American livestock cultivation is on an unsustainable course that will destroy the planet. Currently, the United States devotes 592,000,000 football fields or the landmass of Alaska, Texas, California, and Arizona combined just to raise livestock. That’s 41% of all its land, and in 2019 alone those animals produced greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to the weight of 12,540 Titanics or 13 million Apollo 11 rockets. These spectacular comparisons paint a grim picture of the future of American agriculture, but the scope of production is not the only issue. Clinical professors Christopher Schlottmann and Jeff Sebo explain that there is a net-energy deficit that is endemic to the process of raising livestock. For example, the fossil fuel energy inputs required to raise a broiler chicken, the most efficient animal to farm, are four times greater than the energy output that those chickens transfer to individuals (Schlottmann and Sebo 73). In the face of a growing population, runaway climate change, and this tough reality many have become politically nihilistic. To them, livestock-based dietary preferences have been solidified over millennia, and decoupling from them is nearly impossible. Despite that forbidding outlook, Rebecca Solnit would encourage society to have hope. To her, “hope doesn’t mean denying these realities. It means … addressing them by remembering … the movements, heroes and shifts in consciousness that address these things now” (Solnit). Despite the pessimism and opposition to plant-based meats, that shift in consumer consciousness is all society needs to make important headway in addressing climate change.
Genuine plant-based meat alternatives are no longer a fantasy: they are becoming increasingly available, and they have the potential to replace meat in everyday diets. 2020 was a landmark year for these plant-based alternatives. The burgeoning market saw $1.4 billion in sales and a 75% increase in revenue from 2019 (Poinski). Market indicators are pointing towards increased consumer adoption as the price and taste of the products continue to equalize with comparable meat products. This is a pertinent development. Emeritus Professor of Environmental Studies, David Cleveland, explains that the current rate of meat consumption “must be stabilized or even reversed to avoid a greater than 2°C … increase in average global temperature, which would be catastrophic” (Cleveland 136). For reference, for every additional .5°C of warming above the 2°C target another 10 million people lose their homes to rising sea levels (McGrath). Sustainable plant-based meats have the potential to stem this tide because they disrupt and are direct competitors with legacy livestock manufacturers. Companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meats, for example, have formulated vegan burger patties that emulate the taste and texture of a traditional beef rival. The goal for these companies is to compete at the point of purchase so that when individuals are forced to pick between plant-based and traditional options they opt for the ones that are more sustainable. Plant-based options, however, are not just limited to beef and burgers. Startups like Just Eggs are using mung beans to create non-environmentally taxing alternatives to eggs. These innovations, however, are expensive and they force startups to sell their products at a premium compared to their competitors.
The issue with plant-based meat alternatives lies in getting individuals to make the switch from standard meat products. Beyond the cost and ingrained cultural factors that encourage consuming traditional meat products, industry leaders like John Mackey and Brian Niccol, the respective CEOs of Whole Foods and Chipotle, are stoking the skeptic flame by arguing that these new dietary options are products of the junk science that is encouraging American families to introduce processed foods into their diets (Piper). To an extent they are right. Many plant-based meats are created in labs. They are wrong, however, to assume that in light of this, these options are unhealthy. Elena Hemler, a senior research project coordinator at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and Frank Hu, a professor of nutrition at Harvard Medical School, explain that the “saturated fat (mainly found in animal foods) relative to unsaturated fats (mainly found in plant foods) is associated with a higher risk of CVD [cardiovascular diseases] and overall mortality” (Hemler and Hu 224). Furthermore, they explain that making the switch to the alternatives would be healthier because “substituting animal protein with plant protein can reduce risk of chronic diseases and mortality” (224). Beyond the actual nutritional qualities surrounding plant-based meats, no evidence substantiates that the lab processes involved in making these alternatives substantially change or undermine any of the benefits associated with plant-based ingredients. Other critics like Marco Springmann, an environmental researcher at the University of Oxford, accept that this manufacturing process does not affect the nutritional value of the meat alternative, but they contest that it is environmentally advantageous. They claim that producing faux burger patties, for example, is incredibly energy-intensive and thus still emits large quantities of greenhouse gas. This criticism is misguided. Experts like Benjamin Goldstein, a post-doctoral research fellow with degrees in environmental and chemical engineering, explain that technology can “produce beef substitutes at a fraction of the environmental and resource costs of traditional beef” (Goldstein et al. 2). Furthermore, those critics are also short-sighted. In the status quo, the primary source of emissions in the production of alternative meats is associated with energy consumption during the manufacturing process. This raises an important distinction. In the production of beef, for example, cow excrements are the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. Those emissions are impossible to eliminate because the source is intrinsic to the process of raising the cattle. In producing plant-based meats, however, energy is an extrinsic factor that the companies cannot control. As American society adapts to the reality that fossil fuels are untenable, they will inevitably transition to clean energy, and the carbon footprint of companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods will, in turn, decrease.
As these brands in the plant-based meat alternatives market continue to grow, consumer consciousness about and commitment to the product will follow. The truth is that most of these alternatives have just entered the market, and many consumers are unaware of the health and environmental benefits that they provide over their real meat competitors. Nonetheless, there is hope and the horizon looks bright for these companies. For one, the market believes that these alternatives are going to succeed. For instance, Beyond Meats, a public company since 2019, has a market capitalization of over $4 billion despite its revenue only totaling $400 million. When a stock trades with a market capitalization that is ten times greater than its revenue it indicates that analysts and investors alike are optimistic about growth and see great gains in the future (Trefis). Even if they are wrong, macro-level societal trends still point in the right direction because “ideas at first considered outrageous or ridiculous or extreme gradually become what people think they’ve always believed” (Solnit). This is also the case for plant-based meat alternatives. Jihye You, a senior researcher at Seoul National University, conducted a quantitative study focused on consumer patterns surrounding the purchase of meat alternatives. Her research revealed “that the knowledge of alternative meat has a positive effect on each cultured meat and plant-based meat. It means that creating environments where consumers could get related information could be critical” (You et al. 10). Moreover, the study revealed a linear relationship where “if consumers received information about alternative meat, then they were more likely to try or purchase” (10). This dissemination of information has started to pick up the pace. Established fast food giants like Burger King and Carl’s Jr for example, recently introduced plant-based Impossible burgers to their menu. These additions not only have the potential to decrease the amount of beef sold at their franchises, but they also help to spread the word that these alternatives exist. It’s a win-win for both sides. For Burger King and Carl’s Jr, the addition of the new products increases their revenue because “consumers respond to ethical viewpoints, including sustainability” (11), while for Impossible Foods and Beyond Meats they get to increase the extent to which consumers are conscious about the comparative health and environmental benefits of their product. This trend will only continue as plant-based meat alternatives enter more grocery stores and build a cultural following of their own. One example of these movements, #MeatlessMonday, demonstrates how initiatives that are centered around sustainability can quickly gain momentum. What separates these movements from those of the past is that there is a multitude of genuinely tasty alternatives that decrease the barrier to entry.
Once these alternative products reach a level of mass adoption, they will help the United States decrease its climate footprint. There is a direct correlation between mass acceptance and sustainability. Goldstein’s analytical study projects that “a hypothetical 10% introduction of PBB [plant-based burgers] … would net annual reductions of 4.6–9.1 Mt [Million Tonnes] CO2 GHG emissions … this is the equivalent of removing 1.1–2.2 million cars from American roads annually” (Goldstein et al. 7). These statistics illustrate the revolutionary potential of plant-based meat alternatives. What’s more is that Goldstein’s study only assumes plant-based burgers and thus does not factor in other products such as plant-based eggs, chicken tenders, or sausages. All those products also have a similar capacity to decrease emissions and the overall strain on the environment. Furthermore, 10% is a modest estimate in the long term. As more and more products are introduced, there is a potential to increase market penetration far beyond that estimate. For example, if every family in the United States participated in a #MeatlessMonday or substituted plant-based alternatives just one day out of the week that would already be a 14.2% substitution. The impacts of this transition are not limited to emissions reduction: Katherine Richardson, a professor of biological oceanography, for example, attributes “~72% of deforestation to the conversion of land to livestock use” (Richardson 10). Much of this occurs in the global south in regions like the Amazon rainforest, the Cerrado, and African countries like Tanzania. Many of these projects are not only clearing space for a major source of pollutants, cattle, but they are also destroying biodiversity and the “lungs of the earth.” While it is true that non-livestock-based agriculture also contributes to deforestation, substituting plant-based alternatives for poultry and red meat can generate more free land and prevent further damage. The late emeritus professor Anthony McMichael explains that “feeding a population on a diet of animal protein requires an order of magnitude more farmland than does a diet of plant protein” (McMichael et al. 7). The result is that the two acres that it took to raise a single cow can now be devoted to producing a dramatically larger number of faux burgers, chicken nuggets, or sausage patties. Furthermore, the land required to produce these plant-based alternatives will only decrease as technologies like vertical farming are integrated into America’s agricultural infrastructure.
It’s true. The landmass of 592,000,000 football fields and the weight of 12540 Titanics
are incredibly large, but they are nothing compared to the unquantifiable threat of climate change. Warming temperatures promise to submerge nations, destroy homes, and create unlivable hot zones. While numerous factors contribute to the deterioration of the environment, there is no perfect solution for all of them. Instead, the moment demands unilateral action on all fronts. For car companies that might involve electrifying their fleet, and for energy companies that probably means investing in renewables. For individual consumers, it necessitates making sustainable dietary choices. For that reason, there is hope. While in years past it was difficult to stay away from a juicy burger, there is a new cash cow on the block: plant-based meat alternatives.
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