What’s the Real Climate Impact of Eco-Friendly Meat Alternatives?

Meat substitutes have long been on many menus, yet meat consumption remains high. What is the "meat" of the future?

Global levels of meat consumption are still extremely high, putting pressure on other resources such as land and water and playing a significant role in increasing carbon emissions. A study by the German Environment Agency has taken a closer look at different meat alternatives that could lighten that load.

Author RESET :

Translation RESET , 09.15.20

The impact of our meat consumption on climate change is enormous. Livestock farming accounts for more than 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Large areas of forest are being cleared, mainly to grow animal feed products. While these processes release carbon dioxide, they also result in other emissions which can be even more harmful. 

Nitrous oxide is released through the fertilisers used to grow animal feed, and particularly high methane emissions occur during ruminant animals’ digestive process. These animals are also producing unmanageable amounts of manure, which eventually leaks into the soil, our waters and even the seas, driving up the nitrate content. This upsets the natural balance and can have serious consequences for flora and fauna. Overall, methane and nitrous oxide – pound for pound – are around 25 times more harmful than carbon dioxide.

Agriculture is also the largest consumer of freshwater in the world: around 30 percent of the water used worldwide is used for the production of animal products, including, once again, animal feed. The consumption of groundwater is extremely problematic and disrupts ecosystems. Partly due to the overuse of water resources, we are already experiencing a global water crisis. One thing is clear: meat consumption is enormously resource-intensive and thus has a considerable negative impact on our carbon footprint.

The “Meat” of the Future

All these issues have been long known to us. Nevertheless, levels meat consumption remains high. In 2019 it was 59.5 kilos per capita in Germany and around 80 and 90 kilograms per person across Western Europe consuming between 80 and 90 kilograms of meat per person. And across the world, the trend is rising. However, there has been some positive change too: The demand for meat alternatives has also increased significantly in recent years. Meat consumption is increasingly viewed critically not only from the perspective of animal welfare but also from that of climate change and the market demand for meat substitutes has resulted in them becoming standard staples in practically every supermarket.

The Institute for Innovation and Technology (IIT), Adelphi and the Ecologic Institute have compiled the trend report “Meat of the Future” on behalf of the German Environment Agency (UBA) and examined the environmental impact of various meat substitutes on the environment and health. The study explored the potential of plant-based meat substitutes, insects as food and in vitro meat. “What was surprising was the finding that there was no clear result in favour of a meat alternative,” Tobias Jetzke of the Institute for Innovation and Technology told RESET. Interestingly, this is especially true when it comes to their environmental impact. So it’s worth taking a closer look at what exactly that means.

Plant-Based Imitation Meat

The most common form of meat alternatives are vegetable-based products. The range of these such products is wide, which is why the study focuses exclusively on foods that try to imitate meat e.g. plant-based burgers or mince. The substitute product should look, smell, feel and taste like meat, as well as have a comparable protein content. Industrial processing of seitan, quorn (fermented mycelium of a certain type of mushroom), soya, lupines or peas is often the easiest way to achieve this.

Plant-based substitutes are now increasingly the norm and feature as part of many different dishes and traditional foods around the world. Tofu is just one example of something that now makes up part of a normal diet for many people. Products made from plants such as wheat or soya have a much smaller climate impact than conventionally produced meat. And they’re slightly ahead of the pack in the study too. As Tobias Jetzke explains: “Compared to conventional animal production, plant-based products perform better in terms of their environmental impact than edible insects or in vitro meat.” 

This is mainly due to the fact that they feed humans directly. In meat production, the same plants are first used as animal feed and lots of plant-derived calories are lost before they ever reach our plates. In addition, of course, there is the use of arable land, water and energy. For example, one kilo of soy-based meat substitute causes 2.8 kilograms of greenhouse gases, but for one kilo of “real” meat this number is anywhere between 4.1 and 30.5 kilograms. The bottom line is that although the life cycle assessment of meat substitutes is better, the products are not without their own problems.” As so often in life, this is what counts: Where do the vegetable raw materials come from? What is the degree of processing? What are the packaging sizes? Are vegetable alternatives consumed instead of meat products or as an occasional additional alternative? Ultimately, there are no easy answers to a very complex topic,” Jetzke continues. For example, soy rarely comes from organic farming and is often genetically modified. So here too, it is important not to shop blind.

Insect Meat

The study also looked at the potential for edible insects to become a substitute for meat. Insects can be raised and fed much more efficiently than animals, meaning less land and water is needed. The study indicates greenhouse gas emissions of three kilograms for one kilo of “insect meat” – a better result than traditional meat, but worse than the plant-based substitutes. However, marketing could pose a major stumbling block: While insects are already part of the diet in some parts of the world, selling insects as a tasty foodstuff is still a major challenge in the Western world, where a lot of the world’s meat consumption takes place. Insect products could be problematic for allergy sufferers.

Insects can be used as more than just a meat substitute too. For example, we previously reported on an initiative in Guatemala, which produces nutritious flour from insects which can be used to bake with. And the Indonesian startup Biteback is extracting oil from beetle larvae – which serves as a good alternative to palm oil and could help to reduce deforestation in the region.

In Vitro: Meat from the Lab

The third and most futuristic-sounding of the meat alternatives products looked at in the study is so-called in vitro meat – which derives its name from the Latin for ‘in glass’. Generally, this refers to meat produced in a laboratory, where animal tissue is cultivated with the aim of producing meat for human consumption on an industrial scale.

The University of Oslo is currently working on a particularly impressive project. A team of researchers wants to set up a biobank that will lay the foundation for the production of laboratory meat. The goal is a “frozen farm” where genetic material from farm animals is stored. From this, stem cells can be developed which serve as the starting point for synthetic meat. At the same time, endangered species could be revived by inserting stem cells into the egg of a closely related living species.

However, it is difficult to assess the life cycle assessment and health effects of in vitro meat, as research is not yet sufficiently advanced. Current forecasts suggest that the finished product would probably use less water and space, but significantly more energy, than conventional meat. “In vitro meat could play a greater role if, in addition to a competitive price, production conditions are perceived as more positive than for conventional meat,” explains Tobias Jetzke.

So How Do We Reduce Meat Consumption?

A major hurdle to some of these alternatives is consumer prejudice against the concept of a meat alternative, and of course, dietary tastes and the power of tradition when it comes to food and the culture around it. Jetzke discussed whether these could ever be overcome:

“In vitro meat is meat that is produced differently to conventional meat. Edible insects, on the other hand, are not offered to consumers as meat products, but as alternatives. It is therefore unclear whether consumers will fundamentally change their eating habits and reduce their meat consumption”. So, although insects could be an interesting alternative, if general meat consumption remains high, in vitro meat could be more viable in the long run.

“Meat substitutes made from plants, insects and in vitro meat could function as an important stepping stone for people when it comes to reducing their meat consumption, and they could help change people’s culturally-formed dietary habits,” explains Stephan Richter, also from the Institute for Innovation and Technology. So these kind of products likely do have the potential to contribute to a reduced-meat diet. However, the overall share of substitute products in the global meat market is still very small. Forecasts also show that the global turnover of the meat industry will continue to rise in the coming years. In order to really make progress in terms of climate impact, substitute plant products in particular would have to achieve a much larger market share – and looking at the current numbers, right now it seems there are still too few people willing to change what they put on their plate.

This is a translation by Mark Newton of an original article that first appeared on RESET’s German-language site.

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