There’s little debate left that reducing our consumption of meat will help to lower global carbon emissions. A great way to do that seems to be switching out your protein for a tasty meat substitute. But will meat substitutes really contribute towards a better environment? Our readers and an expert panel give their take.
The climate change race to cut carbon emissions
It’s hard to ignore the daily reminders of the urgency of the climate disaster. As such, many people are switching to a plant-based diet for environmental reasons.
Fake meats, such as ‘Beyond’ burgers, ‘What The Cluck’ chick’n pieces, as well as classics like tofu and tempeh – they’re all good for the environment. Right?
As always, the debate has gotten a little more complicated than that in recent years. Yes, plant-based diets are better for the environment, but are all plant-based diets created equally? Or are some meat substitutes harmful to the environment as well?
Beyond and Impossible Burgers tell us that their products produce roughly 90% percent fewer greenhouse gases when compared with beef. Conversely, other studies have found that fake meat production produces as much carbon emissions as real-life chicken.
For this series, we’ve conducted some research and assembled a panel of contributors to investigate meat substitutes. Today we’re asking, just how environmentally friendly are meat substitutes?
More than half our experts were concerned
Straight off the bat, 40% of our contributors were worried about the ecological effect of meat substitutes.
“To reverse global warming,” says Arwen Bardsley, “we need to revert to the whole food diet of our ancestors, not create more food like substances in factories.”
It’s a concern shared by Zoe McMillan, who writes, “I have concerns about soya farming”, adding, “increased production of substitutes might have unknown consequences for ecology.“
Rebecca Genin, on the other hand, believes that “Meat substitutes are leagues better for the environment than meat is. If we stopped eating animals, we would be able to recover a country's worth of land that the animal agriculture industry is currently using.”
Something which Kirsten Puskar agrees with, writing “I am pleased with spending more of our land growing plants and forests - not soy and corn for beef and pork.”
Not all meat substitutes are equally pollutive
As Zoe pointed out, we just don’t know currently what the ecological effect is of producing meat substitutes. As such, some processes are likely to be worse than others. There could be an important distinction, then, between different meat substitutes and their environmental effect on the planet, as Lozzy Barnao was quick to point out;
“Organic tempeh is a great meat substitute as it is sustainably grown - I also consume jackfruit.”
It makes sense that more naturally forming, less processed substitutes are going to cause the planet less impact. That said, jackfruit is a tropical fruit. It can require a process of shipping and preserving, which has its own environmental impact.
Tofu was by far the most popular meat substitute, with 54% of our contributors choosing it as their favourite. Granted, health as well as taste were both factors in some people’s decisions. However, a popular opinion was that the soya we currently grow for animal feed could be better purposed to produce tofu.
Rebecca explains, “most soy that is grown is fed to animals. Only 2% of soy grown is fed to humans. If we stopped eating animal products, we would be able to feed 10 billion humans with the number of plant foods we are currently growing.”
With little research - and a lot of emotional opinions - drawing conclusions about meat substitutes is not straightforward. But our panel can help.
Mark Payne believes moderation is the key, “I think it is important to be an informed consumer, and understand that farming practices have a significant effect on the environment and ecology, as does meat substitute production."
Meat substitutes are processed foods, so there is going to be some impact from industry in the production. Choosing quality brands, from reputable companies, and consuming in moderation provides a balanced approach to the ethical considerations and maintaining a varied and health-promoting diet.”
Though there were interesting points made about the health benefits and limitations of a vegan diet (which will be explored in part two of our meat substitutes conversation), there was little debate about that plant-based is more eco-friendly. As Rebecca says, “It's a win-win-win for me, the animals, and the environment.”
Reducing meat intake will reduce your carbon footprint and, from the evidence and opinions we have currently, enjoying meat substitutes as part of a balanced diet is a good way to do this.
As one anonymous contributor simply put it: “eating less meat is better for mama earth”. If you’re still a little worried about the lack of research around newer substitutes, old favourites like tempeh and tofu are a good start.
Meet our panel
Arwen Bardsley - Healer & Holistic Health Coach
Loves to explore the full spectrum of modern science, combined with ancient wisdom, to help her clients get their energy back, and hold on tight to it! Arwen Bardsley uses all the tools of Evenstar 5 Star Wellbeing (which includes Food, Movement, Sleep, Surroundings & Being) to feel energized and balanced on all levels – physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. Arwen is a Certified Food & Spirit Practitioner, and a Low Tox Coach. She also utilizes her Bachelor of Arts in Psychology, Reiki Master qualification, and additional certificates in Kinesiology, Seichim, Crystal Healing, and Aromatouch Massage in her practise.
Zoe McMillan - Digital Agency Director
A digital marketing consultant working with plant-based brands to help accelerate the future of ethical eating.
Rebecca Genin - Artist, Video Editor, and Copywriter
My Instagram name is rgenin. I'm an artist, video editor, and copywriter who also happens to be vegan!
Kirsten Puskar - Nutritionist & Diabetes Educator
2nd career RDN, I enjoy helping my patients improve their health with delicious recipes to transition to a diet lower in fats, higher in nutrients, and fiber. Kirsten Puskar RD has always been interested in how food choices help improve lives, and as her children entered college, she entered the health care profession. She studied health and nutrition and became a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator. She did this to support people in finding healthy alternatives to the standard American diet. This particular diet generally leads to one developing one of our three major killers: heart disease, diabetes, or cancer.
Her specialty is providing food choices that fit into your life and improve your overall health. She believes your conscious food choices are the key to living a longer, happier, and better life!
Kirsten has degrees from Penn State and Drexel University.
Lozzy Barnao - Integrative Nutrition Health Coach
Lauren “Lozzy” Barnao is a certified Integrative Nutrition Health Coach on a mission to help women who are stressed out & at war with their body, calm their anxiety, lose weight and improve digestion, all without deprivation. Lozzy knows firsthand what it is like to portray a successful career woman on the outside while feeling like an unhealthy, stressed-out fraud on the inside.
Lozzy is a gut health geek. She's also a try-hard yogi, and a huge dog lover, fostering rescue dogs, while also having two of her own. Connect with her on Instagram (@gut_feelings_with_lozzy) and Facebook (@gutfeelingswithlozzy).
Mark Payne - Functional Medicine Naturopath
Mark Payne has 30 years of experience as a clinical health professional and educator, and for the last decade has focused on naturopathic clinical practice and complementary medicine education.
He describes himself as a generalist. He has a particular interest in working with cardiometabolic health, stress-related disorders, and immune disorders. He's also interested in helping those living with HIV to achieve a high level of health and wellbeing.
*Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food.
About the author:
Bennie is a London based writer with an interest in the environmental sector, as well as experience across a number of industries including healthcare, entertainment and sports.