Can Alt-Meats Contribute Positively to Climate Change?

By Frank-Jürgen Richter

September 13, 2021

The global population has trended north for several decades. And there are still about eight decades to go before population growth levels slow to their lowest rates – of about 0.1 percent annually. At that point, the global population is expected to number an estimated 11 billion people.

Coupled with rising incomes, there has been a corresponding increase in the demand for animal-based protein. In fact, the demand for meat has surged in recent decades with one study highlighting an almost 60 percent increase between 1990 and 2009 alone. Demand for animal-based protein is projected to grow further with the bulk of demand coming from emerging economies in Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America.

The Environmental Impact

Nutritionists underscore that animal-based proteins have been a key part of food security. Increased meat demand, meanwhile, set in motion a chain of events that do not bode well for climate change. It has spurred a growth in production facilities which, in turn, meant clearing of forests to make way for more grazing grounds or to grow animal feed. In addition, livestock farming is associated with high levels of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. GHG is directly associated with climate change.

What is even more alarming is the fact that much as the automobile industry receives the most flak for high emissions, it is actually livestock farming that accounts for the largest share. Eighteen percent of global GHG emissions—due to human activity—are traced to livestock farming. To put this into perspective, this is more than the combined emissions of all modes of transportation spanning ships, trains, aircrafts, and automobiles.

Besides land and water degradation, livestock farming also leads to biodiversity losses and deforestation. Producing one kilogram of beef requires as much as 25 kilograms of feed and a staggering 15,000 liters of water. This sector accounts for as much as 77 percent of all agricultural land globally but only caters to 17 percent of total food supply.

A lesser-known threat is eutrophication – a leading contributor to water quality deterioration. This phenomenon is a result of nitrogen and phosphorous—that are by-products of livestock farming—contaminating waterways. It fosters rapid algae growth that suffocates aquatic life. In Australia, for instance, eutrophication is negatively impacting the Great Barrier Reef.

The perils arising from climate change are all too serious. Even the recent landfall by Hurricane Ida in the US was purported to be an effect of climate change. Events such as floods, droughts and heat waves are rising in occurrence and they pose among the greatest threats to humanity. Amid the dangers, but while accommodating the demand for protein, what are possible sustainable routes? What steps could possibly lead to a win-win situation?

Plant Based Meat Substitutes

The demand for increased protein consumption need not necessarily only be animal derived. Rather, there are a range of plant-based substitutes that are positioning themselves as faux meat. This segment is also termed as alternative meat or alt-meat. The offerings are similar in appearance, texture, and taste. And they’re fast gaining popularity.  

Plant based meat substitutes are not a modern innovation. In fact, John Harvey Kellogg—of the Kelloggs cereal fame—introduced a peanut based alternative as early as 1896. He called it Nuttose. Another meat alternative called Protose, from the house of Kellogg, remained in production for over a century; it was only discontinued in 2000.

Alt-meats use a fraction of the resources that are otherwise necessary for production of animal-based products. They account for very low GHG emissions while requiring significantly less land usage. Vast land masses, that are now used as pastures can possibly be earmarked for afforestation or to build solar or wind farms. Water usage is also significantly less and with aquifers globally already under heavy stress, less dependence on livestock products will mean greater water security.

Exercising Moderation is Key

Plant based alternatives are definitely safer for the environment and towards mitigating the ill effects of climate change. With growing awareness about individual carbon footprints, many are taking personal responsibility to reduce their impact. And while opting for alt-meats is a definite step towards less emissions, it must be understood that these are far from perfect. Alt-meats are not a solution that ensure a complete win-win in terms of being environmentally friendly while satiating the demand for animal-based proteins.

Alt-meats have high sodium levels. Not only does it make them more palatable but it also ensures longer shelf lives. A high sodium diet, meanwhile, is known to cause serious health complications. Alt-meats are also highly processed – meaning they use refined products and modified food starch. The key then is to exercise moderation, while making a conscious effort to prioritize on mitigating actions that affect climate change negatively. Going forward, finding the right balance will be key.

Photo Caption: Soya based burger patty. Plant based meat is gaining popularity around the world.