Plant-based meat substitute with best environmental performance

UBA paper looks at future prospects of meat substitutes made from plants, insects and in the lab.

A burger with plant based meat substitute.Click to enlarge
Meat substitute products aim to imitate the taste and texture of meat.
Source: Westend61 / Getty Images

Meat substitute products such as vegetarian sausage, schnitzel or meatballs are becoming increasingly popular in Germany. A study entitled "Meat of the Future" by the German Environment Agency examines the effects which meat substitutes have on the environment and health and what role they could play in a future diet. According to the study, plant-based substitutes, for example from soya, wheat or peas, perform best from an environmental point of view. Compared to beef, they produce up to less than a tenth of the greenhouse gases and use many times less water and land. Insect-based meat substitutes do not come off quite as well. In vitro meat is not yet available on the market, making it difficult to assess its environmental impact.

The study attributes high potential to meat substitutes in general but sees major obstacles in the political framework and in terms of acceptance. President Dirk Messner of UBA said: "Meat production is proven to be harmful to the environment and contributes to global warming. Our study shows that meat substitutes could play a major role in a more environmentally friendly and also healthier diet. However, as long as the price of food fails to reflect environmental damage, people will continue to favour cheap pork chops over soybean schnitzel for a long time to come. This is where policy-makers are called upon to change these conditions.”

Plant-based meat substitutes perform best compared to conventionally produced meat. One reason for this is that plants such as wheat and soya can be used directly for human nutrition. If plants are first used as animal feed, significantly more plant calories are needed, as well as significantly more arable land, water and energy, before the calories are consumed by humans. Example: the production of one kilogram of soya-based meat substitute emits 2.8 kg of greenhouse gases; pork production emits 4.1 kg, poultry 4.3 kg and beef as much as 30.5 kg.

Products made from edible insects rank second from an environmental point of view. Their eco-balance sheet is poorer than that of plant-based meat substitutes, but better than beef, pork and chicken, as insects can use feed more efficiently. The study calculates the greenhouse gas emissions for the production of one kilogram of insect-based meat substitute to be three kilograms. Little is yet known about the health effects of these products - they often contain more protein than meat, but also carry a risk for certain allergy sufferers. 

It is difficult to draw definitive conclusions on the environmental and health effects of in-vitro meat because only theoretical assumptions regarding life cycle assessments have been made. Initial forecasts presume in-vitro meat could perform better in terms of water and land consumption than conventionally produced meat, but worse in terms of energy consumption. In vitro meat is currently being produced for research purposes in growth media containing foetal calf serum, i.e. the blood of unborn calves. However, the use of an animal-free growth medium is crucial to the question of whether in vitro meat will prove to be of ecological, ethical and health benefit in the future. 

From a health point of view, vegetable proteins and plant-based meat substitutes offer an opportunity to reduce meat consumption, which is too high in Germany (roughly 60 kg per capita and year). The EAT Lancet Commission says a maximum of 15 kg of meat would be healthy and sustainable. Plant-based meat substitutes perform best when they are low-processed and have little packaging. A high degree of processing and additives in meat substitutes must be evaluated critically.

From an environmental point of view, meat substitutes offer a real alternative to animal meat. The growing consumption of meat and animal products worldwide and most of the current production processes cause considerable problems for the environment, animals and human health. These problems include pollution caused by high levels of greenhouse gas emissions from livestock farming, rainforest destruction to make way for the cultivation of soya as animal feed, the excessive use of antibiotics in farm livestock facilities, and the conditions under which animals are kept amount to animal cruelty. "Environmentally speaking, it is essential that we reduce meat consumption," said Dirk Messner.

The market share of meat substitutes in the global total meat market remains very small, with an estimated share of 0.5 to 0.6% in 2017, while in Germany the share is around 6%. Although sales in the meat industry in Germany are relatively stable, forecasts indicate that worldwide sales will rise sharply in the coming years. Sales are set to rise at a higher rate than sales of meat substitutes. Meat alternatives - plant-based in particular - must be promoted more strongly and their market share must grow worldwide if they are to play a significant role in a low-meat diet.

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