The Value of Plant-based Meat and Dairy Foods in a Just, Sustainable Food System
Read our position statement on the importance of plant-based meats in accelerating the urgent shift toward plant-forward diets to reduce the environmental devastation caused by animal agriculture.
Table of Contents
Animal products play an outsized role in driving the heartbreaking extinction and climate crises, and we urgently need a wide variety of effective strategies to reduce consumption of these products.1 There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to achieving this goal; we’re in an all-hands-on-deck emergency, called upon to embrace the best possible solutions.
Plant-based meat and dairy foods require far less land, water, and energy to produce than conventional animal-based meat and dairy2 3 4 5 6 and can play an important role in shifting society’s transition toward a healthier and more sustainable diet. Even products that use less-desirable ingredients, such as GE soy, require vastly less crop acreage to produce and are unquestionably better for wildlife, waterways, and our climate than their animal-based counterparts.7 8 Plant-based meat foods also eliminate or drastically reduce certain risks and harms inherent to conventional meat production, such as antibiotic resistance, manure and enteric pollution, the abuse of workers and local communities, animal suffering, and the risks of zoonotic disease.9
These benefits make plant-based meat and dairy foods an important, viable solution to the climate and biodiversity harms caused by our food system, so improving standards of sustainability and justice in the plant-based sector can make a meaningful difference. The practices and policies outlined in this document should be considered a minimum standard for all food production, including conventional meat and dairy. Due to the current, massive-scale overproduction of animal-based foods, however, such improvements have limited feasibility for implementation in the conventional meat and dairy sector.
The most effective way to rapidly reduce the environmental impact of our food system is to rapidly reduce the production and consumption of animal-based meat and dairy. While ideally that would mean a shift toward plant foods like beans, lentils, nuts, vegetables and whole grains, there are ongoing barriers to the widespread adoption of whole-food diets in the United States. As we work to overcome these barriers and improve public health, plant-based meat and dairy foods provide an easily accessible, familiar option to replace conventional animal-based foods that can help ease the pressure of food production on the climate and biodiversity.
No single solution perfectly addresses all needs for all groups and communities, particularly when it comes to the complex dynamics of culture, health, socioeconomic factors, food environments, and dietary knowledge and preferences. Rather than acknowledge these challenges, much of the current debate about plant-based meat and dairy foods relies on false dichotomies of food tech versus food sovereignty, market-based versus farm-based strategies, and short-term versus long-term solutions. Instead of this manufactured conflict, we need immediate options while we work together toward transformation of our food systems. We need to reach people where they are to shift consumption patterns in ethically and culturally appropriate ways.
Consumer research has shown that convenient meat substitutes are essential to transition those who eat heavy meat-based diets to a more plant-based diet.10 11 The most popular and widely available plant-based meat and dairy foods are helping convince people in the United States to enjoy meatless meals, including at fast food restaurants, which are visited by 1 in 4 Americans every day. Indeed plant-based meat and dairy foods may actually be an essential part of a transition to a just and sustainable system.
But it’s not enough for plant-based meat and dairy foods to simply exceed the very low standards set by conventional animal-based foods. To be truly sustainable, plant-based food production must be about more than just the ingredients on the menu; it must avoid replicating the inherent injustices industrial food production forces on the environment and the people who grow, process, distribute and consume that food. We therefore call on this growing, innovative industry to think bigger and deepen its investment in our collective future by employing additional practices to protect the environment, promote biodiversity, and advance justice.
Many plant-based meats, for example, are successful because they fit within our current food system. As a result, even though they require far fewer resources to produce than animal-based foods, they may still rely on harmful agricultural practices. As this industry scales up, we want it to far exceed the old standards by committing to lead the way in protecting the environment, biodiversity, communities and workers. Immediately changing what we produce is a critical step to triage the destructive pressure animal agriculture puts on land, water, wildlife and the climate. But ultimately, we also need to change how we produce food and work toward transforming our food system into one that prioritizes food sovereignty and the long-term health of people and the planet.
Advocates of regenerative grazing and pasture-based systems claim such practices are essential to minimize agriculture’s adverse environmental impacts, but their claims are often highly exaggerated, and based on limited data sets and antiquated perceptions that fail to take biodiversity and overall ecosystem health into account. While regenerative practices may have limited benefits over typical industrial meat production, particularly for animal welfare, these practices cannot be scaled up to meet current demand because the grass and land required for them simply does not exist.12 The consequences of greatly increasing extensive grazing would be devastating to imperiled wildlife like Sonoran pronghorns, monarch butterflies and steelhead salmon. Even the industry’s own analysis admits huge acreage would be required,13 and its conclusions are far more optimistic about environmental benefits than the science supports.14 15 And scale isn’t the only concern: These practices continue to harm wildlife via fencing, water scarcity, manure pollution, soil crust degradation and soil compaction, competition for grass and water resources, slaughter and carcass disposal, direct killing of so-called pest species like coyotes, bears and prairie dogs and other conflicts with vulnerable ecosystems grazed by nonnative domestic sheep and cattle.16
So regenerative animal-rearing practices can only be considered part of a feasible solution if meat consumption is greatly reduced, whether through increased intake of plant-based meats and dairy, whole-plant proteins (e.g., legumes) or other shifts in consumption — or, most likely, a combination of all three.
The plant-based meat and dairy food industry can play a crucial role in ensuring a just, sustainable food future, including by continuing to adopt best practices to help transition food production away from exploitative industrial systems toward just and sustainable models.
There are four key areas where the plant-based meat and dairy industry can improve its practices and standards to move toward greater sustainability: supply chain, operations, justice and policy.17 The following list of recommended metrics and commitments is not intended to be comprehensive but to provide a framework for companies to build on:
Targets and Commitments: Companies set clear, time-bound commitments for reducing the environmental impacts of their supply chain with associated action plans.
Accounting and Transparency: Companies track and publicly report the environmental impact of all suppliers, including but not limited to greenhouse gas emissions, food loss and waste, water use, water waste management, waste reuse and recycling (if any), habitat management, pesticide use and land use and conversion.
Climate: Companies conduct independently reviewed life cycle analysis of all greenhouse gas emissions, not just carbon, including but not limited to emissions from deforestation, land use, energy use, processing, packaging and transportation. Companies disclose conservation and other management practices used to maintain natural carbon sinks (e.g. grasslands, forests, wetlands, etc.) and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, such as onsite solar, replacement of tractors and other vehicles with electric vehicles or other options that reduce reliance on petroleum or biofuel, reduction or phaseout of petroleum-based products like plastic packaging, and other energy-efficiency initiatives.
Water Use and Pollution: Companies identify their water source (municipal supply, groundwater well, aquatic source). Companies conduct a biodiversity assessment for water use and management in their supply chain. They also disclose water filtration, conservation and other management practices and any incidents of noncompliance with water withdrawal or discharge permits and regulations. Suppliers monitor and set reduction targets for chemical contamination, nutrient contamination and eutrophication of waterways.
Land Use: Companies conduct a biodiversity assessment for land use in their supply chain. They also report on total land used, any land converted from wildlands for crops, actions taken to minimize impact on the land and any endangered animal or plant species impacted by land use. Suppliers have committed to zero deforestation.
Chemical Inputs: Companies disclose use of any agricultural chemicals (including pesticides, fungicides and synthetic fertilizers) in their supply chain including type of chemical, purpose, volume, period/duration of use, application (including pesticide-, insecticide- or fungicide-treated seeds) and a statement that such application is in compliance with USDA conservation standards and programs. Companies also report on how much of their supply comes from genetically engineered crops and monoculture farming vs organic, transitional, regenerative and/or rotated crops. Suppliers specify commitments to reduce or eliminate synthetic chemicals in their supply chain where feasible and disclose actions being taken to minimize chemical impacts on species in and around their fields (or those of suppliers). Companies work only with suppliers who commit to not using ultra-hazardous pesticides including atrazine, paraquat, organophosphates, neonicotinoids and second generation anti-coagulant rodenticides.
Biodiversity: Suppliers have committed to nonlethal wildlife management and disclose any use of rodenticides and avicides (what types, purpose, volume and duration of use) and any contracts or engagement with the USDA’s Wildlife Services and quantify and identify by species animals or birds that were killed/euthanized, removed/destroyed, freed/released/relocated or dispersed. Suppliers report on practices used to protect biodiversity or soils, such as pollinator plantings, buffer strips and zones, no-till practices and cover cropping. Regenerative claims must clearly define how they improve native biodiversity, soil health, water conservation and/or reduce emissions. Companies also disclose sourcing practices and certifications for ingredients commonly associated with wildlife harms and widespread habitat destruction (e.g. soy, palm oil, coconut oil) and identify areas for improvement, changes, replacement or further review.
Regional Farming: Companies commit to supporting regional suppliers to diversify their supply chain and reduce the environmental impacts of transportation.
Targets and Commitments: Companies set clear, time-bound commitments for reducing the environmental impacts of their operations with associated action plans.
Accounting and Transparency: Companies track and publicly report the environmental impact of their operations, including but not limited to energy use and related greenhouse gas emissions, ratio of emissions to product produced (GHG emissions intensity), water use, waste generation, and initiatives to improve production efficiency.
Renewable Energy: Companies commit to using 100% renewable energy within a specific timeframe, prioritizing community-based and on-site sources (such as rooftop solar panels) where available and rejecting false solutions such as biomass/biofuels, carbon offsets and other carbon credit schemes.
Waste Prevention: Companies commit to zero waste and disclose total volume of waste, management (including disposal and diversion) and prevention efforts for both solid waste and food waste.
Packaging: Companies invest in improving the environmental profile of product packaging, including reduction or elimination of virgin plastic, and report on percentage of packaging made from recycled, plant- or bio-based compostable, non-fossil fuel renewable, or reusable materials and efforts to implement more sustainable packaging.
Workforce Diversity: Companies track and disclose annual workforce diversity data, including race, gender, age and disability status by employee category. Companies dedicate meaningful resources to internal justice, equity, diversity, accessibility and inclusion initiatives and make a committed effort to ensure representation in positions of leadership. Companies have clear procedures for identifying and effectively addressing discrimination and harassment and for building company culture that encourages safety and inclusion.
Worker Rights: Companies have clear policies to guarantee worker health and safety, including but not limited to paid sick leave, health insurance and personal protective equipment (where needed or requested). Companies have a fair pay policy to ensure living wages and equitable pay scales.
Supply Chain: Companies require fair labor and environmental standards from all suppliers, and have implemented meaningful, periodic evaluation of suppliers, contractors and third-party certification bodies with clear enforcement of these standards.
Food Sovereignty: Companies prioritize working with Black, Indigenous, Asian, Latino and other marginalized farmers and food growers as partners. Companies work to remove barriers to food sovereignty and justice directly or indirectly caused by their operations or supply chain. Community values and underrepresented stakeholders should be included in decision making with community-driven solutions prioritized over corporate consolidation.
Community Engagement: Companies engage with stakeholders from Black, Indigenous and communities of color to improve understanding of potential impacts of their supply chain and products on diverse communities, culturally-appropriate marketing, and substantial dedicated financial initiatives toward building a just, sustainable food system for all.
Just Transition: Companies ally with efforts to shift production and consumption away from animal-based meat and dairy overproduction toward plant-based agriculture, including initiatives to support both plant-based meat and dairy foods and whole-plant foods. Companies support policies to improve equity and opportunities for Black farmers, Indigenous farmers and other farmers of color.
Food Safety: Companies disclose any product recalls or food safety violations and specific, timebound plans to address the issues. Companies also disclose any policy-related engagement around food safety standards.
Nutrition: Companies ally with efforts to improve nutrition security and access to healthy, nutritious foods, including both plant-based meat and dairy foods and whole-plant foods. Companies commit to periodic review of nutrient content to ensure a reasonable standard of nutrient density and identify any plans to reduce nutrients of concern (e.g. sodium, fat, sugar) and/or increase the inclusion of healthier whole food ingredients to optimize nutrient content.
Transparency: Companies share all political contributions, policy positions, association memberships and engagement at international, federal, state and local levels. Companies disclose how they’ve been affected by regulatory or policy changes, including any financial outcomes. Companies also report data used to influence policy, including targets, market research and methodology around claims related to displacement of animal products.
Rather than repeat the same problems of industrial food production, the plant-based meat and dairy industry must actively work toward a vision of a just, sustainable food system. Sustainability must be evaluated beyond rudimentary individual life-cycle analyses, which often leave out harms to biodiversity, working conditions in the fields and processing plants, diversity and equity across the supply chain, public health considerations in both production and consumption, and whether the products meet community needs.
The plant-based meat and dairy industry must hold itself accountable to higher, clearly defined standards for sustainability and justice. Although plant-based meat and dairy companies may currently have limited control over sourcing (particularly those using ingredients with limited availability or used as animal feed), they do have the ability to make public commitments to improve practices, invest in sustainable standards for suppliers, advocate for policies that support a just transition to sustainable agriculture and be transparent about the impacts of production on workers, communities and the environment and their efforts toward change. By applying its values of innovation and environmental-consciousness to its supply chain, policy priorities and partnerships, the industry can challenge the status quo of industrial agriculture and create new pathways to transform our food system.
1. Center for Biological Diversity Position Statement on Plant-based Meat. See: https://www.biologicaldiversity.org/programs/population_and_sustainability/food/veggie_burger_statement.html
5. Grant, C. A., & Hicks, A. L. (2018). Comparative life cycle assessment of milk and plant-based alternatives. Environmental Engineering Science, 35(11), 1235-1247. https://doi.org/10.1089/ees.2018.0233
7. Shepon, A., Eshel, G., Noor, E., & Milo, R. (2016). Energy and protein feed-to-food conversion efficiencies in the
US and potential food security gains from dietary changes. Environmental Research Letters, 11(10), 105002.
8. Gerhardt, Dr. Carsten, et al. (n.d). How Will Cultured Meat and Meat Alternatives Disrupt the Agricultural and
Food Industry? ATKearney. Retrieved from: www.atkearney.com/retail/article/?/a/how-will-cultured-meat-and-meat-alternatives-disrupt-the-agricultural-and-food-industry
9. United Nations Environment Programme and International Livestock Research Institute (2020). Preventing the Next Pandemic: Zoonotic diseases and how to break the chain of transmission. Nairobi, Kenya, pp. 7, 15, available at https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/32316/ZP.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
10. Weinrich, R. (2019). Opportunities for the adoption of health-based sustainable dietary patterns: A review on consumer research of meat substitutes. Sustainability, 11(15), 4028. https://doi.org/10.3390/su11154028
13. Rowntree, J. et al. (2020). “Ecosystem Impacts and Productive Capacity of a Multi-Species Pastured Livestock System” Frontiers In Sustainable Food Systems, 232. https://doi.org/10.3389/fsufs.2020.544984
14. Giller, K. E., Hijbeek, R., Andersson, J. A., & Sumberg, J. (2021). Regenerative agriculture: An agronomic perspective. Outlook on Agriculture, 50(1), 13-25. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0030727021998063
15. Hayek, Matthew. (2022). Missing the grassland for the cows: Scaling grass‐finished beef production entails tradeoffs—Comment on “Grazed perennial grasslands can match current beef production while contributing to climate mitigation and adaptation”. Agricultural & Environmental Letters. 7. 10.1002/ael2.20073.