Plant-based meat has gone mainstream. The Impossible Burger, which debuted at a single restaurant five years ago, is now on Burger King’s permanent menu. And McDonald’s is testing its McPlant burger, featuring a Beyond Meat patty, in select US locations. Both plant-based startups are now veterans in a product category that did $1.4 billion in sales and grew 27 percent in 2020.
Under the tagline “Eat Meat. Save the Planet,” Impossible Foods claims its soy-based burger uses 87 percent less water, takes 96 percent less land, and has 89 percent lower greenhouse gas emissions than a beef burger. Beyond Meat makes similar claims about its pea-based burgers.
This matters because animal agriculture contributes around 15 percent of global greenhouse emissions, and experts agree that without a major shift away from meat in our diets, we won’t be able to meet the global community’s climate targets. The promise of plant-based faux meats is that consumers will be able to keep enjoying the foods they love, but with a far lower climate footprint.
But an increasing number of researchers, food critics, and environmental groups are casting doubt on these types of claims, warning that faux meat production still relies on industrial farming practices. They claim that we don’t know enough about these relatively new products to say for certain if they’re better for the environment than the meat they are trying to replace.
One recent whitepaper from an environmental NGO states that the above claims from faux meat companies “are unproven, and some clearly untrue.” A sustainability analyst quoted in the New York Times goes further, claiming that the companies’ secrecy about their production methods means that “We don’t feel we have sufficient information to say Beyond Meat is fundamentally different from JBS.” (JBS is the world’s largest meat producer).
But years of research on the environmental impact of food make one thing clear: Plant proteins, even if processed into imitation burgers, have smaller climate, water, and land impacts than conventional meats. Apart from environmental impact, reducing meat production would also reduce animal suffering and the risk of both animal-borne disease and antibiotic resistance. The criticisms against the new wave of meatless meat appear to be more rooted in broad opposition to food technology rather than a true environmental accounting — and they muddy the waters in the search for climate solutions at a time when clarity is sorely needed.
The climate impact of animal meat versus plant-based meat, explained
Americans eat well over 200 pounds of meat each per year, and it’s accelerating us along a collision course with climate catastrophe. While many other countries eat far less meat, global appetites are catching up quickly, spurred especially by the growing affluence of the rising middle class in Asia and Latin America.
Fossil fuels do make up a far greater proportion of emissions in the US and globally, but even if we reduced energy emissions down to zero, demand for meat and dairy alone could make us exceed critical levels of global warming. That makes shifting diets away from meat a critical tool in preventing global temperatures from rising above 1.5°C or 2°C by 2100.
There are a number of reasons for meat’s outsized ecological footprint. The first is that cows belch out methane created from fermenting grassy food in their multi-chambered stomachs. With a billion and a half cows on the planet — raised for both beef and dairy — that adds up to about 9 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions alone.
Although pigs and chickens, the two most farmed species on the planet, don’t belch methane, they still produce lots of manure — and that generates nitrous oxide, another potent greenhouse gas. They also need to eat fertilized crops, like corn and soy, which generate more emissions. And while all cattle graze on grass, most in the United States are eventually fattened for slaughter on feedlots where they too eat corn and soy.
Feeding all of these crops to animals is far less efficient than feeding them more directly to humans. For example, every 12 calories from corn and soy fed to a pig provides just one calorie of meat back. The proposition of plant-based meats is that they cut out the animal, allowing more efficient use of land and resources.
Different animal products have vastly different emissions. For instance, pigs and chickens emit far less than cows and sheep. But according to recent peer-reviewed research from the University of Oxford and Johns Hopkins University, which compiled several estimates, all of these animal foods (except some chicken) generate more emissions than plant-based meats. (Editor’s note: Jan Dutkiewicz, one of the authors of this article, was a co-author on the Johns Hopkins paper.)
This research consisted of meta-analyses of multiple life-cycle assessments, or LCAs, which measure the total environmental impact of a product. While some of the plant-based meat estimates were commissioned by the faux meat companies themselves, including Beyond and Impossible, others were not, and all used internationally agreed-upon LCA standards for accounting of every emission source throughout processing.
Even the lowest-emitting beef from dedicated beef herds (34 kg carbon dioxide equivalent, or CO2e) and lower-emitting beef from dairy cow herds (15 kg CO2e) came in far above the highest-emitting tofu (4 kg CO2e) and plant-based meat (7 kg).
Chicken and pork production emit far less CO2 equivalent than beef. And while there is some overlap (the lowest-emitting chicken [3.2 kg CO2e] and pork [6 kg CO2e] rival the emissions of the highest-emitting plant-based meat), the average emissions of tofu and plant-based meats are still lower than the average emissions of both chicken and pork.
Of course, climate emissions aren’t the only environmental impacts from food. Producing animal-based food also requires large quantities of fresh water. For instance, one kilogram of pork requires 442 liters of water, versus 84 liters for one kilogram of plant-based meat. Similarly, producing beef, pork, and chicken requires far more land and causes much more pollution to waterways than plant-based alternatives.
How techno-skepticism muddles the environmental debate over plant-based meat
Despite the clear evidence that plant-based meats are generally better for the environment, criticism persists, and some of it is rooted in techno-skepticism — the attitude that because most plant-based meat is made using similar industrial farming and food-processing techniques as animal meat, it too is highly problematic.
It’s true that just like feed crops for farm animals, most faux meats are made with soy or wheat (or peas, in the case of Beyond Meat), and are grown as monoculture crops, meaning they’re grown in large fields that consist of just one mechanically farmed plant. Monoculture farming has long been criticized by environmental advocates for causing soil degradation and requiring a lot of pesticides, among other problems. A further extension of the criticism is that monocultured crops are usually the product of genetic modification, or GMOs.
While the safety of genetic modification itself has been well established, some of the intensive farming practices associated with growing certain GMO crops have come under fire from environmental NGOs and champions of organic farming. Plant-based meat companies take very different stances on using GMOs, with Impossible Foods embracing the technology and Beyond Meat going GMO-free.
However, the vast majority of chicken and pork requires more crops in the form of animal feed than what is contained in an equivalent serving of plant-based meat — and that’s almost always more monoculture GMO crops. Paradoxically, if you want to eat something meaty, a great way to reduce your monoculture (and GMO) intake is to eat faux meats.
To be sure, exclusively grass-fed beef doesn’t use any monocultured feed. But it’s sold at a premium price, and scaling up its production to meet current demand for beef would require multiple times more land than is already used, making this a dead-end proposition (unless we also drastically reduce consumption).
Critics of plant-based meat have also pointed out that it tends to be highly processed. No doubt, most plant-based meats are not health foods, due to their high saturated fat and salt (though beef and pork, too, are high in saturated fat). But “processed foods” is a vague and often ill-defined term that encompasses everything from high-fructose corn syrup to whole-grain pasta to yogurt, and has little bearing on foods’ environmental impact. As Vox’s Kelsey Piper has written, the term “processed food” “can obscure more than it clarifies” when it comes to the debate over plant-based meat.
What “corporate sustainability” measurements get wrong about the environmental impact of food
The final major critique of plant-based meat revolves around transparency.
This critique is raised both by some food NGOs and by a niche group of professional ESG (environmental, social, governance) corporate analysts. These analysts are paid by conscientious investors to rank companies by the riskiness of their supply chains. This is an important and growing space, but corporate ESG analysis still has major problems and limitations.
Some corporate sustainability analysts have criticized plant-based companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat for not precisely and continuously reporting climate impacts across their supply chains, like packaging, transporting, and processing. As noted earlier, when speaking to the New York Times for a recent article, one ESG analyst said that Beyond Meat and JBS are not “fundamentally different.”
One academic researcher called these products a “black box,” claiming that “much of what is in these products is undisclosed.” These kinds of statements are hyperbolic, akin to saying a gas-guzzling SUV and an electric car are similar because the companies that make them don’t reveal the emissions that come from producing the specific microchips they use.
It’s true that ingredient labels can’t tell us precisely where and under what conditions a given ingredient, like soybeans or coconut oil, was grown, and most meat and faux-meat companies don’t disclose emissions throughout their entire supply chain and manufacturing. These details aren’t trivial, and emissions across manufactured food production can likely stand to be improved.
But because corporate ESG is a niche space, its demands for transparency often revolve around details that investors want to see, including small tweaks and changes in production processes, while potentially missing the lion’s share of the real environmental impacts. When it comes to plant-based burgers, we already know most of the impacts and where they are coming from. According to FDA regulations, food companies must list all ingredients on product labels, meaning that much of the “black box” of plant-based protein can be unlocked simply by looking at the back of a package.
Labels on conventional meat also do not disclose all the inputs and processes that went into producing it. If you’re eating a Beyond Burger, you might not know exactly where its peas come from or how it was packaged, but you would know that peas were the most-used crop ingredient. If you’re eating canned pork from Hormel, the maker of Spam — which one sustainability analysis firm rated as much lower-risk than Beyond Meat when it comes to their reputational risks like harming workers or the environment — you nonetheless wouldn’t know what their pigs ate or, for that matter, how those pigs were treated.
The fact is that the overwhelming majority of the environmental impacts of our food are a result of what happens on farms, not in manufacturing or shipping. For example, a local, grass-fed burger is going to cause more emissions than, say, a pea-based burger or manufactured block of tofu trucked in from 1,000 miles away. With meat, most of the impact is from the cow belches, the feed crop production, the polluting manure, and the deforestation required to make way for ever-increasing production.
As seen in the chart above, packaging and transport emissions across different kinds of meats and plant foods are pretty consistent, never going above 2 kg CO2e per kg of product.
However, the emissions for land use, farming, and feed range greatly among foods, from 0.7 kg CO2e for peas to more than 57 kg CO2e for beef.
Put differently, packaging, transport, and processing make up a large percentage of tofu’s emissions only because soy’s overall production emissions are already very low. In order for plant-based meats to even approach beef’s environmental impact, they would need to have a manufacturing footprint at least 10 times higher than that of tofu.
All of these criticisms may have more to do with techno-skepticism than scientific rigor. The discourse against technological “frankenfoods” is a longstanding one that contrasts bucolic images of “real food” and “real farms” with labs, factories, and smog. The real story isn’t so simple. And while many of the harms from food production are industrial in origin, we can also thank technology for major advances in food safety like pasteurization — and for the creation of faux meats that, while imperfect, give people a more sustainable alternative to animal-based meat.
None of this is to say that makers of plant-based meat alternatives can shirk transparency. Companies that are serious about making big sustainability claims should strive to win the public’s trust through greater transparency of their entire production chains, including not simply emissions but other impacts like labor practices and manufacturing waste. Nonetheless, we currently know enough to conclude that plant-based meats’ climate impacts are smaller than those of conventional meat, even if the precision of their monitoring could be improved.
Why other ethical impacts get left out of the equation
Beyond climate and pollution, there are a host of other impacts corporate sustainability evaluators and public interest groups should consider in their assessments, including animal-borne disease and animal welfare.
Most meat eaten by Americans comes from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) where animals have scant legal protections. This barren legal landscape has led to a race to the bottom on animal welfare, resulting in animals bred to grow so fast that their vital organs can painfully lose function, or they can barely walk without pain. Animals’ natural behaviors are restricted by confining them in cages too small to turn around or spread their wings.
It’s unsurprising, then, that footage depicting neglect and mistreatment of pigs, chickens, and cows on industrial farms has caused reputational damage to the food companies that were unaware of or unconcerned about practices on the farms from which they source. For instance, the dairy company Fairlife faced protests and lawsuits after undercover footage apparently showed abuse at a farm from which it sourced milk.
Because of this reputational risk, the meat lobby has pushed states to pass “ag-gag” laws criminalizing private investigations and whistleblowing on animal farms, which have only worsened the pressing transparency issue across North American animal farms.
Another risk in factory farming (for which there’s no equivalent in plant-based food manufacturing) is pandemic risk. The confined conditions that create animal welfare problems on intensive farms also increase the risk of animal-borne diseases. Thousands of animals are kept in quarters close to each other and their waste, allowing pathogens ample opportunity to propagate and undergo mutations that can jump to workers and communities near production facilities.
Spillover of avian flu strains from chickens to humans is an ever-present possibility, which has seen sporadic outbreaks around the world, exacerbated by the closely confined and often unsanitary conditions in which billions of chickens live on meat and egg farms.
And diseases that don’t spread to humans are also a near-constant risk to the business of industrial farming and our food supply. The ongoing African Swine Fever pandemic alone has claimed the lives of hundreds of millions of pigs, with preventative pig culling the only existing measure to control disease spread, causing tens of billions of dollars in losses in Asia alone.
Antibiotic resistance is another potentially existential threat that can emerge on industrial animal farms. Antibiotics are a basic and critical tool in modern medicine and also our last line of defense against many diseases.
However, the majority of antibiotics produced globally are used on farmed animals to prevent bacterial outbreaks and boost animal growth, and their chronic use creates new antibiotic-resistant strains of harmful and potentially deadly bacteria.
Already, 700,000 people die each year of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, including 35,000 in the United States. The World Health Organization has specifically called for the phaseout of farms’ unnecessary antibiotic use to reduce this risk because we don’t have an alternative — an antibiotics 2.0 — if antibiotic resistance keeps increasing as it has.
Disease and animal mistreatment are directly relevant to sustainability and to companies’ material and reputational risks, but meat companies have generally sought to avoid addressing them as they would make their operations more costly and less efficient.
Sustainability firms and other industry watchdogs, meanwhile, have not quantified these impacts, with some exceptions. There are a few reasons for this, including that it’s difficult to put concrete numbers on risks of zoonotic disease outbreaks (which are sporadic and hard to predict), as well as animal welfare. If sustainability firms could track companies’ non-climate risks better, we may have very different conceptions regarding which have riskier production processes and which are more sustainable.
More broadly, there is a pressing need to widen the debate over food sustainability. Fish, for instance, may have lower greenhouse gas emissions, but overfishing is harming fragile ocean ecosystems. Replacing beef with chicken might reduce climate emissions, but chickens are raised in worse conditions, have more viral outbreaks, and are given more than three times the antibiotics that cattle are — and far more chickens would have to be killed to create the same amount of meat. If emissions, animal welfare, and disease risks were all considered, neither chicken nor beef looks all that good.
Narrow sustainability measurements and techno-skepticism have clouded the public conversation about plant-based meats. Claims that these products might not be much better for the environment than meat goes against extensive, peer-reviewed research.
This is not to say that Beyond and Impossible burgers are the optimal choice. Taking a broad view of sustainability that includes emissions, environmental impacts, animal welfare, and animal-borne disease risk mitigation, the clear winner is a diet based on whole plant foods — just vegetables, grains, fruits, and legumes.
Such a diet, widely recommended by environmental groups like the World Wildlife Fund, is likely best for individual and planetary health. But plant-based meats are designed to fill a role that just plants often can’t: easily appealing to meat-loving taste buds and dietary habits with little culinary finessing required. The additional environmental price paid for this convenience and pleasure still leaves faux meats far better for the planet (and animals) than conventional meats. The science there is clear.
Matthew Hayek is an assistant professor of environmental science in the department of Environmental Studies at New York University and Affiliated Faculty at the NYU Center for Data Science.
Jan Dutkiewicz is a policy fellow at the Animal Law and Policy Program at Harvard Law School and a postdoctoral researcher with the Swiss National Science Foundation.