I’ve talked many times about how eating a vegan or plant-based or less-meat diet can be beneficial to the planet and I outline exactly why that is in this video here. But, I’ve often seen the argument about plant-based meats not being eco-friendly. I’ve never really known much about the industry for myself, so let’s explore it together. I made that original video assuming most people would eat a whole-food plant-based diet and not just eat beyond meat at every meal. So, let’s see if we can find out the impact of eating plant-based meats.
First, packaging. I know, I know, most of it contains at least some plastic, but it is still less plastic than animal meats. Because of the bacteria content found in animal meats, they have to be packaged on a styrofoam dish with that little absorber thing underneath and then wrapped in thin plastic. All of this is very hard to recycle even if cleaned. Plant-meats on the other hand don’t harbor nearly as much, if any, bacteria like animal meats do. So, they don’t require as much packaging. In fact, beyond meat comes in cardboard trays that can be wiped off and recycled but it still contains that thin plastic. Though, I have seen some brands package things like plant-based nuggets in cardboard with no plastic at all!
So, yes, plastic packaging still exists with plant-based alternatives, but it seems to be considerably less.
Like I talked about in that other video, animal ag makes up about 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions according to the UN. Beef and dairy cattle alone make up 65% of all emissions coming from animal ag. So, but cutting out some beef and replacing it with plant-meats, you’ll reduce your emissions, right? Actually, yes! In comparison, beef ranges anywhere from 10.2 to 48.5 kg of CO2 per kg of beef while plant-based meats range from about 3.2-3.5 kg of CO2 emissions per kg of product. So, this can reduce greenhouse gas emissions anywhere from 30-90% per kg of product.
This is the real kicker with animal ag. Not only do the cows (in this instance) take up a large amount of room, but they require a lot more food than we do. Because they require more food to be grown, this means the land-use is much higher. Raising animals for us to eat requires about 77% of the world’s agricultural land but this only accounts for 17% of the world’s food. But, this is where animal-based meats and plant-based meats might be a bit more similar in terms of nutrition. When considering amino acid content and nutrient density, animal foods are “more readily able to meet our needs for these nutrients” so when comparing land-use to nutrients we get from this land, the two types of meat might be more equal. But, in terms of actual land use and not just looking at nutrients, plant-based meats use anywhere from 47-99% less land.
Just like with land, animal ag consumes a big portion of the world’s freshwater. In fact, animal ag requires 1/3 of all water used for all ag, not just animal ag. Just like with land use, animals require a lot of water themselves but also a lot of water to grow their food. Animal ag requires about 36-74 trillion gallons of water per year in the US alone, most used just for growing their food. It takes a lot less plants to feed a human than it does a cow. Not to mention, cows also drink more water. All this considered, plant-based meats use anywhere from 72-99% less water than animal meats.
I first heard about eutrophication in Shelbizleee’s video about a month ago. Eutrophication occurs when nitrogen and phosphorus runoff into waterways and eventually into the ocean leading to excess algal blooms which in turn suffocate aquatic life leading to dead zones. This is largely in part due to animal ag and their waste. Not to mention, all the pesticides and herbicides that go into growing their food. Yes, of course, plant-based meats consume fertilizer in the growing of those plants, but, like we just learned, we don’t require as many plants to feed us as would be needed to feed a cow, so, in turn, fewer fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides are used to produce plant-based meats. Not to mention, there is no manure just sitting around during plant farming so there is considerably less if any eutrophication. Plant-based meats actually reduce pollution of this kind by 51-91%.
Along these lines are antibiotics. This video here is a bit old, but I talked about how animal ag is leading to antibiotic resistance. That is because animal ag uses about 70% of antibiotics in the US. You can also read more about antibiotic resistance here. So, plant-based meats can decrease this as well. I threw this in this category because antibiotics from animal waste can end up in our groundwater and soil.
Are plant-based meats sustainable?
In short, yes plant-based meats are more sustainable than animal meats. I think making the switch is a fantastic first step, but like with everything else, we shouldn’t be overconsuming. If someone eats plant-based meats at every meal that is still a lot of water, land, and packaging use. Yes, it’s better, but it’s still not the best.
If you’re looking to achieve the lowest carbon footprint, or just to lower it in general, then look towards a whole-foods plant-based diet. But, try to shop locally and package free. Food is tricky when it comes to talking about an environmental footprint because we need food to live. So, if you have the privilege to change your diet to a more sustainable one, I encourage you to do so. Not everyone can eat vegan (you can learn more about that here), so I’m not trying to convince anyone to be vegan. But, if you are looking to reduce your carbon footprint, the best way (in my unprofessional opinion) if to eat WFPB and as local as possible as well as in season. Yes, some food might be grown locally like strawberries, but in the winter they are not seasonal, so it’s actually a higher environmental footprint. But, that’s a story for another day. Let me know down below if you’d be interested in a video talking about that.
I hope that this was helpful and got you thinking about how the standard American diet actually is not sustainable. Again, you don’t have to go vegan, but consider reducing your meat intake. Even eating plant-based meats is more sustainable!
Thank you so much for reading along and until next time, remember that your small changes have a big impact in the long run :)