Just how sustainable is plant-based meat?

GFI’s new fact sheet quantifies plant-based meat’s potential to help build a sustainable food supply by reducing land use, greenhouse gas emissions, water use, aquatic pollution, and antibiotic use.
Beyond meatballs in pan and in spaghetti

It is increasingly common knowledge that plant-based meat is more sustainable than animal meat, but what does “sustainable” really mean? By what metrics do we measure sustainability across different foods?

GFI’s new plant-based meat fact sheet standardizes and compares the available life cycle assessments (LCAs) for plant-based meat products, analyzing greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water use, and aquatic nutrient pollution. We break it down below:

Land use

Plant-based meat uses 47 to 99 percent less land than conventional meat, with median savings of 93 percent. Raising animals for human consumption takes up 77 percent of the world’s agricultural land but provides only 17 percent of our food.

Greenhouse gas emissions

Plant-based meat production causes 30 to 90 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than conventional meat production, with median savings of 88.5 percent. Animal agriculture is a bigger driver of global climate change than exhaust emissions from the entire transportation sector.

Water use

Producing plant-based meat uses 72 to 99 percent less water, with median savings of 95.5 percent. Conventional meat production uses nearly a third of all water used for agriculture.

Aquatic nutrient pollution

Plant-based meat results in 51 to 91 percent less nutrient pollution in aquatic systems, with median savings of 75.5 percent compared with conventional meat. Producing food using animals compromises water quality around the globe by causing deadly accumulations of nutrients through runoff.

Antibiotic use

Plant-based meat is antibiotic-free. Farm animals are fed more than 70 percent of the medically important antibiotics consumed in the United States. The more we use antibiotics, the more we drive up antibiotic resistance. Plant-based meat allows us to cut out antibiotics entirely.

A pathway to a sustainable food supply

Plant-based meat offers consumers the taste of conventional meat at a fraction of the environmental cost. The plant-based meat industry, which has seen major innovation in recent years, currently represents just under 1 percent of the retail meat market. We have our work cut out for us.

To fully realize its promise, plant-based meat innovation requires:

  1. publicly funded research for the innovation of products and methods that can continue to improve the taste, accessibility, and ecological impact of plant-based meat;
  2. fair labeling regulations and empirical safety guidelines that allow plant-based meat to perform unhindered in the commercial space; and
  3. backing from food businesses, governmental bodies, and environmental champions to expedite the shift to a sustainable food complex.

The plant-based meat industry helps us combat climate change, conserve water and land, reduce nutrient pollution, and remove antibiotics from the food system. Sustainable meat is possible, but we need all hands on deck to accelerate this burgeoning industry. From Burger King’s Impossible Whopper to Dunkin’s Beyond Breakfast Sausage Sandwich, we’re starting to see some incredible momentum. But the work has just begun!

Check out the fact sheet to get the full picture.

Header image: Beyond Beef meatball spread | Credit: Beyond Meat


The good food institute icon in white on a seaweed circle background

Julia John