Plant-based meats have muscled their way onto supermarket shelves and restaurant menus nationwide—billed as a more environmentally friendly alternative to beef. But are they, really? Here, we dig into the science for all you conflicted cheeseburger lovers.

Jonathan Kauffman
April 29, 2021
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Celeste Holz-Schietinger, vice president of product innovation for Impossible Foods, is walking me through a tour—virtually, thanks to the pandemic—of the company's Oakland, California, factory. The "clean room" where the manufacturing takes place looks as if a demigod has transformed the space, turning every wall, pipe and machine she touched into stainless steel. Workers in white jackets, gloves and face shields scrub and squeegee the equipment surfaces, then tap a touchscreen to set the automated processes in motion.

Holz-Schietinger points out a paddle mixer the size of a walk-in closet, into which the workers maneuver heaps of soy concentrate, potato protein powder, oils, water and a few binders and flavorings, followed by a gush of crimson leghemoglobin (heme)—the iron-rich, bloodlike ingredient that makes their plant-based burger look and taste like red meat. "What you see here on the far right, the white granules—that's cold, shredded fat from coconut and sunflower oils," she interprets. It gives their Impossible Burger its meaty marbling. A great turbine churns the mass, which now has the exact appearance of ground beef, onto conveyor belts to be formed into patties and flash frozen.

A room-sized mixer may not be the image that comes to mind when we think of changing our diets to reduce their environmental impact. Where are the lush fields and abundant crops, the red barns, the cows placidly munching under an endless sky?

But some argue that when you examine the numbers, plant-based meats like the Impossible Burger are radically better for the planet than beef. The manufacturing process is more efficient than raising large animals for 18 to 24 months. "That is where 90% of all the energy goes," says Holz-Schietinger, referring to the resources required to grow, process and transport both the livestock and their food. Cattle, for example, require far more feed than other sources of meat—like pigs, poultry and fish—as much as 100 calories of feed for every 1 calorie of beef we eventually eat. And by some estimates, global livestock production creates as much greenhouse gas emissions as all the world's cars, planes and ships combined.

When I started calling scholars and scientists to ask how much better plant-based beef might be for the environment than actual beef—and why—I didn't realize I was charging into a thorny maze of environmental claims and data. The means researchers use to calculate the planetary impact of a product like the Impossible Burger, let alone a steer, are speculative and contentious. And yet, I emerged from the maze holding an emotion I rarely feel when it comes to climate change: hope.

An Unsustainable System

An illustration of a hand holding up a box of veggie burgers
Credit: Raymond Biesinger

First, a few grim statistics, which you may already be familiar with: The United Nations projects that by 2050, the global population will have risen from 7.8 billion to 9.7 billion. But the demands we're placing on the planet to feed ourselves have already slammed up against the limits of the Earth's resources. Soil fertility is declining in the industrialized world, thanks in part to agricultural practices like overgrazing, pesticide and fertilizer use, and erosion. We're flailing as a species to keep the planet's average temperature from rising 2 degrees Celsius—the tipping point that would cause sea levels to rise 4 inches and create a worldwide crisis as people are forced to flee lands that are flooded or are too hot and arid to productively farm.

At the same time, demand for meat is projected to increase by 88% between 2010 and 2050, and there's no way to supply it. Half of the world's habitable land is already devoted to agriculture—and 77% of that is used for livestock and their feed.

Many researchers have called out animal agriculture—and specifically cattle—for its impact on greenhouse gases, land and water use, pollution and energy. "Meat from ruminants (beef, sheep and goat) is by far the most resource-intensive food," a 2019 World Resources Institute report on creating a sustainable food future concluded. "It requires over 20 times more land and generates over 20 times more greenhouse gas emissions than pulses [like beans and peas] per gram of protein." The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that around 9% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions worldwide come from producing beef and dairy, some from growing animal feed and some in the form of methane—the belches and farts cattle emit that the media loves to mention. The situation in the United States is slightly less draconian: the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that livestock agriculture represents 4% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

In order to feed more people and prevent the world from getting catastrophically hot, the WRI report proposed that Americans and other beef-gobbling countries cut their consumption by at least half. And the landmark 2019 "Planetary Health Diet" created by the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health—an international consortium of scientists—recommended reducing the amount of red meat we eat even further, to one 3-ounce serving per week, for both environmental and health reasons. That's no small ask, given that the U.S. consumes more beef than any other country: the average person downs around 3 ounces daily. "If everyone ate beef the way we do, we'd need another planet," says Timothy Searchinger, a Princeton researcher who co-authored the WRI report.

It's one thing to grandly say we should eat less meat, and another to convince steak-loving Americans to do it. In 2017, when Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat (maker of the Beyond Burger) came out with plant-based hamburgers that mimicked the real deal more successfully than their predecessors, their environmental pitch was this: If people are given a plant-based option that's just as good as the beef patty they're used to, they will readily switch and do what's right for the planet.

These companies have since attracted billions of dollars in investments, their products are found in fast-food chains like Burger King and Dunkin' as well as the refrigerated meat sections of major grocery chains, and their meteoric success has ushered in a gold rush for alt-meat makers. Long-standing veggie burger companies, such as Lightlife and Morning-Star Farms, have introduced more beef-like versions. Even Tyson Foods, the world's second-largest processor of beef, chicken and pork, has rolled out a line of plant-based meats.

Americans seem to be buying in. According to the Plant Based Foods Association, sales of refrigerated meat alternatives grew 63% between 2018 and 2019 alone. And a recent Michigan State University Food Literacy poll found that 35% of people—and almost half of those under the age of 40—have eaten plant-based meats in the past year. That number spiked even higher this spring, perhaps driven by reports of COVID-19 outbreaks in meat-packing plants, along with meat shortages.

A cynical person might suspect that convincing beef eaters to go plant-based is more about making bank than making a sustainable future. After all, of the 68 pounds of beef the average American consumes annually, roughly half is in the form of hamburgers. So saving the planet could prove very lucrative. To determine just how much lighter the carbon footprint of these burgers might be, I dug into the—very complicated—research.

Meat Your Match

An illustration of animal meat processing
Credit: Raymond Biesinger

Given its environmental message, Impossible Foods has, not surprisingly, commissioned extensive studies into the benefits of switching to plant-based meats, including a 2019 life-cycle assessment comparing conventional beef to the Impossible Burger. These types of assessments are in-depth estimations of the energy, water and land required to make a product, as well as the volume of greenhouse gases the process generates, phosphate runoff (from manure and chemical fertilizers) that pollutes rivers and oceans, and other factors. Many companies use life-cycle studies to identify inefficiencies in their manufacturing and find ways to reduce their planetary impact. And the scientists who conduct these studies will admit: they can be powerful marketing tools.

To complete the life-cycle assessment on the Impossible Burger, a consulting firm named Quantis calculated hundreds of data points related to every ingredient used in the burger patty, including how much water, pesticides and fertilizers it takes to produce the soybeans, the energy required to refine the coconut oil from the Philippines, as well as the resources used to process the plant-based meat itself. Quantis even figured out how much fuel it took to transport ingredients to the company's Oakland factory, based on the weight the average semi hauls. Then it compared the results to data from a conventional beef supplier in the Western plains.

Like the majority of the farms raising cattle for beef in the U.S., this unnamed producer raises a calf with its mother on pasture for the first six to eight months of its life, then transitions it to a mix of hay and spent distillers' grains for a few months before moving it to a feedlot, where it bulks up on grains, such as corn, until it reaches slaughter weight. The researchers asked an equally dizzying number of questions about that process, too: How much fertilizer did the feed corn require? How much land was required to produce the alfalfa, and how far was it transported to the ranch? How much methane did the average steer expel over the course of its life?

Quantis used all these calculations to compare 1 kilogram of Impossible Burger "meat" to 1 kg of beef. The study found that the Impossible Burger requires 96% less land, contributes 90% less phosphates to the soil and waterways and produces 89% less greenhouse gas emissions. These dramatic numbers are echoed in similar life-cycle assessments that other plant-based meat companies—Beyond Meat, Quorn and MorningStar Farms—have commissioned.

Of course, many of the data points in these studies involve speculative number-crunching, and there's no way to prove real environmental impact. "Whenever you read life-cycle assessments, understand that researchers can cherry-pick data in the existing literature to come up with the right answer for their objective," says Jason Rowntree, Ph.D., an associate professor of animal science at Michigan State University, who studies ranching. And he's saying that as someone who has conducted these types of studies.

Rebekah Moses, head of sustainability at Impossible Foods, admits the study does a lot of hairsplitting, but says that it is an effective way to communicate bigger ideas, like the global impact of giving up beef. Choosing plant-based meat over animals, she says, is an "elegant solution" to climate change. "This is one of the only viable, scalable, transformative tools we have," she says. In a 2018 study published in the journal Science, agricultural researchers analyzed hundreds of life-cycle assessments to calculate the global impact of going completely plant-based. It found that this type of diet would reduce the land required to produce food by an area as big as Africa and lower the amount of greenhouse gas emissions enough to offset the total amount produced in the U.S. annually—6.6 billion metric tons. Water use, as well as land and water pollution from inputs like pesticides and fertilizers, would also drop precipitously. Granted, these benefits would come from nixing all meat, but giving up beef would account for the largest share of them.

I called up chef Anthony Myint, co-founder of Mission Chinese Food and Zero Foodprint, a San Francisco-based organization that helps restaurants reduce their carbon footprints, to see what he made of studies like this. He told me that he was originally excited about the possibilities of plant-based meats, but eventually decided that they reinforced the status quo. "If we assume that we can't change a single thing about the agricultural industry, and that the goal is to make the best choice, then plant-based meats make sense compared to factory-farmed meat. But if the goal is to actually move toward solutions, then that becomes a different conversation."

He emailed me a life-cycle assessment on a farm using regenerative agriculture methods to raise beef, which is how I ended up on a video call with a rancher on horseback.

The Regenerative Way

As I teleconferenced with Sam Humphreys, manager at Carman Ranch in northeastern Oregon, he flipped his iPhone camera around so I could see his morning cattle drive. Above the bobbing head of his horse were 50 Harley-Davidson-sized yearlings trundling 2 miles north to an uneaten stretch of pasture. Carman Ranch only brings yearlings to these rangelands, in the foothills of the Wallowa Mountains, for a few days a year in the spring, then gives the land an entire year to recover.

"That's what turns into beef," he says, scanning the 8-inch-high grasses all around him, which had been a half-foot taller when the cattle arrived to eat. "We focus on how we get them the best feed to gain the most weight per day. By moving them often, it allows them to pick at what they want for their best nutrition." Most ranchers allow cattle to graze their pastures down to the nub, which overstresses the grasses and legumes, leads to poor soil health and erosion, and allows less-nutritious weeds to intrude. Regenerative agriculture—what Humphreys practices—uses managed grazing to stop the process far earlier to help the plants recover. The grasses become more nutritious and robust, aided by the manure the cows leave behind, and the soil becomes healthier and better able to retain moisture. Robust plants with a healthy network of roots can also draw carbon out of the atmosphere and store it underground, helping to mitigate climate change. No irrigation pipes, fertilizers, herbicides or tractors are needed—just sunshine and rain.

So, yeah, there are grasses and contented cows in this story after all.

The narrative that plant-based-meat advocates tell, some ranchers and beef-industry researchers say, simplifies the complex role animals play in the environment. For one thing, the idea that cattle consume 100 calories for every 1 calorie of meat they produce doesn't take into account what they're eating—especially in the U.S., where most rangelands are unfit for row crops and evicting a cow to plant chickpeas or soybeans is not an option. "Ruminants are so important on land that can't be used to plant stuff we can eat," says ranching expert Jason Rowntree. "In that case we have an opportunity to convert sunlight and grasses to milk, meat and leather."

The science demonstrating how regenerative ranching sequesters carbon is scant but promising. That life-cycle assessment Myint sent me was one that Quantis—the same consulting firm that did the Impossible Burger study—conducted on grass-fed beef from White Oak Pastures, a 3,200-acre farm in Bluffton, Georgia. There, Will Harris raises cattle along with nine other species of animals, practicing rotational grazing to build up organic matter in the soil in the form of decomposing plants and manure, which he augments with compost.

The study found that soils on the ranch had captured so much carbon that the gains compensated for all of the methane and carbon dioxide tied to its cattle production—and then some. In fact, the White Oak Pastures farm sequestered an estimated 3.5 kg of CO2 equivalents (a unit that stands for the total impact of all greenhouse gases, including methane, CO2 and nitrous oxide) per 1 kg of beef. A four-year study that Rowntree helped conduct at Michigan State University showed even more impressive results: Cattle on land managed through rotational grazing produced a carbon sink equivalent to 6.5 kg of CO2 equivalents per 1 kg of beef. Conventional beef production, on the other hand, emits around 33 kg of CO2 equivalents per 1 kg of meat.

Just to get a sense of how this compares to plant-based meats, Quantis' Impossible Foods study found that producing 1 kg of Impossible Burger emitted 3.5 kg of CO2 equivalents.

Now, researchers say you can't stack the results of different assessments next to one another, because each study relies on differing data sets. But when Myint talks about finding solutions instead of choices, this is one of the solutions he wants to see: the potential for cattle ranching to remove carbon from the atmosphere.

Demand for sustainably raised beef is on the rise in the U.S. According to the market research firm SPINS, grass-fed beef retail sales (which includes regenerative) now total $254 million annually, and grocery-store sales of grass-finished beef grew 16% between 2018 and 2019. That sum doesn't account for the direct-sales programs that many small ranchers operate—which is how the vast majority of regeneratively raised beef is sold.

One of those direct-sales operations is Carman Ranch, the end destination for the cattle Sam Humphreys herds up the Wallowa foothills. The company's owner, fourth-generation rancher Cory Carman, explains, "When I think about the possibility in agriculture to create a carbon sink and the tie between soil health and carbon sequestration, we only have one viable future, and that is to make sure we're growing food in a way that is building soil."

She has seen noticeable improvements on her family's lands in the decades since she began practicing rotational grazing— particularly in the fields on which her ancestors cultivated wheat, where the soils had eroded so dramatically that she steps down a foot onto the fields from the surrounding ground. She's reversing that loss with the help of cattle.

Carman planted perennial grasses and cover crops like oats, turnips and sunflowers for the cattle to eat, and the animals' natural fertilizer has allowed her to eliminate usage of the man-made stuff. The grasses now grow earlier in the spring and later in the fall, the plants are more vigorous, the soil is healthier and retains more water, and pollinators, birds and other wildlife are returning to the pasture in greater numbers. Increasing soil productivity and cutting costs are the kinds of benefits farmers like Carman respect, even if grocery-store shoppers don't give a hoot. "Beyond carbon sequestration, the question is how do we harness more energy in the soil? How do we retain more water? We do that by increasing plant cover and improving biodiversity, and we achieve that by grazing livestock as a beneficial tool," says Rowntree.

The growing evidence that regenerative agriculture can restore overgrazed lands and help mitigate climate change has spurred several tech companies to develop a way to measure and pay farmers for sequestering carbon in their soils—-incentivizing ranchers nationwide to switch to more sustainable practices.

Some experts also believe that, regeneratively raised or not, beef cattle (and the methane tied to their belches and farts) may not be as bad for the planet as they're often made out to be. While methane is indeed a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2 initially, it degrades quickly, according to Ermias Kebreab, Ph.D., an associate dean of the college of agriculture and environmental sciences at the University of California, Davis. "Methane doesn't stay in the atmosphere like CO2," he says. "In 12 years, the methane that has been emitted today will become neutralized." But CO2 can stick around several hundred years or more. Plus, studies he has worked on have shown that U.S. farms have already made great strides in reducing the environmental impact of conventional cattle operations by improving the breeding stock, the energy efficiency of equipment and the diets of cattle to reduce methane emissions.

Choosing the Most Planet-Based Burger

Illustration of the process of producing meat
Credit: Raymond Biesinger

So, is beef a problem or a solution?

The answer depends on whether you're talking to advocates of plant-based meats or regenerative agriculture. All these life-cycle assessments appear to show that making plant-based beef cuts down on greenhouse gases, phosphate runoff and water use compared to conventional beef—-immediate, drastic reductions. And Moses from Impossible Foods says the company is able to scale up rapidly, building factories in any corner of the Earth, using ingredients that are readily available on the commodity market and producing millions of pounds of protein.

There is still an environmental impact, of course. Most plant-based meats are based on soybean or pea protein, coconut oil and other products that are grown through monocropping, use genetically modified seeds (the soybeans most companies use are Roundup Ready GMO), require fertilizers and herbicides and have a track record of degrading the soil.

Regenerative ranching is no panacea, however: depending on the region, it may require supplemental fertilizer or irrigation. And scalability is an issue. Cattle raised on grass from birth to slaughter require 2 to 2½ times the amount of land as those raised conventionally—land we don't have to spare. And sustainability researcher Timothy Searchinger adds that if somehow the world could free up cropland and turn it into good pasture, it wouldn't create anywhere near as dramatic carbon gains as returning pasture to forest, particularly in the Eastern and Midwestern parts of the United States, where most of the cropland is.

Unless the country makes major shifts in research and policy—which overwhelmingly support commodity livestock—grass-finished beef will remain a niche product for privileged eaters. And it doesn't help reduce the global demand for animal meat, which groups like the EAT-Lancet Commission and the World Resources Institute say is necessary if we're to feed an ever-more-crowded planet and mitigate climate change. "We do need better grazing. Better beef production," says Searchinger. "But we also need the world's wealthy people—meaning Americans—to eat less beef."

What I see in both strategies, however, is the potential for real and significant change. So here's a third path, guaranteed to annoy both camps: Given that organic, natural and grass-fed beef only makes up 3% of the U.S. beef market, and plant-based meat represents 1% of meat sales, why can't we back both solutions with dollars and legislative support? The planet needs ready fixes to the growing food crisis as well as long-term ones—foods that reduce our environmental impact as well as reverse it.

Why not replace the cheap ground beef in our Taco Tuesdays and weeknight chili with plant-based meat, and buy flavorful, regeneratively raised beef on those occasions when we want to savor it? In 30 years, if we figure out how to feed 10 billion people and contain global warming, we can argue over which meat had the biggest effect.

Jonathan Kauffman is a James Beard Award-winning journalist and author of Hippie Food. He lives in Oregon.

This article originally appeared in EatingWell Magazine, December 2020