Greenhouse gas emissions from meat production are a disaster for climate change, but plant-based meat substitutes like soy are sometimes even worse for the environment. To protect both the planet and consumer choice, look to innovation in lab-grown meat technology. Meat is killing the planet. Even enthusiastic meat-eaters (myself included) cannot escape the substantial greenhouse gas emissions involved in getting steaks onto our plates. A University of Illinois paper, published in Nature Food in 2021, found that meat production is responsible for more than a third of all global emissions, meaning the meat industry pollutes more than double the entire US economy.
There are two different ways we could deal with this situation. The first, promoted by most of the environmentalist movement, is to go vegan. By abstaining from animal products and adopting a plant-based diet, they claim, we can eliminate the demand for animal farming and therefore drastically reduce that industry’s impact on the planet.
Unfortunately, the world is not as simple as this. When we stop eating meat, we have to find other sources of protein. Besides lentils, beans, pulses and legumes, there are very few natural protein sources which do not come from animals – and the few plant-based proteins that exist have plenty of their own environmental problems.
The runaway favourite among most vegans these days is soy. Meat substitutes like tofu and tempeh use soybeans because they provide protein without needing to farm any animals. Soybeans contain lots of protein and minimal saturated fat. The production of soy still emits a non-negligible quantity of greenhouse gases – just under one kilogram of emissions per kilogram of product – but much less than meat, especially beef, which can reach up to 99 kilograms of emissions per kilogram of food product. So far, so good.
Sadly, this is where the problems start. Soy beats beef on emissions, but it loses badly on practically every other environmental score. Soy production causes soil erosion and contributes to droughts because of the amount of water it uses up. It is a disaster for biodiversity, too. Perhaps worst of all, because it is such an inefficient crop to grow, it uses up huge swathes of land which fuels deforestation.
Soy is a catastrophe for the natural world. Switching from beef to soy products is harming the environment in new and destructive ways. Simply ‘going vegan’, then, is not a good way to reduce the impact on the planet of our dietary choices (and, of course, it means fewer options as consumers). There must be a better way, and indeed there is.
As is so often the case, the answer to this problem is innovation. Those of us who want to do our bit to save the planet while still enjoying meat and other animal products do not need to go vegan. Instead, we can simply sit back and let the free market do what it goes best.
Just a few years ago, the idea of widely available, safe and cheap lab-grown meat might have seemed like a pipe dream. Today, though, it looks closer than ever. Growing meat in a lab, rather than farming animals, means we can enjoy meat products without needing to farm cows, meaning methane emissions are no longer a concern, not to mention the animal welfare implications of mass farming.
Lab-grown meat is making its way to supermarket shelves at a strong pace. A company based in Israel, for example, has recently won approval from American regulators to sell its lab-grown chicken in US restaurants. One study estimates that by 2035, almost a quarter of global meat consumption will be lab-grown meat.
It seems inevitable that lab-grown meat will become the norm for many. That would be a substantial improvement on the current situation, where the only way to avoid the greenhouse gas emissions of meat production is to opt for an underwhelming vegan diet high in soy, which ruins the planet in different ways. Innovation, not abstention, is the solution to the problem of meat killing the planet.