Want a Climate-Friendly Diet? Eat More Insects and Imitation Meats.

CC BY 2.0. Stacy Spenseley -- A bowl of cubed tempeh

Researchers compare environmental impacts of several meat alternatives.

Animal agriculture is responsible for roughly 12 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. This number varies slightly according to the source, but it appears to be roughly equivalent to that of the entire transportation industry. In other words, by cutting meat and dairy out of your diet, you could do a lot more good for the planet than swapping your car for a bicycle or even swearing off air travel.

The problem is that global meat consumption is on the rise. As people gain wealth, they eat more meat; and with Western nations exhibiting such excessive meat consumption, that has become an unhealthy and dangerous standard to which many developing nations aspire. Increased meat consumption brings serious ethical, health, and environmental concerns.

A group of researchers from the University of Edinburgh have examined how eating meat alternatives could potentially benefit the planet. They asked: If every person were to replace 50 percent of current animal products with alternatives – specifically, insects, cultured meat, imitation meat, and aquaculture – what effect would that have on the planet?

What they found is interesting. Insects and imitation meats are the most planet-friendly options out of the four alternatives listed above: “If half of traditional animal products were replaced by imitation meat or insects, the land required to produce the world’s food would be slashed by a third.”

Cultured meat, a.k.a. in vitro meat, is often cited as a hopeful solution to animal agriculture, but the researchers found its efficiency to be uncertain, since there are no commercial-scale processes available yet.

Aquaculture has varying feed conversion ratios, with certain species like tilapia and carp being more environmentally friendly than salmon, for example, which eats five times the quantity of fish (as feed) than it ultimately provides. The study states, however, that “limitations on the sustainable sourcing of feed represents a barrier to increases in farmed carnivorous fish, making substantial substitution with existing animal products less likely.”

So, insects and imitation meats it is, but that raises other problems – primarily, that people in the meat-centric United States (where dietary changes are most desperately needed) are not inclined to eat them. Insects are not part of the traditional diet, and imitation meats are viewed as inferior and “non-masculine.” The study authors remain hopeful, nonetheless, pointing out that other delicious foods were once disparaged:

“Tomatoes in Britain were widely viewed with suspicion and dismissed for over 200 years. Similarly, lobster in America was initially a poverty food eaten by slaves and prisoners, and used as fertilizer and fish bait, due to their abundance. It wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that lobster developed a status as a luxury food, supported by the expansion of the U.S. railway network giving access to new markets.”

If you’re not feeling brave, then the best and simplest solution, according to lead author Peter Alexander, is to eat less meat. Don’t replace it with anything; just cut back. He told The Guardian:

“The West needs to eat less meat – though not none, I am not in favor of global vegetarianism – while allowing other countries with relatively low meat consumption to increase theirs.”

His approach aligns with the growing popularity of ‘reducetarianism’ – the idea that climate progress can be made through small, incremental dietary changes, and that people should not be punished (or let off the hook) for not choosing an all-out plant-based diet.

This research is valuable because it reminds us of the power of our food choices, and how every non-animal-based meal is a step in the right direction. Choose tofu, textured vegetable protein, crickets, or mealworms the next time you’re ordering, and you’ll find it gets easier every time.