Op-ed: Fake Meat Won’t Solve the Climate Crisis | Civil Eats

Op-ed: Fake Meat Won’t Solve the Climate Crisis

A new report questions the dramatic environmental claims that alternative proteins can save the planet, disrupt the status quo, or challenge the power of the corporate food industry.

Impossible alternative protein fake meat burger. (Photo CC-licensed by Ted Eytan)

Photo CC-licensed by Ted Eytan

When you’re told there’s a simple solution to a very complex problem, you’re probably not getting the whole story.

Today’s meat consumption is a good example. Meat and dairy are increasingly under the world’s microscope as livestock—which rely on huge quantities of feed crops and occupy nearly 80 percent of global farmland—accounts for between 14 percent and 30 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. It’s also the source of more frequent antimicrobial-resistant pathogens, and much of the global livestock and seafood industries have been exposed for unsafe and abusive working conditions.

This complex web of problems requires more than one answer. And yet “alternative proteins”—from plant-based to lab-grown “fake” meat and dairy—are being promoted as a simple solution. Products like the Impossible Burger, with its 15-plus ingredients, are now in supermarkets and fast food establishments worldwide. Lab-grown chicken has been on the market in Singapore since late 2020 and will likely soon be approved in the U.S. and elsewhere. These products are being sold as a “win-win-win” for animals, people, and the planet. According to Patrick Brown, the outspoken CEO of Impossible Foods, livestock is “the most destructive technology on earth,” and meat substitutes are “the last chance to save the planet.”

“Alternative proteins and their sustainability credentials rest on shaky ground—as chemical-intensive, heavily processed foods, they have major impacts on human health, biodiversity, and climate change.”

Dramatic claims about plant-based meat, lab-grown meat, and “cellular agriculture” have already succeeded in drawing billions of dollars to the sector, including from big-name investors like Bill Gates and Richard Branson. Governments are now paying attention as well. China is readying major investment in lab-grown meat as part of its latest Five-Year Agricultural Plan, and the U.S. government is ploughing $10 million into a National Institute for Cellular Agriculture. Denmark is also backing alternative proteins through a $98 million plant-based food fund.

But these products and their sustainability credentials rest on shaky ground, as I show in a new report out today, “The Politics of Protein,” from the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food).

Firstly, the idea that these alternative proteins can save the planet is highly speculative. These claims are based on a narrow assessment of which products can deliver the most protein for the least CO2. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. Products like the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger source their ingredients from chemical-intensive (and therefore fossil fuel-intensive) monocultures and rely on heavy processing—all of which has major impacts on human health, biodiversity, and climate change.

Factory farming clearly has huge impacts of its own, but the environmental and social impacts of livestock vary massively. In some parts of the world, raising animals helps to use limited land and resources efficiently, buffer against food shocks, and provide livelihoods where few options are available. Livestock contributes to the livelihoods of 1.7 billion smallholder farmers in the Global South, and plays a crucial economic role for approximately 60 percent of rural households in developing countries.

Highly processed alternative proteins may therefore be more harmful than animal source foods in some contexts, depending on how they are produced.

Secondly, the idea that these products can “disrupt” the status quo and challenge the power of the corporate food industry is highly misleading. Start-ups may have initiated the boom, but nearly all of the world’s meat and dairy giants have now rolled out their own “fake meats” or bought up existing players. Nestlé, for example, has acquired Sweet Earth, while Unilever has bought up The Vegetarian Butcher. JBS, the world’s largest meat processor, has snapped up another market-leading meat-free brand, Vivera, adding to its portfolio of more than 100 brands—including organic meat lines.

“Nearly all of the world’s meat and dairy giants have now rolled out their own ‘fake meats’ or bought up existing players.”

Many of these corporations are also investing heavily in lab-grown meat and seafood manufacturers in the hope that these products will soon be market-ready. These are the exact same firms that dominate sales of conventional (factory-farmed) meat and dairy, i.e., the products that alternative proteins are supposed to replace. As a result, it is becoming increasingly difficult for consumers to know who is behind the brands, and increasingly hard to avoid the world’s agribusiness giants—even when opting for a so-called alternative product.

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Thirdly, plant-based and lab-grown meats are being promoted on the basis that they are the only alternatives that people are willing to eat. In reality, eating habits can and do change dramatically, as evidenced by the fact that meat and fish consumption has doubled over the last half century. Another major dietary shift—toward more diverse diets and less processed foods—is now possible, and urgently needed.

But rather than accelerate this change, alternative proteins are likely to reinforce “center of the plate” diets that are insufficiently varied and heavy on processed foods (whether that central item is conventional meat or an imitation). So far, rising consumption of alternative protein purchases has not led to a reduction in meat and dairy sales.

The food industry in fact has a long history of reshaping eating habits not for the good of society but for their own bottom line–e.g., it invented fish sticks to dispose of large blocks of frozen fish, and high-fructose corn syrup in response to a rapid increase in U.S. corn production.

Finally, these products promise to get people more protein with less damage, but do we really need more protein or new sources of it? Although we’ve been told for decades that more protein is needed to feed a growing population, most people in the Western world eat much more protein than their bodies can use there is no global protein shortage. Even most children in low-income countries are getting enough high-qualty protein.

Protein deficiencies are rare, but are most prevalent in parts of the world that have insufficient access to food more generally. In other words, what we see is not a protein gap, but a food gap. But by framing the debate so narrowly, companies have helped focus attention on simplistic silver bullet solutions—which are not simple at all.

“The food industry has a long history of reshaping eating habits not for the good of society but for their own bottom line—with fish sticks, high fructose corn syrup, and more.”

The hype around alternative proteins also diverts our attention away from solutions that are already working on the ground: shifting to diversified agroecological production systems, strengthening territorial food chains and markets, and building “food environments” which increase access to healthy and sustainable diets. These pathways respond holistically to challenges whose breadth and depth have been well-evidenced. They entail transformative behavioral and structural shifts. They require sustainable food system transitions, not merely a protein transition. Yet without a consolidated set of claims and claim-makers behind them, these pathways are systematically sidelined.

Today’s food system is complex.

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“Ultimately, we don’t just need to change the products we’re eating—we need to change the entire food system.”

How do we move toward systemic change instead? We can reclaim public resources from Big Protein and address concentration of power across the food system, including through new approaches to antitrust and competition law. We can also strengthen alternative supply chain infrastructures as a means to build up and support existing independent producers—not just those who start companies with the intention to sell them to the existing industry giants. And we can build regional food strategies that reconnect crops and livestock, use land and resources efficiently—and deliver on the multiple aspects of sustainability.

The rise of highly processed alternative proteins is symptomatic of broader problems in the way we approach food systems: looking through a narrow lens, focusing on breakthrough technologies, and listening to those who shout the loudest. It is time for governments to stop subsidizing the largest food processors in the world and further reinforcing their power, based on claims that are dubious at best and highly misleading at worst. Ultimately, we don’t just need to change the products we’re eating—we need to change the entire system.

This article has been updated to better reflect the number of ingredients in an Impossible Burger.

Philip H. Howard is a faculty member in the Department of Community Sustainability at Michigan State University, a member of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems, and the author of Concentration and Power in the Food System: Who Controls What We Eat? (2021). Read more >

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  1. Richard Grant
    The terms “animal meat”, “plant-based meat”, and “lab-grown meat” are descriptive of their source.
    If you Google the term “fake”, the results include designed to deceive or cheat, not real, counterfeit.
    Using “fake” may save a number of characters that headline writers could use elsewhere, but it puts the thumb on the scales for “conventional meat”.
    • Richard Grant
      Do people who use “the fake meat industry” also say --
      For electric bulb manufacturers, “the fake lighting industry”?
      For auto manufacturers, “the non-animal-pulled vehicle industry”?
      For pharmaceutical manufacturers, “the non-magical-healing-formulas industry”?
  2. Diana Rodgers, RD
    I'm glad that the fake meat industry is being exposed for what it is, but I'd like to point out a couple of things in this article. Firstly, livestock globally only contribute 5% to GHG emissions. That 14.5% was based on Livestock's Long Shadow and has been highly criticized because it was looking at a full LCA for cattle but compared it to only emissions from transportation. Because we don't have full LCA numbers for transportation, it's inaccurate to compare LCA numbers with tailpipe emissions from transportation. Anne Mottet and Frank Mitloehner have written about this, as I'm sure the author knows.

    Secondly, in the US, we only consume about 2oz of beef per person per day - this is not "too much". The article linked in this post incorrectly assumes that 46 g of protein for women is for the optimal amount for all "average" women however this is based on the "ideal bodyweight" of 125lbs for women, and the RDA is the MINIMUM requirement, not the optimal level of protein. The average weight of a woman in the US is 165lbs, the at 0.8g per kg of bodyweight, the average woman in the US needs far more than 46g of protein per day, especially those over 40 or who are pregnant or breastfeeding.

    Beef is more than just protein, it contains critical micronutrients that even high income countries are commonly low in. I cover all of this in the book Sacred Cow: The Case for Better Meat and speak specifically about why animal-sourced foods are critical at solving our undernutrition issues here: https://sustainabledish.com/the-curse-of-plenty-overfed-and-undernourished/
  3. Lynne Pledger
    Amazing that there is no mention here of 100% grass-fed beef—regeneratively produced—as the best answer to the multiple woes offered by the conventional, corn-based feedlot system. In terms of both health and environmental concerns, raising and finishing cattle on pasture offers multiple benefits: produces healthy protein, builds soil fertility, avoids the ills of chemical fertilizers and biocides, protects against droughts, and floods, sequesters carbon...and has been proven in the field and in peer-reviewed journals.
    • Tec
      I totally agree, grass fed best. How do animals stay ggrass fed in winter though? Silage?
  4. Jennifer K Moore
    It's so exhausting/annoying/absurd when people make this argument. The #1 reason vegans and vegetarians eat plant-based meat is to eliminate or reduce harm to animals. Any positive environmental impact is just a plus. It is about animal cruelty vs. animals' wellbeing, and I don't understand what's so hard to understand about this. Please stop talking about environmental impacts when the overwhelming amount of deforestation is because of land use dedicated to raising livestock and the food those animals are eating.
    • Lynne Pledger
      Your number one reason for being a vegetarian is animal well being, but for others it is the belief that meat-eating is bad for the environment. To address two statements in your message that I believe are misguided: 1. Cattle can be raised on existing grasslands with no increase in deforestation and with tremendous carbon sequestration - a net climate benefit. 2. Cultivation of cropland kills and maims wildlife and destroys habitat, whereas livestock can be raised humanely and killed painlessly. These are documented facts. It is a mistake to assume that all meat eaters are thoughtless and cruel.
    • Louis Wentz
      Have to disagree. Recent studies are indicating that millennials are eating less meat or rejecting altogether because of environmental considerations. I have transitioned to a plant dominant diet for the health benefits. Vegan may be an animal welfare choice, but if people are eschewing meat for health reasons or buying Beyond Burgers as transition food to a more plant based alternative, there is still an overwhelming animal welfare and environmental benefit.
  5. Carter Randolph
    Science - true science - has shown that grass fed and finished cattle raised in a rotational grazing system actually sequester carbon on the ground. All tillage systems including so called no-till - put carbon in atmosphere so fake meat offers no solutions to carbon in atmosphere. Then there is the nutrition issues: multi-species grass pastures create grass finished beef that is full of phytochemicals - something we need to thrive. Vegetables have similar levels as grass finished beef but fake meats like corn fed beef have very low levels of phytocehemicals. There is a big differenced between nutrition and calories and nutrition requires far more than the 13 things USDA measures on labels. Real Grass FED/FINISHED BEEF sequesters carbon and can be produced on hillsides not suitable for grains. Further using LEY Farming, you eliminate the need for chemical fertilizers that generally are produced from oil.
    The USDA incentive machine needs to be changed to eliminate subsidies of paid to Buffet and others to produce corn - which today is around 5% protein but historically was over 10% protein -- ethanol needs sugars not proteins. The food system will change when the government gets out of the food business -- a business the government is destroying not to mention the disease that is a result of empty calories instead of producing nutrition
  6. You are ruining the lives of animals by referencing synthetic foods being harmful. There is no irrefutable evidence that this is so. Meat is derived from caged, tortured, suffering innocent animals who have caused you no harm. Instead, why don't you target a diet consisting of something even better, like fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and grain that have thrived in the sunshine, not from some poor miserable being that caused you no harm.
  7. Tamarque
    Nice article but misses THE major issue: Consolidation of ownership of food that can be patented for profit. we have heard Monsanto state their goal is to own all the world's seeds that they can patent; ie, the goal of GMO seeds. Bill Gates has the same nefarious and fascist goal of controlling the world thru food and promotes fake meat which can be patented for profit and control. These billionaire people have no humility about nature and seek to gain complete control over our natural life processes for profit and power. And while Bill Gates wants to control the human consumption of protein via fake meats he also promotes a eugenics goal of ridding the world of 15% of the population. Guess who the target population for elimination is!!!
  8. Appreciate this article. very interesting, but I was disappointed there is no mention of the Regenerative Farming movement which uses old sustainable methods as part of a comprehensive and environmentally-rejuvenating system. The main culprit in modern agri-business is all the adulterated foods on the market which are not only laced with toxic chemicals but add to the problems of pollution, animal cruelty, disease in humans, animals and devastation of nature.
  9. Laura Haker
    Thank you, Mr. Howard, for your reasoning on food sustainable production rather than new-fad, fake-food lab systems. Give me, any day, the healthy land, cattle, grassland, and the good old fashioned farmer.
  10. This was an eye opening article. I feel like the increasing availability of 'ethnic food' and Asian supermarkets in the US has made it possible that people will eat less red meat. Tofu? Lentils?
    There's a lot of delicious Indian and Asian food that's quite easy to cook if you have the right spices. But how to get people interested and familiar with all the possibilities? There's some chinese and japanese restaurant chains, how about a chain of fast food Indian restaurants?
  11. But it save needless torture and death of innocent beings

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