According to a study conducted by the University of California at UC Davis, livestock is responsible for 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gases. The study also found that animal-based foods have a bigger carbon footprint than plant-based foods.
In the United States, cows and other ruminants account for just 4 percent of all greenhouse gases produced while beef cattle represents just 2 percent of direct emissions. Another study by Food and Agriculture Organizations of the United Nations also found that farming of livestock is responsible for 14.5% of global greenhouse gases.
To address the dangers of climate change, companies are beginning to rethink their farming practices and more people are switching to sustainable and most environmentally friendly meats like alternative meat products and plant-based foods like plant meats, cheeses, and milk. In addition, we’ve also seen a rise in new food tech startups like Impossible Foods, Planted, among others.
Before we dive in, it is important to discuss the two major types of alternative meats: plant-based protein and cell-based protein (also called cultured meat). In plant-based protein products like the Impossible Burger or Beyond Burger, protein is extracted and isolated from the plant, then combined with other plant-based ingredients with the goal of making the product taste like regular meat.
In cell-based meat, an animal cell is extracted from an animal and grown in a lab culture to create a piece of meat. cell-based beef is then created after scientists painlessly harvest muscle cells from a living cow. Scientists then feed and nurture the cells so they multiply to create muscle tissue, which is the main component of the meat we eat. After six weeks, cell-based meat is created, which is biologically the same as the meat tissue that comes from a cow. JUST Meat and Memphis Meats are two popular examples of startup companies growing cell-based meat.
As the popularity of fake meat rises, people are beginning to ask: Are plant-based meats really better for the environment? No. In a study published in Nature titled, “Options for keeping the food system within environmental limits,” Marco Springmann, a senior researcher with the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food, said that he’s skeptical of how effective these factory-produced meat alternatives will be in changing the food system. Here is how the authors described their findings:
“We analyse several options for reducing the environmental effects of the food system, including dietary changes towards healthier, more plant-based diets, improvements in technologies and management, and reductions in food loss and waste. We find that no single measure is enough to keep these effects within all planetary boundaries simultaneously, and that a synergistic combination of measures will be needed to sufficiently mitigate the projected increase in environmental pressures.”
“Those companies make wild claims, but they don’t back that up with any independent attestment,” Springmann said. “Their claims are based on third-party potential estimates of emissions.”
Citing Springmann, NBC News wrote:
“Even if meat alternative companies back their products up with more studies, they don’t offer the best emissions solution. Cellular-based meat alternatives release five times the emissions as chicken, putting their emissions just under beef. Plant-based meat alternatives produce the same amount of emissions as chicken — which are about five times the emissions of legumes and vegetables.”
As for the food-tech startup companies like Impossible Burger, here is what Springmann said, according to a report from CNBC:
“Beyond and Impossible go somewhere towards reducing your carbon footprint, but saying it’s the most climate friendly thing to do — that’s a false promise.”
Springmann said that Beyond and Impossible need to better assess their carbon footprint, saying that these companies make claims about sustainability that they do not sufficiently back with data.
So, where do we go from here? Per NBC, Springmann recommends “a flexitarian diet heavy on vegetables and legumes with a heavily reduced portion of meat.” Springmann concludes that the heavy reduction in meat consumption presents a steep learning curve for much of the global population. But it’s not infeasible. “It’s about perspective and spices.”
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