Fake it ‘til you make it: faux meat and climate change

no-meat-pictureIf it tastes like a burger, and bleeds like a burger, it must be . . . plant-based protein?

At least that’s the outcome fake-meat innovators like Impossible Burger are striving for: a meatless burger that captures the textures and flavors of meat to whet the appetite of even the staunchest carnivores.

In fact, the fake meat industry’s approach might be working. Whether for health, environmental, or ethical reasons, more people are tossing veggie burgers on the grill. Food giants like Tyson are taking notice: last year, Tyson bought a 5% stake in Beyond Meat. Google’s Eric Schmidt even identified plant-based proteins as the number one “game-changing” trend of the future.

The growth of the fake meat industry is good news for climate change. After all, the world’s appetite for meat drives 14.5% of total greenhouse gas emissions. According to a U.N. report, factory-farmed animals contribute more to climate change than all the world’s cars, trucks, trains, planes, and ships combined. Having each American replace chicken with plant-based foods at just one meal per week is equivalent to taking more than half a million cars off U.S. roads.

Further, feeding huge numbers of confined animals uses more food than it produces. And while some cultures may be willing to eat insects to cut the impact of livestock on our planet, this option does not seem compatible with–or palatable to–the tastes of Western nations.

The incredible impact of factory farming adds up when you take a hard look at demand. For example, Americans eat three times the recommended level of meat. Given meat’s impact on climate, eating “like an American” is beyond sustainable. “Even in doing everything we can to reduce the emissions associated with meat production, rising demand means livestock emissions would take us beyond the global objective of 2ºC,” said Rob Bailey, a research director at the think tank Chatham House. “Therefore, dietary change is a precondition for avoiding catastrophic climate change.”

Even the UN Climate Change Conferences recognize the importance of dietary change. In addition to focusing on low-carbon and free range food, COP 23 plans to serve a higher share of vegetarian and vegan food than at past sessions.

In changing people’s diets, using “nanny statism“ to tax dairy and meat products–while theoretically effective–may rub Western nations the wrong way. Given the personal choice and cultural intricacies involved in making dinner, “it is not the place of governments or civil society to intrude into people’s lives and tell them what to eat.”

But the fake meat industry might just bring home the bacon. With more and more palatable options, and the withering taboo of veggie burgers for “radical vegetarians,” free market innovation is helping carnivore nations put more plant-based foods on the table. If the fake meat industry puts out a good spread, it could spark a marked drop in greenhouse gas emissions and help feed the world along the way.


Eating for personal and planetary health

A study just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) reaffirms that reducing meat consumption can improve your health and lower your carbon footprint. It starts with the premise that the food system accounts for more than 25% of GHG emissions (80% associated with livestock production) and that poor eating habits contribute to more than a billion people worldwide whose obesity put them at risk of premature death.  Hypothesizing that “simply” changing diets might have more impact than other mitigation options, the study looked at four ways of eating (from status quo to vegan), and assessed the impacts of implementing them regionally, in terms of GHG emissions, health effects, and costs.

The results:

  • On health:  Compared with the reference scenario, following global dietary guidelines (HGD) would result in 5.1 million avoided deaths per year and 79 million years of life saved. For the vegetarian diet, 7.3 million avoided deaths and 114 million life years saved, and for the vegan diet, 8.1 million avoided deaths and 129 million life years saved.

CC diet PNAS

  • On GHG emissions:  Compared with the projected GHG emissions from food consumption in 2050 (which are expected to increase 51% over 2005/07 reference level), following HGD would result in a 29% reduction (or 7% increase from 2005/2007 reference). For the vegetarian and vegan diets, GHG emissions reductions were 63–70% below the 2050 level (45–55% lower than the 2005/2007 level).

For more on the costs savings, both in terms of health and environment, as well as more details on the methodology, read here.