How can we feed the world sustainably?
Alternative proteins enable greater food security while conserving limited natural resources and preserving biodiverse ecosystems. Plant-based meat (meat made directly from plants) and cultivated meat (meat cultivated or cultured from animal cells) are compelling solutions to the rising global demand for meat and seafood in the face of the accelerating climate crisis.
Today, two billion people face food insecurity, and that number may grow. The United Nations projects that the global population will near 10 billion people by 2050. This population growth will require us to close a 56 percent food production gap. Data from FAO and Credit Suisse show that we are already unable to meet most nations’ dietary guidelines within planetary limits. For instance, feeding every human today in accordance with the U.S. dietary guidelines would require 3.5 Earths. This disparity is due to the resource requirements of conventional meat production. Scaling animal agriculture to meet a growing population’s needs will push us even further beyond sustainable limits.
How many Earths it would take to feed every human (meeting U.S. dietary guidelines) with conventional meat production.
The number of earths needed to provide sufficient food if all countries globally adopt the food-based dietary guidelines used by the countries listed. Source: FAO, Credit Suisse Research
Alternative proteins are essential to creating a sustainable food system amidst growing meat demand
Relative to conventional meat and seafood, alternative proteins require less land and water to produce, and they result in significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution, and water eutrophication. Data from GFI’s life cycle assessment (LCA) of cultivated meat, conducted by CE Delft, show that, at scale, cultivated meat produced with clean energy offers significant environmental advantages over the most ambitiously sustainable animal agriculture operations. Similarly, LCAs from a variety of plant-based meat producers demonstrate massive savings across all environmental metrics.
Comparison of the environmental impacts of sustainably cultivated meat and conventional meat products.
Comparison of the environmental impacts of plant-based meat and conventional meat products.
Alternative proteins are fundamentally more efficient
For alternative proteins and conventional meat alike, going from crop to meat involves some degree of calorie (or energy) loss. The difference is in the rate of calorie conversion. Animals evolved to move and live and perform all sorts of metabolic functions beyond muscle production; even after decades of selective breeding and optimization, there are upper limits to how efficiently an animal can turn feed into meat. For instance, a chicken—which converts feed into edible meat more efficiently than most farmed animals—still needs nine calories of feed to produce one calorie of meat. As GFI president Bruce Friedrich explained at TEDx, that’s like cooking nine plates of pasta and throwing eight away. That’s 88 percent waste.
By growing meat directly from plants or cultivating meat from cells, we can drastically improve this input-to-output ratio. With alternative proteins, we produce only what we need and don’t compete with the other energy requirements of living creatures. The end result is that we can produce much more meat with far fewer resources.
Our global food system accounts for more than a third of the human-made greenhouse gasses, and much of this climate impact is due to the land transformation and soil degradation associated with modern agriculture. While forests and grasslands are shrinking, our cropland and pastures are rapidly expanding.
We can reduce agricultural land by 75 percent with alternative proteins
About three quarters of our agricultural land is used for animal agriculture. In the United States, more than two thirds of crops become animal feed. With a transition to plant-based proteins, we could reduce the amount of land needed to feed the human population by as much as 75 percent—the equivalent area of North America and Brazil. With such a transition, the land resources currently dedicated to agriculture could instead help support biodiversity and mitigate climate change.
Alternative proteins can help us decrease global deforestation
Clearing forests for pasture and cropland is one of the most significant contributors to agriculture’s environmental footprint. This land transformation damages ecosystems that are crucial to our planet’s biodiversity and stability.
The shrinking Amazon rainforest, where agriculture’s ever-growing pasture and cropland needs are the primary driver of deforestation, is one of the most striking examples of this. Alternative proteins reduce the need for both cropland and pasture, therefore avoiding the need to burn trees and clear vegetation to satisfy global meat demand.
Ecosystem restoration of agricultural land can help us keep warming below 1.5 degrees
Burning trees and clearing vegetation to turn forests into agricultural land releases the carbon dioxide previously stored in the plant matter. (For instance, researchers have found that the Amazon now emits more CO2 than it captures.) Restoring these forested ecosystems is an enormous carbon-sequestration opportunity. Transitioning the food system to plant-based diets could help sequester 332–547 GtCO2—as much carbon as remains in the 1.5ºC budget.
Toxic chemicals and pollution
By shifting to plant-based and cultivated meat, we can decrease global agricultural chemical use and reduce the air and water pollution associated with food production.
Alternative proteins decrease agricultural chemical use
Alternative proteins make much more efficient use of crops and agricultural inputs. (Forty-three percent of our cropland produces animal feed. More than three-quarters of the world’s soy is fed to animals.) Because of the inherent calorie conversion efficiencies of alternative protein, transitioning to alternative proteins would reduce the global population’s overall agricultural production needs. Even with no other changes to commodity crop production, this efficiency would sharply reduce the total chemical load of our food system.
Source: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Boedeker et al 2020 in BMC Public Health
Alternative proteins markedly reduce air pollution.
Large scale conventional animal agriculture creates more waste and pollution than the land and surrounding communities can safely bear. This waste emits ammonia, which combines with other pollutants from fertilizers, such as nitrogen oxides, and sulfates from vehicles, power plants, and industrial processes, to create hazardous inhalable particles.
This combination of particles—which leads to heart and lung disease—is estimated to globally cause more than 3 million deaths per year. The effects are especially severe in the rural communities surrounding these operations. Continuing on the current trajectory is estimated to double deaths by 2050.
Because plant-based meat and sustainably produced cultivated meat produce no manure, these alternative methods of meat production drastically reduce air pollution associated with conventional beef, pork, and chicken production. Additionally, in the United States, alternative protein facilities will be regulated as food production facilities rather than as farms, which are exempt from many environmental laws.
Alternative proteins reduce water contamination.
Water pollution from industrial agriculture has both local and global consequences. An excess of animal manure and synthetic fertilizers pollutes habitats, compromises drinking water, and creates dead zones in coastal waters. Alternative protein production doesn’t create manure and, because it requires less crop cultivation, contamination from agricultural runoff is also greatly reduced.
Moreover, plant-based meat is typically made with nitrogen-fixing legumes. Increasing demand for a diversity of legumes and pulses can create market incentives for conservation agricultural practices that decrease the need for nitrogen from manure or fertilizer.
Cows, pigs, and chickens from the largest farms in the U.S. produce 885 billion pounds of manure per year. This is 50% more than the annual total municipal solid waste generated in the U.S. (about 580 billion pounds).
This waste is often stored in open-air lagoons that can easily be overwhelmed by storms and floods.
These hazards are leading to aquatic dead zones and are expected to grow worse with climate change
When these lagoons overflow, ammonia and nitrates contaminate waterways and lead to algae blooms that kill aquatic life. For the last three decades, animal and other agricultural runoff in the Mississippi River has created a 5,000-square-mile dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. With increased risks of flooding from climate change, this flooding increases risks of regular water contamination.
Oceans and fish
Alternative proteins offer numerous opportunities to solve the sustainability challenges inherent in wild-caught seafood and aquaculture. The global demand for seafood is expected to grow by 30 percent by 2030 relative to 2010 levels. Just as with terrestrial animal products, there is an enormous environmental opportunity—and need—to shift fish and shellfish towards alternative production methods.
Expanding our wild-caught seafood supply is not viable
Industrial fishing methods deplete species, pollute and disrupt ecosystems, and destroy irreplaceable habitats such as coral reefs. The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates 34 percent of stocks are overfished and 58 percent are fished at maximum sustainable capacity. There is very little, if any, room for sustainable growth in wild fishing.
Plant-based and cultivated seafood could provide relief to fragile ocean ecosystems. For example, producing seafood without employing bottom-trawling fishing methods would protect coral reef ecosystems. Further, because conventional fishing is responsible for nearly half of the plastics in our oceans by some estimates, reducing fishing activity would reduce plastic pollution much more significantly than reducing plastic straw or plastic bag use.
Aquaculture will not be able to address increasing demand
Aquaculture has met growing demand so far but is likely not a sustainable long-term solution to rising consumer demand for seafood. Calorie conversion efficiency, disease prevalence, and input types limit the sustainability of aquaculture. As with terrestrial products, alternative seafood products require far fewer input calories than conventional animal products. Confining large groups of fish increases disease risk and often necessitates antibiotic use. Finally, many aquaculture operations rely on wild caught fish as a feedstock—which will become increasingly problematic as wild fish stocks decrease.
Alternative seafood is urgently needed
We have hit a limit on how many fish and shellfish we can take from the ocean and aquaculture cannot sustainably scale to meet future seafood demand. Plant-based and cultivated seafood have the potential to displace future increases in fishing in the short term and to help revitalize ocean ecosystems by decreasing catch in the future. Alternative seafood has not reached the same degree of market penetration as plant-based meat, but this category is due to develop rapidly in coming years. Our Sustainable Seafood Initiative is helping make sure that alternative seafood development happens as quickly and efficiently as possible.
It will be scientifically impossible for governments to meet their obligations under the Paris Climate Agreement to decarbonize the global economy without making meat in new ways.
Making meat from plants and cultivating it from cells offers humanity a chance to create a carbon-neutral food system in the face of rising global demand for resource-intensive meat. Alternative proteins are long-term, durable solutions to help meet global climate goals.
Alternative proteins radically decrease greenhouse gases associated with meat production
Decarbonizing the global economy is impossible if conventional animal agriculture remains the global default. Transitioning toward alternative proteins could significantly reduce emissions. By growing food crops for alt protein products versus feed crops for farmed animals, we can eliminate massive inefficiencies and harmful externalities from the supply chain.
Carbon dioxide (CO2)
Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that can remain in the atmosphere and cause warming for tens of thousands of years.
Land transformation, energy use, transportation, and food processing contribute to the agricultural sector’s total carbon dioxide emissions. The farmed animal supply chain emits 5 percent of anthropogenic CO2 emissions.
In the seafood industry, bottom trawling releases carbon from the seabed, resulting in an estimated 1.47 gigatons (or trillion kilograms) of aqueous CO2 annually. For comparison, the airline industry’s annual CO2 emissions are estimated to be 1.04 gigatons.
Methane is an extremely potent, shorter-lived greenhouse gas, which oxidizes into carbon dioxide after about a decade in the atmosphere. Averaged over 100 years, methane has 28-36 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide.
Animal agriculture accounts for 44 percent of human-made methane emissions, 3.1 gigatons CO2-eq of CH4 per year.
Nitrous oxide (N2O)
Each emitted molecule of nitrous oxide stays in the atmosphere and contributes to warming for about 114 years. Averaged over 100 years, nitrous oxide is about 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.
The above chart shows the total greenhouse gas emissions (in CO2-eq) per kg of produced product for different categories, including conventional meat, cultivated meat, and plant-based meat. Note that some product categories have multiple products represented—for example, the plant-based beef category includes results from Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods, and MorningStar Farms. Switching from conventional meat to plant-based meat reduces carbon emissions (in CO2-eq) by up to 90% for beef, 71% for pork, and 36% for chicken. Switching to from conventional meat to cultivated meat produced with renewable energy reduces carbon emissions by up to 98% for beef, 80% for pork, and 75% for chicken.
The above chart shows the total energy use (in megajoules) per kg of produced product for conventional meat and plant-based meat. Note that some product categories have multiple products represented—for example, the plant-based beef category includes results from Impossible Foods and MorningStar Farms. Switching from conventional meat to plant-based meat reduces energy use by up to 77% for beef, 33% for pork, and 34% for chicken.
Global food security
Governments, scientists, and food producers are working to secure a liveable future with nutritious food for the world population. As we look for global solutions to global challenges, alternative proteins are an important piece of the sustainability puzzle.
How will we feed 10 billion people by 2050?
FAO estimates that animal agriculture is responsible for 14.5 percent of human-made greenhouse gas emissions, and a recent paper in Nature calculates that animal agriculture may contribute closer to 20 percent of human-made emissions.
Transitioning to plant-based and cultivated meat would help us address some of the world’s most pressing environmental issues—from climate change to pollution and loss of biodiversity.
It takes nine calories of food fed to a chicken to produce one calorie of meat.
Seventy-five percent of the world’s agricultural land is used for raising and feeding farmed animals yet only provides one-third of the global protein supply.
Hazardous air pollution from animal agriculture leads to heart and lung disease.
Ninety percent of streams and rivers are found to be regularly contaminated with pesticides.
Alternative proteins need more funding, research, and talent.
In the face of rising global meat consumption, alternative proteins are essential to mitigating climate change and protecting the environment. Consumer behavior change alone will not enable us to meet the environmental challenges we face: we must make meat differently so that the default choices around the world are better for the planet, people, and animals.
Alternative proteins are a global food security solution
Amid a global grain shortage and skyrocketing food prices, alternative proteins can make the global food system more efficient and resilient.
Power a sustainable food future
All of our research and initiatives are made possible by donors — people just like you. Give today and help us build a sustainable, secure, and just food system. Together, we go farther, faster.