Those fake-meat hamburgers might not be a planet-saver after all

Turning soybeans or peas into faux meat requires resources and choices that affect the environment, and those who have tried to calculate the impact suggest we might want to find another path.

MMBy Meghan McGeeSun., Jan. 23, 2022timer4 min. read

Bill Gates and Leonardo DiCaprio have invested heavily in two of the biggest plant-based meat-substitute companies, Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, part of the celebrity-driven movement urging consumers to help save the planet by switching to fake meat.

“The best way to reduce your carbon footprint, limit global warming, halt the collapse of biodiversity, save wildlife and ensure enough clean water for all of us is to ditch meat from animals,” says the Impossible Foods website. For its part Beyond Meat argues that ditching beef for their plant-based burgers can “positively affect the planet, the environment, the climate and even ourselves.”

Indeed, global livestock herds are estimated to be responsible for 15 per cent of emissions, contributing seven billion tonnes of CO2 per year, roughly the same as 1.5 billion cars.

But can abandoning beef for fake meat save the planet? Some experts aren’t convinced, and say plant-based food manufacturers might not be as green as they appear, cherry-picking metrics to make a marketing case.

“They focus on the CO2,” says Frédéric Leroy, a professor at Vrije Universiteit Brussel in Brussels, “but that’s a very limited view.” Sustainability metrics like soil health and biodiversity should be part of the calculation, he says.about:blank

Most fake-meat manufacturers use alternative proteins derived from soy or peas. These are grown in large fields comprising only that plant type, a practice known as monoculture farming.

“Monocultures will have impacts on soil erosion, they depend heavily on fossil fuels because of the fertilizers, and they’re a nightmare for biodiversity,” says Leroy.

Amie Peck, stakeholder engagement manager for the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, thinks it’s important to put the numbers into a Canadian context. This country’s beef industry is a global leader with one of the lowest carbon footprints, she says, pointing to a 2016 report by Deloitte that the association commissioned.

What’s more, the environmental benefits of beef production have been left out of the conversation, Peck says: Beef farmers and ranchers in Canada care for 35 million acres of native temperate grasslands, among the most endangered lands in the world, and which sequester 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon.

She agrees with the need to reduce environmental impacts, but isn’t convinced that eating less beef is the answer. If Canadians ate less beef, she argues, those grasslands would be plowed, releasing the sequestered carbon from the soil.

“You could actually see more emissions being released, you know, by not having cattle on the landscape than you ever would from reducing your meat consumption,” Peck says.

“We want to be part of the solution,” she continues. “We are very much committed to continuous improvement and that means a further reduction in emissions … Our target is a 33-per-cent reduction by 2030.”

One obstacle to determining the trade-offs is that plant-based food companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat do not report their overall environmental footprint, according to traditional measures.

Processing a soybean or a pea to a faux-meat burger is not a trivial exercise. Roquette, a key supplier of Beyond Meat’s pea protein, opened the largest pea plant in the world in Manitoba last month, occupying 27 hectares of land and running 60 kilometres of piping throughout the plant.

Sustainability research firm Sustainalytics, which evaluates companies based on their environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) performance, rates Beyond Meat a “severe risk,” no better than meat-producing giants, Cargill and JBS. Analysts at the firm studied the long ingredient list and argued for greater transparency about total emissions.

On the other hand, Impossible Foods CEO Pat Brown argues “there is no existing standard for recognizing positive-emissions impact that come from, you know, replacing something that is a problem with something that is better.”

He says Impossible Foods is a mission-driven company and reducing environmental impact is part of that mission. The company is constantly trying to cut its footprint, whether that’s by making the production facility net waste neutral, trimming consumer waste from packaging, or reducing its number of trucks.

“The whole reason this company exists honestly is, you know, to vastly reduce the environmental footprint of the food system and to make it better for everyone on the planet,” Brown tells the Star. (Accounting for every single change, he told The New York Times in October, “will make us less impactful because we’re wasting resources to satisfy an Excel jockey.”)

“The sustainability impact of our product is really in displacing beef burgers and that’s because of how awful and destructive and devastating beef production is for the planet,” says Arjun Lev Pillai Hausner, impact strategy specialist at Impossible Foods.

“Animals are incredibly inefficient at producing meat from plants,” Hausner continues. “You’re losing about nine out of every 10 calories or protein from that metabolic process.” Plant-based meat companies mimic the process of turning plants into meat, but cut out the animal as the middleman.

Researchers from Johns Hopkins University found the environmental impact of plant-based meats was much lower than beef for all sustainability metrics studied, looking at greenhouse-gas emissions, blue-water footprint, land use, pesticide use, water quality, and biodiversity impacts.

Plant-based meats were the clear winner over beef. But scientists argue it’s important to remember it’s not always appropriate to make this comparison.

Beef has the highest emissions, so “if that’s your point of reference, almost any alternative is going to look more sustainable,” says Raychel Santo, senior researcher at Johns Hopkins.

Plant-based fake meats can have a substantially higher environmental impact when compared to peas and other pulses. “It wouldn’t make sense to compare the environmental impacts of, you know, a plant-based chicken substitute to the environmental impacts of beef,” says Santo.

Further, “we’re not limited to a choice between conventional meats and meat substitutes,” says Santo. She argues we have other options, like less-processed legumes that have “even clearer health and environmental benefits.”Meghan McGee is a Toronto nutrition scientist and a fellow in the Certificate in Health Information at the University of Toronto.

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