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September 18, 2023

Plant-based meat for a growing world

Improving the efficiency of the Western diet is crucial to achieving sustainability. Plant-based meat allows consumers to enjoy the taste of meat at a fraction of the environmental cost.

Global demand for meat is projected to rise 50 percent between 2013 and 2050.

Considering animal agriculture’s outsized impact on the environment, this could have dire consequences for Earth’s life-supporting ecological systems. But diets are hard to change. Despite decades of advocacy, the percentage of Americans following a plant-based diet has barely budged. In fact, in 2018, per capita American meat consumption was within two pounds of being the highest in U.S. history.

Plant-based meat offers a way out. Combining ingredients in novel ways can deliver the complete culinary experience of meat without the need for a single animal. Plant-based meat fits seamlessly into consumers’ culinary traditions, all but eliminating barriers to behavior change.

Eating plants is fundamentally more efficient than growing plants to feed animals and eating those animals. Even after accounting for the processing required to turn plants into plant-based meat, every study to date finds that replacing conventional meat with plant-based meat substantially reduces every environmental impact measured.

“Meat is basically protein, fat, and water. Our game is to find all that in plants and reassemble it against the architecture of meat.”


Table 1: Environmental benefits of plant-based meat products

Plant-based meat uses 47–99 percent less land than conventional meat (m2-yr-land/kg-meat).

Animal agriculture takes up 77% of all agricultural land on Earth despite supplying only 17% of humanity’s food supply. This inefficiency drives the need for agricultural expansion, which is the single largest driver of ecosystem damage on land.

Fishing, whose yield can also be replaced with plant-based products, is the single largest driver of ecosystem damage in the oceans. Although pigs and chickens always require feed crops, cows can graze in some places where crops can’t grow. However, there is only enough pasture in the United States to support 27% of current beef production, and that includes the grass growing where crops otherwise could. Grass-fed meat alone cannot feed America.In contrast, using all our cropland to grow food for humans instead of animals would allow American
farmers to feed more than twice as many people. That would increase the food supply three times as much as recovering all the food that spoils or gets thrown away before it can be eaten. Plant-based meat offers a promising pathway toward realizing most of this efficiency gain.

Plant-based meat emits 30%–90% less greenhouse gas than conventional meat (kg-CO2-eq/kg-meat).

Worldwide, animal agriculture contributes more to climate change than exhaust emissions from the entire transportation sector. Animal agriculture’s emissions come from three major sources: conversion of forests and prairies to pasture and cropland, production of animal feed, and animal digestion and waste decomposition.

The primary ingredients for plant-based meats, on the other hand, have very low greenhouse gas emissions, and additional processing accounts for only 13%–26% of plant-based meat’s climate impact. The cropland no longer necessary for animal feed could even be used to mitigate climate change through reforestation, soil conservation, or renewable energy production.

Plant-based meat uses 72%–99% less water than conventional meat (l-water/kg-meat).

Animal agriculture guzzles almost a third of the water used in global agriculture. Of that water, 99.8% is used in the cultivation of feed crops, draining aquifers that could be used for drinking water or wasting rainwater that could be used to grow food for humans. By requiring only, the crops that end up in the final product, plant-based meat production cuts out the primary water requirement in conventional meat production. Even though processing accounts for 14%–45% of plant-based meat’s total water use, conventional meat’s water use far surpasses that of every plant-based meat evaluated to date.

Plant-based meat causes 51%–91% less aquatic nutrient pollution than conventional meat (g-PO43-eq/kg-meat).

Eutrophication is a leading threat to global water quality, and animal agriculture is one of its primary sources. Eutrophication occurs when nitrogen and phosphorus runoff into waterways, stimulating the growth of algal blooms that suffocate aquatic life. Animal agriculture is doubly harmful, thanks to pollution from the fertilizer used on feed crops and the manure animals produce. Each of the largest pig farms produces more excrement than the city of Philadelphia, but they don’t have wastewater treatment facilities. Manure often sits in open lagoons before being sprayed over nearby fields, creating extreme health risks for local communities.

Plant-based meat solves both problems. It requires a fraction of the cropland and proportionately less fertilizer. It also produces no manure, eliminating both the eutrophication and the direct human health risks associated with massive amounts of untreated animal waste.

Table 2: Industrial animal agriculture threatens the environment and society in four key ways. Here’s how plant-based meat stacks up:

Plant-based meat requires no antibiotics.

In the United States, over 70% of medically relevant antibiotics are used in animal agriculture. Healthy animals are fed low doses of antibiotics to speed growth and prevent disease, causing bacteria to adapt and become resistant. Many of these antibiotics are used in human medicine, so when bacteria become resistant, hospitals can no longer defend against them. If left unchecked, by 2050 drug-resistant microbes could kill 10 million people each year (more than currently die of cancer) and cause a cumulative $100 trillion in economic damage (as much as the global economic crisis of 2008–2009).

Plant-based meat requires no antibiotics at all. It also greatly reduces the risk of antifungal resistance, which can arise from the use of fungicides on crops, because plant-based meat requires much less crop production than conventional meat.

Pathway to a sustainable food supply

Between its resource efficiency and its appeal to consumers, plant-based meat has tremendous potential to help build a sustainable food supply. However, there’s still a long way to go. Truly meat-like products have been widely available to consumers only since 2013, and plant-based meat still makes up just 1% of the retail meat market. After millennia of optimization, animal agriculture is hitting declining returns in quality and efficiency, but plant-based meat can continue to improve by leaps and bounds. Public research can support the development of new products and processes to make plant-based meat even more delicious, affordable, and environmentally sustainable than it already is.

A level playing field will ensure that these products can compete fairly in the marketplace. This requires commonsense labeling rules and evidence-based safety standards. Institutional support from food companies, food service providers, governments, and environmental advocates can accelerate the transition to a sustainable food system.