I used to be a vegan.
Like, a hardcore one. I had “vegan” tattooed on my arm (now covered up) and followed a strictly “plant based” diet for over 6 years. It was my entire identity.
I thought it was logical that veggie burgers and meat-less meatballs were a million times better for animals and the environment.
Of course meat is horrible for the planet. I mean, factory farms are basically the devil incarnated, right?
But then I got into agriculture.
Suddenly, some complicated realities shattered my black-and-white thinking…
Not all meat is raised in factory farms
Meat (especially “red meat”) has been villainized in our culture long before the vegan-craze.
There’s lots of other types of meat worth mentioning, but here we’ll focus on beef since most of the fake meat subs are beef substitutes.
Beef has been under attack for decades for contributing to climate change, water pollution, and a myriad of health issues.
Given the predominant paradigm of animal agriculture in America (industrial-scale confined feedlot operations), the meat-hating masses have some good points up their sleeves.
Confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs- better known as “factory farms”) are amongst the most polluting, inhumane, and energy-intensive agricultural systems known to man.
They depend on massive amounts of inputs (GMO, pesticide-drenched grains) and excrete horrific levels of waste that pollute air and waterways, not to mention all the animal rights issues associated with CAFOs.
The only issue is: not all meat is raised in factory farms. Not even close.
Maybe that’s obvious, but it was a real brain-buster for my young vegan mind.
Anyone who cares about soil, water, ecology, or animal rights agrees that factory farms are complete garbage. At least vegans and regenerative grass-based ranchers can stand in the same opinion on this topic.
Feedlots should not be the gold standard that we compare with meat substitutes.
In fact, feedlot meat and fake meat have a lot more in common than you would think…
Fake meat & industrialized veganism
The concept of fake meat, faux meat, or plant-based protein is pretty new to human society.
Yes, eastern cultures have used tofu and legume-based proteins for centuries, but the highly-processed fake meat “alternatives” like Beyond Meat, Impossible Burgers, and Tofurky are a whole new ballgame.
With McDonalds and Burger King launching their own plant-based burgers, the industrialized vegan diet is officially mainstream.
Many are quick to praise the Impossible Whopper as being lower in calories, fat, and cholesterol than the regular Whopper, but doesn’t that miss the point entirely?
Give me a freaking break! Remember when veganism used to mean eating real whole food like fresh fruits and vegetables?
The Whopper was never healthy to begin with — for people or the environment.
Fast food represents the industrialized factory farm food chain at its finest.
Simply substituting fake meat for CAFO meat is a bandaid on a much deeper issue of agriculture and food in our society.
Plant-based = HUGE carbon footprint
The environmental footprint of producing pea protein isolate, soy protein concentrate, canola oil, sunflower oil, coconut oil, and potato starch is MASSIVE compared to that of a (single ingredient!) grass-fed beef burger.
As a farmer and soil scientist, it humors me to see the “statistics” on the carbon footprint of real meat versus plant-based meat.
Where the hell do they get the stats for Impossible burgers using “96% less land, 87% less water and 89% less greenhouse gas emissions” than real meat? What farm did they come from? With what growing practices? With what inputs? And what meat production are they comparing it to?
There are as many ways to farm as there are farmers, so you should look at those stats with a very skeptical eye. It is very easy to pull numbers from the worst and compare it to the best for the most drastic effect.
Regardless of their statistics, the reality is: annual crops grown in monoculture (corn, soy, wheat, peas, sunflower) are among the most environmentally destructive form of agriculture.
Annual means that they have to be replanted every year. Monoculture means only one type of crop is grown over vast acreages.
Guess what that means? Tillage, fertilizers, chemicals, inputs, and loads of emissions!
If we are so concerned about the greenhouse gas emissions of meat production, why isn’t anybody talking about the fossil fuels used to make fake meat?
Fertilizers & pesticides are fossil-fuel based
Emissions aren’t just from tractor fuel and cow farts. We have to look at the much bigger picture.
Did those stats take into account the fossil fuels needed to make synthetic inputs (fertilizer, herbicides, and pesticides) used to grow fake meat ingredients?
People don’t realize that common synthetic fertilizers (like MiracleGro, urea, ammonium, or 20–20–20) are made from fossil fuels. They are synthesized in huge factories using methods that date back to World War II’s nitrogen bombs.
Fertilizer production accounts for about 1.2% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Fertilizer (mainly nitrogen) represents the greatest fossil fuel energy use in U.S. Agriculture. It is followed by direct fuel consumption (tractors), energy use in irrigation and grain drying, and off-farm transport.
Synthetic herbicides and pesticides sprayed on lovely fake meat ingredients are also petroleum-based.
Petroleum chemicals like ethylene and methane are essential for synthesizing these chemicals. Though the overall energy used in pesticide production is small compared to fertilizer production, pesticides still require 2 to 5 times more energy per pound to manafucture.
“In the United States, approximately 1.25 billion pounds of pesticides are used annually; nearly half are herbicides (1).
The fruit and vegetable industry uses the largest amount on a per acre basis, but, because of their large area of cultivation, the feed and food grain crops lead by far in total use. Forages and pastures overall use the least per acre and in total (2)”
-National Cooperative Extension, USDA NIH
As shown above producing those plant-based burger ingredients (“food grain crops”) requires the greatest amount of pesticides and therefore the greatest energy expenditure.
“But what about organic soy or organic canola?” you may be asking. Well, none of these fake meats appear to give a damn about production practices.
Fake meat ingredient lists clearly indicate they are using conventional legumes, oils, and heavily processed ingredients.
The immense negative health and ecological impacts of pesticide use to grow those ingredients is a whole different conversation.
For now, let’s keep focusing on the emissions. These industrially-grown monoculture crops also contribute to a staggering level of soil destruction…
Tillage releases CO2 Emissions
Tilling is the act of grinding up the soil with machinery. It is the most common form of soil preparation in crop agriculture.
Did those plant-based vs. meat stats calculate the amount of carbon released to the atmosphere by tilling the soil to grow the crops for Beyond Meat burgers?
Tilling or ploughing the soil releases 114% more CO2 emissions than no-till farm systems like pasture-based livestock.
Unsurprisingly, 99% of corn, canola, soy and legume (peas, beans, etc.) production in the United States uses tillage.
Perhaps that’s why the Midwest has lost over 1/3 of its topsoil — over 100 million acres in the past century!
That level of erosion has removed nearly 1.5 petagrams of carbon from hillslopes.
That’s 1.5 billion metric tons of carbon loss (CO2 into the atmosphere) due to tillage… to produce your plant-based burgers and the myriad of other corn, soy, or commodity crop-based products.
Soil degradation is one of the greatest issues of our time and could contribute to a catastrophic Dust Bowl, food shortage, and even worse climate outcomes.
So is fake meat really better for the planet?
Well, it depends what type of food production you’re comparing it to.
It’s about the equivalent, or maybe slightly better than factory farmed meat.
But when we start talking about grass-fed regenerative meat production, the conversation pivots entirely.
The point is: Nothing is black and white!
- Not all meat is bad!
- Not all plants are good!
- Fake meat is not a solution to climate change or bad industrial farming practices!
- Crop production has an huge carbon footprint that is conveniently ignored when focusing on the emissions of cows in feedlots.
- You can’t compare apples to oranges. The entire premise of fake meat is based on a comparison to the absolute worse form of livestock production (factory farms or CAFOs).
“It’s easy to farm when your plow is a pencil and you’re 1,000 miles from the cornfield.” -President Eisenhower
While I’m not advocating for more plows or cornfields, Eisenhower still makes a great point about uninformed spectators deciding what is better or worse for the planet.
If you’ve never seen an industrially-farmed canola field, how do you know it’s better (in a fake meat product) than a grass-fed beef ranch?
Yes, many beef operations are horrific for the environment, but then again, many are sequestering carbon (reducing the impacts of climate change) while regenerating pastures, producing real unprocessed food, and building soil.
As a vegan living in suburbia, I was quick to attack farming methods that I didn’t understand. I thought all meat farmers were factory farms. I thought all plant-based vegan foods were “safe” and good for me.
It wasn’t until I actually started growing food and working on farms that I began to see the bigger picture of our food system.
Farming and food are complicated, especially in an industrialized world.
Don’t be too quick to judge before doing your research. And don’t believe everything they tell you. Think critically all the way back to the source.
Fake Meat as a “solution” to environmental issues of real meat may be the greatest marketing ploy of our time. Only time will tell.