entrees.
The amount of consumption is increasing as well. In 2018, Americans ate a record amount of meat. Red meat and poultry production was set to reach about 103.5 billion pounds in 2018, while producing 97.6 billion pounds in 2016. According to Dr. Michael Dent of IDTechEx, the amount of meat consumed is expected to grow by 2% to 3% percent a year and represents 5.6% of GDP.
That brings us to 10.6 ounces per day. The USDA recommends eating less than 5 to 6 ounces. We are eating way more meat than we need, and it is destroying the environment.
More Meat Than We Need
The World Resource Institute says the average person in 90% of countries are exceeding their protein requirements. Consider the ungodly amount of resources required to produce all this extra protein that our bodies don’t even require. In relying on farming animals, we have created a situation that puts our health and our planet’s health at severe risk. As the title of the chart below mentions, wealthy people are enjoying the greatest protein intake. At any rate, the issue is that as the world’s developing nations become wealthier, expensive meats like beef become more affordable and available to the average consumer. In the long run, things don’t look good for Planet Earth.
A Booming Meat Industry
The WRI estimates there will be an 80% increase in consumption of animal-based foods between 2006 and 2050. And the Good Food Institute predicts a 50 percent increase in meat industry demand between 2013 and 2050.
The demand for meat is not slowing down, in fact, it’s speeding up at an incredible rate. Considering what we know about the resources and land required for intensive animal agriculture, it just doesn’t seem that the industry could possibly grow that much.
Pushback from the Farmer
Meat production is such an important economic activity that there is bound to be strong pushback from conventional farmers and sellers of meat products. Clashes between stakeholders in the meat industry against regulators, NGOs, or even just concerned teachers are sure to arise as soon as one suggests that eating meat is bad for you or the planet.
According to Katherine Martinko on TreeHugger, New Zealand educators introduced a new climate change curriculum that encourages kids to “eat less dairy and meat, have meatless days each week, eat more fruit and vegetables, drive less, recycle and buy secondhand when possible.” As a result, farmers are outraged as the authorities point directly at the intensive animal agriculture industry as a culprit for climate change. They look at it as Kiwis choosing, as one farmer put it, “to bite the hand that feeds them.”
Facing the Facts
While the farmers may disagree, the curriculum is absolutely in line with what scientists have proven causes emissions. Farmers point out that all activities have an environmental footprint, yet the truth is their footprint is massive. Maybe, farmers ought to open their minds up a little, stop resisting the pressures of environmentalism, and allow their critics to shape the future of their industry so that they can continue to make a living.
It is natural for farmers to upset about disrupting their income, but if they know anything about staying in business it should be to follow demand. And if people demand vegetables instead of dairy or meat, then they better react accordingly. So, the industry wants to maintain the status quo, but it has forgotten that the status quo was set by consumer demand from the beginning. Meat producers thought they were in a stable, predictable market. Now, times have changed.
Clearly there is a lot of money to be made by raising animals as cheaply and efficiently as possible. Given the size of the industry as a whole, and the number of both large and small players involved (from packaging companies, to farmers, to food processors), meat-eating will be a difficult habit to break.
Environmental Impact Assessment
Intensive? More Like Resource Intensive
The process of producing meat or other animal products is fundamentally inefficient and environmentally harmful. By a significant margin, cows are the worst offender by far. Consider the process required to put steak on your table at home.
It Goes Kind of Like This
- Firstly, grow grains using vast tracts of land and a lot of water (often done in dry places with water shortage concerns such as California).
- Transport those grains to a feed yard or a barn (heated in the winter) where the cows hang out for much of their lives eating the grains and getting unnaturally fat.
- Meanwhile, in the warmer months, cattle graze on wild land and often cause ecological disruptions from overgrazing and trampling local flora.
- Next, the cows are then transported to different facilities to be slaughtered, processed, packaged, etc.
- Final products are shipped to grocery stores around the nation where they need to be refrigerated the entire time
- Lastly, you drive your fossil-fuel powered car to the grocery store that might even be open 24 hours per day, take the steak home, and then cook it
This whole process requires an incredible amount of land, water, and energy, while toxifying our land, air, and water with pollutants. We even have medical issues to worry about from using too many antibiotics.
The life cycle data we have about animal-agriculture vs plant-based protein doesn’t even take into consideration the moral implications of eating meat. Intensive animal agriculture requires large facilities that produce and process as much usable product as possible at the lowest possible cost. In other words, they are trying to extract the very last drop of value out of farm animals at the expense of their well-being with no respect to their life.
Animals should be able to walk around outside, not over-crowded in a corrugated metal barn stomping in its brethren’s feces. Undeniably, the very conditions we put these animals through is horrible, let alone the fact that we have to kill them and eat them. All in all, I’m not advocating we all become vegan, but I do think we should not just reconsider our food system so that it supports healthy lifestyles for all with minimal environmental impact.
Lots of Effort for Only a Small Bite
77 percent of land is dedicated to animal ag yet it counts as 17 percent of food supply. Imagine if all that land was used to feed us and not just cows… Well, if it was, American farmers could feed over twice as many mouths if the arable land was used for human and not animal food. Therefore, farmers could compete and succeed better in the international marketplace by importing all the extra food we have.
To reiterate, the World Resource Institute highlights what makes animal agriculture such a big issue from an environmental standpoint:
“Production of animal-based foods accounted for more than three-quarters of global agricultural land use and around two-thirds of agriculture’s production-related greenhouse gas emissions in 2009, while only contributing 37 percent of total protein consumed by people in that year”
In effect, we dedicate lots of resources to only eating animal products. Our super successful economies have forced us to use much of our food-producing capacity to produce something we don’t necessarily need.
With this in mind, the plant-based food startups goal of replacing meat doesn’t seem like such a wacky idea after all. Obviously, there is an efficiency gain to be had from transitioning our agriculture to feed people. The land can then be used for producing meat substitutes, a very cheap and efficient source of “meat” capable of producing twice as much food as before.
Plant-Based Meat to the Rescue
Almost every aspect of plant-based agriculture is more efficient and takes a lower toll on the environment. So, there is no question as to its superiority over eating animals. In multiple measures of sustainability (land usage, water usage, greenhouse gas emissions, and aquatic nutrient pollution), plant-based food far outperforms animal-based food.
Take a look at the chart, showing data from a Good Food Institute Report below showing the potential reductions in resource usage and pollution.
The percentages here are also the low end estimates. We could potentially use or produce up to 99% less water, 99% less land, 90% less greenhouse gases, and 91% less aquatic nutrient pollution.
*The following information concerning life cycle assessment comes from this Good Food Institute report: Plant-Based Meat for a Growing World”
Land that is used for feeding animals can be dedicated to growing more crops, reforestation projects, soil conservation, and renewable energy production in the form of solar and wind. Considering it’s three quarters of all farmland, that is a lot of land that can be repurposed in other valuable ways.
According to the Good Food Institute, one third of water used in agriculture is used for animal-based food. While cows do drink quite a lot, high water usage comes from growing vast plots of feed-crops. Also, meat processing uses more water than the processing of vegetables.
Greenhouse Gas Emissions
The meat industry is also responsible for more greenhouse gases than tailpipe exhaust from the transportation sector. Prairie and forest conversion, feed production, animal digestion, and waste decfomposition all contribute various forms of greenhouse gases. All in all, reducing the number of steps involved in producing food is a sure way to reduce emissions.
Probably the greatest concern is the sheer number of cows that are alive today, all producing tons of methane (a greenhouse gas 30x worse than carbon dioxide) through flatulence during digestion. Cows have a unique digestive system consisting of multiple stomachs designed to process hard to digest foods like grass.
Aquatic Nutrient Pollution
Animal waste ends up in our water supply and causes a host of ecological issues. In fact, Phosphorus and nitrogen runoff causes algal blooms that kill off species in aquatic environments far away from farms. Also, many times farms don’t have wastewater facilities. And the list goes on and on: “manure often sits in open lagoons before being sprayed over nearby fields creating extreme health risks for local communities.”
In addition, plant-based doesn’t need to poop and requires much less fertilizer per weight in food.
Overuse of antibiotic creates risks to human health. Livestock are forced to live less and less healthy lives forcing farmers to use more antibiotics to keep disease in check. As a result, 70% of all antibiotics are used in animals. We have to keep using more and more on the animals as they become less and less healthy. After all, the result is that humans acquire antibiotic resistance and it fails to help fight infections. Antibiotic resistance, by 2050, could cause 10 millions deaths per year and $100 trillion in economic damage.
A Meat-Free Planet
It is unclear whether or not plant-based meat could ever fully replace real meat. However, it is clear that we must reckon with the challenges that reliance upon animal agriculture has placed before us. I suppose we will soon pay for the damages caused by this unnecessary, polluting, and resource-intensive, albeit delicious, source of food.
I think that one day we will have no choice but to ring the alarm. Our craving for meat will not be satiated by our own will. It will be artificially satiated because we have no choice but to stop the madness. It will no longer make sense to raise animals on a farm for profit. Perhaps, we will see it as hilariously antiquated, only partaken on a small scale by enthusiasts of a subsistence lifestyle.
We will no longer be able to look away from the damage. At some point, we will no longer be able to lie to ourselves. Maybe will see our craving for meat as a difficult to control urge like that of sex. It will take a long time to replace meat. Luckily, it appears that many people, especially the young, are embracing alternative, earth-friendly ways of filling their bellies.
The Way Forward
It is apparent that animal agriculture is suffering from reduced quality and efficiency over time. Meanwhile, plant-based meat offers an ever-improving path with greater gains-potential than conventional meat could possibly offer. If we ate less meat, we’d have more food than we’d know what to do with. We can easily avoid the havoc that eating animals will wreak upon the planet and our human bodies by switching to other sources of protein.
Making a Change
In order to make this reality, a host of systemic and cultural changes need to be made. Public research for the technology, regulations, support from food service, health organizations, environmental organizations, and government all play a part in the advancement of plant-based meat.
The Pace of Innovation
Large food companies have joined the fight and so begins the acceleration of meat substitute technology. While the two original startups pioneered the tech, the larger companies are now going to reverse engineer their products, reiterate them in countless ways (as seen with partially plant-based meat) and piggyback on the initial spike in innovation. As times goes on, the cost of production will increase, as well as quality and the world-wide distribution of the product.
Market acceptance is a hurdle that meat-substitute producers will likely always encounter. Until the big-spenders of the world adopt a truly healthy diet and a legitimate concern for the environment, we are going to keep doing business as usual. We cannot continue dedicating three quarters of our food production capabilities to eating animals. The people need to not only buy the product, they need to buy the concept. And already some massive marketing campaigns are underway to do just that.
A Meatless Movement
Maybe before you know it, all of this plant-based meat business will become a totally normal thing. To illustrate, imagine people talking about their favorite faux burgers to throw on the grill or about the best restaurant in town to get meatless burritos with all the various plant-based options. A revolution is afoot; farmers ought to stay alert, consumers ought to vote with their dollars, regulators ought to do their job, and the food companies that oversee our dinners and desserts ought to think really hard about their footprint on our planet and their impact on our lives.