Plant-based and clean meat are crucial for a sustainable food system
The way we produce meat causes many severe, real-world harms, ranging from climate change to antibiotic-resistant superbugs. Despite being the source of so many problems, per capita meat consumption is rising rapidly around the world. Repeated studies have shown that the vast majority of people make their food choices based on taste, price, and convenience. That’s why most people continue to eat meat even after they become aware of the problems associated with its production.
If we are going to effectively address the environmental devastation and public health threats of industrial animal agriculture, it is critical that we develop plant-based and clean meat. Regardless of our personal diets, everyone concerned with the environment and public health should support the efforts of plant-based and clean meat companies to compete directly with industrial meat on taste, price, and convenience.
Plant-based meat is meat that gets all its amino acids, fats, and minerals from plants. Clean meat is meat made up of animal cells, but grown in a clean facility rather than as part of an animal. Two of the main motivations for producing these better meats are the environmental and public health consequences of current meat production.
The environmental cost of meat
In their report “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” United Nations’ scientists state that raising and killing animals for food is “one of the major causes of the world’s most pressing environmental problems, including global warming, land degradation, air and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity.”
All this flows from the inherent inefficiency of producing meat via animals. Chickens are the most efficient animals for turning crops into meat, yet according to the World Resource Institute, we have to feed a chicken nine calories of crops to get just one calorie of chicken meat. That’s 800% food waste. It is as if we had nine plates of food ready to serve our growing population but threw eight of them in the garbage.
If we are growing nine times more calories than people are actually consuming, we are using nine times more land, nine times more water, nine times more fertilizer, and nine times more pesticides and herbicides. We’re using nine times more fossil fuels to plant, harvest, and ship all these extra crops. And then we’re using more fossil fuels to run the feed mills, factory farms, and slaughterhouses, and still more to ship the grain to the feed mills and then transport the animals to the slaughterhouses.
This is why many entrepreneurs and scientists concerned about the environment are focusing on replacing industrially produced slaughter-based meat with plant-based and clean meat. It’s why Bill Gates has called plant-based meat the future of food and why former Google CEO Eric Schmidt declared that plant-based meet will improve life on earth by a factor of at least ten in the fairly near future.
Every objective analysis shows that these modern ways of producing meat have many environmental benefits. For example, the plant-based Impossible Burger uses 95% less land, 74% less water, and creates 87% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than a burger made from cows.
Because both plant-based and clean meat require much less land, the freed-up land can be repurposed to produce clean energy and store carbon. Doing so would further lower the energy and carbon footprints of these better meats. Carbon sequestration could even make plant-based and clean meat carbon negative, helping to reverse climate change.
For these reasons alone, environmentalists should support replacing industrial meat with these much better alternatives.
An accelerating public health crisis
Beyond broad environmental devastation, the public health consequences of our current means of producing meat are also severe.
To minimize costs, industrial animal agriculture packs many thousands of animals together on massive industrial farms known as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). On these CAFOs, untreated animal waste accumulates under animals’ feet or in open ponds.
Although the largest CAFOs each produce the same amount of excrement as a major city, they do not have wastewater treatment systems. People across the United States suffer from the ammonia and hydrogen sulfide gases released from these CAFOs. Manure in streams and rivers contributes to algae blooms that choke waterways from the Great Lakes to the Chesapeake Bay and the Mississippi Delta, leading to vast dead zones.
Contaminated animal products are directly responsible for over half of all foodborne illness in the United States. Releasing manure into waterways and onto vegetable fields also spreads disease. Outbreaks of E. coli and other foodborne illness from lettuce and other vegetable crops can often be traced to meat production, either through manure used as fertilizer or via contaminated irrigation water. All told, manure contamination sends 30,000 Americans to the hospital and kills nearly a thousand each year.
Industrial animal agriculture also creates antibiotic-resistant bacteria. According to the New York Times, between 70% and 80% of all the antibiotics in the United States are fed to animals raised and slaughtered for meat. Healthy animals are fed low doses of antibiotics as growth promoters and to keep the animals alive in squalid conditions. This practice allows microbes to evolve and become resistant.
These antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” are a devastating public health threat. As more superbugs evolve, they could kill 10 million people annually by 2050 and cost the global economy $100 trillion. A review by the UK government found that the threat to the human race from antibiotic resistance is “more certain” than the threat from climate change.
Transforming the meat industry
A review of companies in this space shows that concern for the environment and public health is what motivated their founders.
Jody Boyman is co-founder of plant-based meat company Hungry Planet. She is explicit in her motivation:
Our vision started 12 years ago, when the data started becoming more clear about what was causing some of the fundamental environmental and public-health challenges on the planet. It’s pretty clear that the root cause has to do with the food choices that we make. You can’t solve the problem without addressing our whole food system.
Ethan Brown, CEO and co-founder of plant-based meat company Beyond Meat, started his career focused on climate change. Early on, he worked in the clean energy sector, developing an open grid for more efficient energy distribution. He then worked on fuel cells at Ballard Power Systems. Ethan eventually discovered that global meat production causes more climate change than every plane, train, and automobile combined. He started Beyond Meat because “How we produce protein is the most important environmental question facing our society today.”
Pat Brown (no relation) agrees. Dr. Brown was already a famous professor at Stanford when he recognized that the way we currently produce meat is “the most destructive technology on Earth.” He realized:
Nobody was seriously working on this problem — the most important and urgent problem in the world — so I quit my dream job as a biochemistry professor at Stanford University School of Medicine to found Impossible Foods.
Dr. Uma Valeti was a well-established cardiologist when he started questioning the way we currently produce meat:
I loved meat, but once I learned about the environmental, health, and animal welfare challenges facing modern meat production, I thought there had to be a better way to produce it. I spent years trying to convince others to start clean meat companies because I thought this innovation could solve so many pressing global issues, but nobody would do it. Eventually, I decided to start one myself.
Dr. Valeti founded UPSIDE Foods in 2015. Memphis is now a leading clean meat pioneer.
Building a better future
The way industrial animal agriculture currently produces meat is inherently and irreducibly inefficient, leading to massive environmental consequences. It also creates significant public health threats. However, global demand for meat is at all-time highs and growing rapidly. Even in the United States, per capita meat consumption was the at an all-time high in 2017. It is predicted to be even higher in 2018.
If we want to build a cleaner, more sustainable future, we need to embrace cleaner, more sustainable ways of producing meat: Better meat that can compete directly with industrial meat on taste, price, and convenience. Regardless of what we personally choose to eat, we can support the better ways of producing meat that are being pioneered by plant-based and clean meat companies.