By Submitted Article on July 22, 2020.
Submitted by Southern Alberta Group
for the Environment
Have you ever eaten a “Beyond Meat” burger? Is it better for the environment than the meat it replaces?
Livestock production for meat consumption is a huge topic, and the best choice for the environment depends a lot on the context: where the livestock was raised, how it was raised and what it was fed.
Livestock that is naturally grass-fed and raised in free-range conditions appropriate for the land use (like grazing lands in Alberta that previously sustained bison) provides meat with a low environmental impact. Unfortunately, we know that most animals for meat production are not raised under these conditions. We also know that as the standard of living for much of the world’s population rises, so does the consumption of meat.
Sustainability is the organizing principle for meeting human development goals while simultaneously maintaining the ability of natural systems to provide the natural resources and ecosystem services upon which the economy and society depend. The global increase in meat consumption is not sustainable. Part of the problem is the social and environmental impacts of industrial-scale agriculture; part of the problem is the inefficient conversion of plant crops to meat; and part of the problem is the environmental impact of intensive livestock operations.
Much of our meat is raised on soybeans, corn and barley as feed. The global increase in meat consumption has been accompanied by large increases in grain and soybean production. One-third of the world’s arable land grows industrial-scale crop monocultures dedicated to feed animals raised intensively for meat consumption. The conversion of rainforests and natural grasslands and the application of fertilizer and pesticides for animal feed is not environmentally friendly – it releases massive quantities of sequestered carbon to the atmosphere and it is wasteful of land, energy, water and clean air.
Meat consumption is mainly driven by culture, tradition and taste. The intermediate step of feeding plant crops to animals intended for human consumption is unnecessary and wasteful. Crops grown for meat production should instead be used to feed humans directly. Based on calories, six units of feed will convert to one unit of pork, and 12 units of feed will convert to one unit of beef. For poultry, the conversion is 2:1, which makes it a lower-impact source of protein, in general. The inefficient conversion of food energy from plants to meat will make it difficult to feed the human population of 10 billion expected by mid-century.
On Aug. 8, 2019, more than 100 leading researchers released a summary report on climate change and land through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The report describes plant-based diets as a major opportunity for mitigating and adapting to climate change, and includes policy recommendations to reduce meat consumption. The report states with high confidence that balanced diets featuring plant-based and sustainably produced sources of meat “present major opportunities for adaptation and mitigation while generating significant co-benefits in terms of human health.”
Have you ever eaten a Beyond Meat burger? In the last decade, plant-based foods have been developed to create alternatives for those accustomed to the taste of meat. A “Beyond Meat” burger has 18 ingredients, including: pea protein isolate, canola and coconut oil, rice protein, cocoa butter, mung bean protein, pomegranate fruit powder, and beet juice extract (to give the burger its meat-like “blood”). Is this an environmentally friendly substitute for meat? Can we make better choices with our meat consumption?
For more on this topic, please visit sage-environment.org.