Meat Alternatives Are Not a Silver Bullet

Scientists say plant-based and cell-grown meats are complicated – but still better than conventionally farmed meat.

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test tube with meat
A test tube with meat.

AndreyPopov/Getty Images

The world of meat has changed rapidly in recent years. Where people once had to choose between beef, pork, poultry, and seafood, they now can opt for a range of interesting plant-based meat alternatives that resemble meat in appearance and texture without containing any animal products, such as the Impossible Burger. There is also anticipation about cell-based meats becoming available in the near future; these are grown in a laboratory from animal stem cells using tissue engineering techniques. 

It's a known fact that we have to reduce the amount of meat we consume in order to slow the climate crisis, since livestock production is responsible for 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). Conventional meat production (and beef, in particular) is resource-intensive; it can be cruel to animals; and it often has a detrimental effect on natural surroundings. Furthermore, a reduction in red and processed meat consumption has been called for to reduce the risk of chronic diseases. So it's no wonder that people are excited about the new alternatives, eager to get behind them as soon as they're available.

But in a new study from Johns Hopkins University, a group of scientists has pointed out that perhaps we should stop and think twice before assuming that anything non-meat-based will solve all the problems. These alternatives are complex products with diverse inputs and long supply chains, with environmental impacts all of their own. While the researchers conclude that meat alternatives are better than farmed meat, they need a more in-depth analysis than what they've received to date. 

The study, published in the journal Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, is titled "Considering Plant-Based Meat Substitutes and Cell-Based Meats: A Public Health and Food Systems Perspective." It outlines and compares the differences between plant-based meat substitutes made from vegetable protein, cell-grown meats, and meat that comes from farmed animals, analyzing each one from the perspective of public health, animal welfare, economic and policy implications, and environmentalism. The result is a fascinating, in-depth study that's highly readable and informative.

The first big takeaway is that "many of the purported environmental and health benefits of cell-based meat are largely speculative." No commercial products are available yet, and companies have so many proprietary secrets, that it's difficult to analyze it fully. Furthermore, "much of the existing research on plant-based substitutes and cell-based meats has been funded or commissioned by companies developing these products," which may call into question its objectivity.

lab-grown chicken on a plate
©. Memphis Meats

Another takeaway is that none of the potential public health, environmental, and animal welfare benefits of these alternatives will be realized unless they offset current consumption of animal meat. We don't want a situation where we are "simply adding to the combined total production of farmed meat and meat alternatives." The goal is to pare down, rather than continue in the current trajectory which has seen meat consumption grow twice as fast as the rate of population growth over the past half-century.

The researchers found that plant-based meat alternatives have a lower carbon footprint than conventional meat but higher than less-processed plant proteins, such as beans and legumes. Cell-based meat has a significantly higher carbon footprint and uses more water and energy than plant-based meat alternatives and most farmed meats, except for beef and farmed seafood. From the study:

"Given that a large proportion of the GHG footprint of plant-based substitutes and cell-based meat comes from the energy required to manufacture the products, these footprints could theoretically decrease if the energy grid were decarbonized. By contrast, significant reductions in the GHG-intensity of livestock production seem unlikely."

Are people too quick to jump on the meat alternatives bandwagon? Not necessarily. Study author Raychel Santo told Treehugger that almost any alternative is better than conventionally farmed beef. While some processes and ingredients do need further research in terms of long-term health impacts, it's clear that most plant-based alternatives can provide substantial environmental benefits over beef.

"Compared to farmed pork, poultry, eggs, and some types of seafood, the environmental benefits are still there in most cases but less pronounced. Given the clear urgency to reduce meat consumption, particularly in high-income countries, it’s understandable that meat substitutes are gaining traction, with the caveat that less processed legumes have even clearer health and environmental benefits."

Which takes us to another point made in the study – that opting for beans and legumes wins in pretty much every category of the analysis. They're nutritious, minimally processed, environmentally sound, and affordable. Santo tells Treehugger that it doesn't mean there's no role for meat alternatives as part of a larger strategy toward reducing meat consumption:

"Meat alternatives can be a good gateway food for people who enjoy farmed meat to begin experimenting with more plant-based proteins. They can also add variety to one’s diet and may be more convenient to prepare."
Impossible Burger sliders
Phillip Faraone / Getty Images

The study talks about byproducts of the meat industry that would be affected by a large-scale withdrawal from farmed meat production. Industries such as wool, cosmetics, pet food, vaccines, and other therapeutic substances are currently intimately tied to meat. So is the mental wellbeing of countless U.S. farmers, who have been facing an underreported suicide crisis of late. Should cell-based production move to urban areas, it could drive further disintegration of rural economies and cause great hardship to many. These concerns are not being used as a justification not to develop meat alternatives, but do merit consideration. 

The conclusion? It's important to remain "cautious and nuanced" in discussing the merits of plant-based substitutes and cell-grown meats over farmed. As with every big problem, we should not assume that "they will solve our current challenges without any drawbacks."

View Article Sources
  1. Grossi, Giampiero et al. "Livestock And Climate Change: Impact Of Livestock On Climate And Mitigation Strategies". Animal Frontiers, vol 9, no. 1, 2018, pp. 69-76. Oxford University Press (OUP), doi:10.1093/af/vfy034.

  2. Northwestern University. "Eating red meat and processed meat hikes heart disease and death risk, study finds." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 3 February 2020.

  3. Santo, Raychel E. et al. "Considering Plant-Based Meat Substitutes And Cell-Based Meats: A Public Health And Food Systems Perspective". Frontiers In Sustainable Food Systems, vol 4, 2020. Frontiers Media SA, doi:10.3389/fsufs.2020.00134.