Center for Biological Diversity Position Statement on Plant-based Meat

The Center for Biological Diversity supports Beyond and Impossible burgers and other food innovations urgently needed to accelerate the shift toward plant-forward diets, which will reduce the environmental devastation caused by meat and dairy production.


Meat production is a key driver of both the global extinction and climate emergencies. One million wild plant and animal species are threatened with extinction due to habitat destruction, pesticides, pollution, killing and invasive species.1 If greenhouse gas emissions aren’t halved in the next 10 years,2 humans and wildlife alike will suffer catastrophic climate change.3 Meat production also contributes to food insecurity, poor public health, air and water pollution, dangerous worker conditions, inequality and inhumane treatment of animals. Transformative social and structural change is needed to avert these crises, including revolutionizing our food systems. We need to rapidly and dramatically reduce meat and dairy consumption and production and shift toward sustainable, plant-forward diets.4


An ideal food system would provide balanced nutrition through plant-forward, organic, regionally appropriate, minimally processed foods. But to reject important advances that are already driving change because they don’t simultaneously meet all these ideals is unrealistic and ultimately self-defeating. The urgency of the extinction and climate emergencies demands the support of policies, technologies and markets that reduce meat consumption—and hence meat production—as quickly as possible. The rapid mainstreaming of plant-based foods due to the widespread adoption of Beyond and Impossible burgers has shown a potential to disrupt meat-centered diets and industries to a degree of which we previously could only dream. They point toward a near future in which plant-based food is accessible, familiar and sought out in grocery stores, cafeterias, fast food chains and restaurants. The Center supports and embraces these innovations because they serve justice and promote the protection of land, water, climate and wildlife.


Meat and dairy production, including grazing lands and agricultural lands producing cattle feed, take up an astounding 30%5 of the Earth’s surface and 80% of all agricultural land in the United States.6 Livestock raised for feedlot and grass-fed beef production imperil wolves, grizzly bears, beavers, prairie dogs, bees, butterflies, rare plants and hundreds of endangered species in the United States.7 ,8 ,9 Annual U.S. beef production generates 337 billion pounds of greenhouse gases,10 489 billion pounds of manure,11 requires 682 million acres of land,12 and uses 21.2 trillion gallons of water.13 ,14 ,15


In comparison with beef, Beyond and Impossible Burgers produce 89% to 90% fewer greenhouse gas emissions, reduce land use by 93% to 96% and water use by 87% to 99%, and generate no manure pollution.16 ,17 In addition, plant-based meats do not require slaughter, which means slaughterhouse waste like blood and offal does not pollute rivers, workers do not face high rates of injury and exploitation in horrific working conditions, and farmed animals do not suffer for plant-based meats to be produced. 


The current generation of rapidly advancing plant-based foods is necessarily part of an inherited complex and flawed industrial-food system. Due to the expense and limited availability of organic plant protein, most are not organic and some use genetically engineered (GE) ingredients to meet growing demand or to avoid using non-GE, but rainforest-depleting, Brazilian soy. The Center has fought, and continues to litigate, against the Environmental Protection Agency's approval of pesticide products for spraying on soybeans and other commodity crops genetically engineered to withstand what would normally be a fatal dose of pesticides such as glyphosate, 2,4-D and dicamba. Our work to reduce the harms caused by pesticides, genetically engineered crops and monocultures is advanced by plant-based meats, which use dramatically fewer resources. It takes between 40-58 pounds of feed, often comprised of monoculture crops like GE corn and soy, to create just one pound of beef,18 while plant-based meat like the Impossible Burger uses no more than 8 ounces of soy per pound.19 Thus even when plant-based meats use GE crops, they still reduce the overall demand for GE soy and other monoculture feed crops.


While other plant-based burgers have long been available, they have not dramatically altered the dietary choices of meat eaters, who make up the majority of the U.S. population. The mainstreaming of Beyond and Impossible burgers is changing this: About 90% of customers ordering Impossible Whoppers at Burger King are meat eaters,20 and 86% of people who eat plant-based meat alternatives are not vegan or vegetarian.21 Every plant-based burger they consume instead of beef reduces the demand for meat.


More than 1 in 3 Americans eats fast food each day.22 To change our food system, we have to meet people where they are, including at the drive-thru. The existence of widely available meat alternatives that appeal to, and are being embraced by, meat eaters is an important step for a living planet. The Center applauds this step as urgently needed progress toward reducing meat consumption and production.


It's estimated that by 2040, 60% of meat will be plant-based or from other alternatives to animal agriculture.23 This rapid increase will provide opportunities and incentives for plant-based meat companies to further transform food systems by increasing the use of healthy protein sources, phasing out genetically engineered crops, eliminating the worst pesticides from supply chains, embracing sustainable agriculture, and promoting pollinator-friendly agricultural practices. Plant-based meat companies should also set targets to mitigate their environmental impacts by maximizing use of distributed solar energy and minimizing packaging waste and pollution.

 

FAQs

Q: How does plant-based meat help address the climate and extinction emergencies?
A: Scientists have determined that as many as 1 million wild plant and animal species will face extinction in the coming decades if immediate action isn’t taken to reduce threats to biodiversity, including habitat loss, climate change, water extraction, air and water pollution and pesticide use in agriculture.24 This devastating loss of biodiversity is also a threat to food security, public health and efforts to reduce poverty.25

Similarly, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has made it clear that greenhouse gas emissions must be halved in the next decade to avoid catastrophic impacts to people and life on Earth.26 But if current consumption trends continue, food production will nearly exhaust the global carbon budget for all sectors by 2050.27 Meat and dairy consumption and production must be dramatically reduced to keep global emissions below 1.5 degrees Celsius.28

Products like plant-based meats that advance more sustainable dietary choices are a key part of transforming the food system to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, protect habitat, increase food security, reduce poverty and improve public health.


Q: Aren’t processed foods bad for us and for the environment?
A: Most foods are processed in some way to modify raw ingredients in order to make foods edible, improve taste or nutritional value, or extend shelf life. Public health concerns typically refer to “ultra-processed” foods (UPF) such as snacks and fast foods.29 When it comes to sustainability, UPFs often use monoculture crops and may require more greenhouse gas emissions during processing. However, comparing plant-based meats to the animal products they’re intended to replace, environmental benefits are significant.30 ,31

Plant-based meats have a similar nutritional profile to their animal-based counterparts and offer benefits such as being free from cholesterol. Some plant-based meats are lower in fat, lower in calories and a source of healthy fiber.32 Food technology also offers the opportunity to continue improving nutrition, such as further lowering sodium, fat and calories in plant-based meats. It’s important to note that, like the burgers these alternatives are replacing, these foods are not intended to be health foods, and should not be used to replace nutritious whole foods. 

It’s a false comparison to claim that plant-based meats are ultra-processed but hamburgers are not based on the list of ingredients. Inconsistent regulations allow conventional hamburgers to be labeled as “100% beef” when the reality is that a pound of beef typically requires between 40-58 pounds of feed, usually including pesticide-intensive genetically engineered soy or corn,33 plus antibiotics, hormones and other pharmaceuticals, as well as potential exposure to feces, bacteria and viruses, and intensive processing through slaughter and packing.34 ,35 There is currently no federal regulation for grass-fed beef to guarantee that it was not raised on or finished with GE corn or soy or fed antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals.36 Although beef labeled as organic is held to a higher standard as far as hidden ingredients like pesticides are concerned, the environmental costs of production are still too high to be considered sustainable at current consumption levels.

High meat and dairy consumption are driving forces in the extinction and climate crises, which pose serious threats to public health and the future of humanity. They’re also associated with chronic diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes, cancer and obesity.37 The problems with industrial animal agriculture extend to excessive use of medically important antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals, disproportionate toxic burdens on marginalized and vulnerable communities, poor worker conditions and animal welfare violations.

Further, 48 percent of serious foodborne illnesses such as salmonella come from animal foods.38 To date there have been zero outbreaks of foodborne illness from plant-based meat.


Q: Aren’t genetically engineered foods bad for wildlife and the environment?
A: That depends. Some GE ingredients have no discernable impact on wildlife and the environment. For example, the GE heme used in Impossible Burgers is created in a lab and thus doesn’t have the environmental impact of increased pesticide use or cross-contamination with native species that GE crops or animals can have. Although the FDA process for determining the safety of GE products needs improvement, Impossible Foods exceeded current FDA standards for testing the safety of this ingredient.39

Some GE products can have devastating effects on the environment. That’s why the Center has been battling herbicide tolerant genetically engineered crops. The vast majority of GE crops—89%—are commodity crops like corn and soy genetically engineered for herbicide tolerance, meaning they can survive being drenched with what would normally be a toxic dose of herbicide (usually glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup).40 The use of glyphosate on corn and soybeans increased from 10 million pounds in 1995 — the year “Roundup Ready” crops were introduced — to more than 200 million pounds in 2016.41 ,42 This has had terrible impacts on the environment. For example, because glyphosate is a uniquely potent killer of milkweed, the sole food for monarch caterpillars, monarch butterflies have declined by 80 percent in the past 20 years as glyphosate use has increased.43 The next generation of GE crops are engineered for tolerance to dicamba plus glyphosate, or 2,4-D plus glyphosate.44 We are extremely concerned about the environmental impacts of increased use of these pesticides,45 ,46 and are currently engaged in litigation challenging their approval.47 ,48 Worrying levels of glyphosate, and many other pesticides used in both GE and non-GE agriculture, can be found throughout our environment and in our foods .49 ,50 ,51

Since it takes as much as 89 times the amount of GE monoculture crops to produce one pound of beef as it does to produce a pound of plant-based meat,52 ,53 even when plant-based options use GE soy they use far less of it, and thus have far less of an impact on the environment, than the average animal-based product. While displacing GE soy by using less GE soy is not an ideal solution, the urgency of our extinction and climate crises demand that we embrace solutions that work in the real world, even if they are less than ideal.

Many plant-based meat companies are forced to choose non-organic, GE ingredients because Big Ag’s seed monopolies, GE contamination from both pesticide and gene drift, and the current regulatory system have made it challenging for there to be enough non-GE or organic crops available to meet demand. In some cases choosing non-GE ingredients would force companies to source from places like the Amazon, which would increase their impact on biodiversity and the climate. Also, organic and GE-free ingredients can be more expensive, and since plant-based meat producers don’t get the subsidies enjoyed by livestock producers, getting to a price point that is acceptable in the mainstream market is no small feat. Changes to the regulatory system and agricultural markets are needed to support the use of non-GE ingredients, but for the sake of wildlife and a livable climate, we can’t afford to let plant-based meats fail while we work toward achieving these changes.


Q: Aren’t plant-based meats too expensive for the average consumer?
A: Plant-based meats currently cost more than animal-based meats due to government subsidies and financial bailouts that prop up industrial animal agriculture and cheap meat. In 2018 the livestock industry received $677 million in subsidies, and more than double that if you include dairy program and animal-feed subsidies, while fruits and vegetables received less than $1 million.54 These subsidies suppress the price of meat, distort market demand and encourage overproduction. If subsidies were shifted to support sustainable agriculture or if livestock producers had to account for the true environmental costs of production, meat would be much more expensive.

Plant-based meats also currently cost more than unprocessed plant-based proteins (e.g. beans and legumes recommended as part of a healthy diet), but they’re more convenient and accessible to people who may not have the ability or time to prepare meals from scratch. It’s important to have delicious, familiar plant-based options available everywhere people eat, whether that’s at the drive-thru or when preparing a quick meal on the grill at home. Although some of these options may be more expensive than their animal-based counterparts on the menu, as with any new product, as plant-based meat production scales up, prices should drop.55

 

Contacts:

Lori Ann Burd, Environmental Health Program Director and Senior Attorney, (971) 717-6405, LABurd@biologicaldiversity.org

Stephanie Feldstein, Population and Sustainability Program Director, (734) 395-0770, SFeldstein@biologicaldiversity.org.

 

References


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