However, while eating less meat is certainly an admirable goal - both for health and environmental reasons, it is also important that we take a good look at what is replacing meat in our diets.
If you are going to stop eating meat completely, what are you eating in its place?
I ask this because I have known vegans who rave all day about how wonderful it is to be vegan, and how everyone else should be as well, and how eating vegan has made them so much healthier, etc., yet when you take a look at what they eat, it consists in large part of highly processed vegetable oils and grains (along with artificial colorings, thickeners, preservatives, flavorings, etc.) - none of which are AT ALL healthy. (In fact, cleanly sourced meats are, in my opinion, MUCH better for you than these "Franken-foods.")
In particular, one type of processed foods that has skyrocketed in popularity in recent years due to the "plant-based" eating movement is fake meats or meat substitutes. Fake meats are touted as being healthier, more sustainable, and more ethical than real meat - but are they really?
Today we take a closer look at the world of fake meats to find out...
Supposedly, these (mostly highly) processed and synthesized foods are better for your health, better for the environment, and better for the animals who don't have to die to feed you. However, when you look closely at these claims, it is unclear whether or not they are actually true - and many of those who promote them have their own agendas. As a recent article from LocalHarvest.org pointed out, "There is significant wealth and whole organizations tied up with convincing consumers that "meat analogs" and plant-based meat replacements are the ones you should be choosing."
If you were to simply eat less meat (shocking idea, I know), or choose cleaner sources of meat, these companies and investors would not make money off you. They only make money if you buy more of these new fake meat products that they have invested in.
Now, to be fair, this is true for the meat industry as well, obviously. However, don't think that these organizations who are heavily promoting the consumption of fake meats are all doing so for selfless reasons. They are in it to make a buck, as well! Not that there's anything wrong with that... But what bothers me is that so many people simply believe what they hear - assuming that since these meat substitutes don't come straight from a factory farm, they must be more sustainable, right??
Well, maybe not...
You see, regardless of whether these meat substitute products are actually plant-based, or lab-grown from animal cells or serum, the ingredients have to come from somewhere. Like animal feed, these ingredients were transported - likely from far away - to be turned into fake meat. The production and transport of these ingredients still has an environmental impact. Like any processed food, the creation of fake meat requires a large amount of both energy and water. (And by the way, for those who think that "vegan" foods mean no animals were harmed, think again! Large-scale industrial farming - yes, even of soybeans - kills millions of animals every year via habitat destruction and the chemical pesticides used in growing crops.)
Of course, raising livestock requires energy and water as well - and industrial farming practices require quite a lot of both. On the other hand, there are also ways to raise livestock that require much less water, and significantly less energy.
So let's break it down with a quick comparison, shall we?
Fake Meats/Meat Substitutes (Plant-based and/or lab-grown)
- Inputs: Ingredients - Plant derivatives and/or animal cells
- Environmental Impacts: Production/growth (energy, water, destruction of animal habitats), and transportation (fossil fuels, emissions).
- Processing: Synthesizing, grinding, washing, combining, cooking, packaging, etc.
- Environmental Impacts: High energy and water usage (fossil fuels, water depletion, potential water pollution).
- Outputs: Unknown. (Most producers of fake meat do not release data due to the protection of trade secrets. As a result, no one outside of the industry actually knows the full life cycle impacts of these products.)
Industrially Raised Meats:
- Inputs: Feed, water, medications.
- Environmental Impacts: Production/growth (energy, water, etc.) and transportation (fossil fuels, emissions, potential water pollution).
- Processing: Butchering, packaging.
- Environmental Impacts: Slight-to-moderate energy and water usage (fossil fuels, water depletion).
- Outputs: Manure, CO2 gases (pollution of air and water due to manure lagoons and excess methane production from grain-fed animals).
Sustainably Raised Meats (Grass-Fed, Rotational Grazing):
- Inputs: Water (much sourced from rainfall); Potentially small amounts of purchased feed or hay in winter, depending on the location.
- Environmental Impacts: Slight to none, depending on feed choices and availability.
- Processing: Butchering, packaging.
- Environmental Impacts: Slight-to-moderate energy and water usage (fossil fuels, water depletion - same as above).
- Outputs: Smaller amounts of CO2 gases (pollution of air), due to reduced methane production with reduced grain feeding.
While the fake meat industry insists that it has a lower carbon footprint, there is virtually no scientific research to support this. On the other hand, we know very well the carbon footprint of raising animals - and we also know what to do to minimize it.
We know exactly what the environmental impact is of raising a steer, a pig, or a chicken. And we know that we can reduce this impact dramatically by purchasing meat locally, from farmers who utilize proper rotational grazing practices and choose breeds well suited to their local environment, and by eating the whole animal to reduce waste and get the most nutrient value out of each animal.
But there is another aspect to sustainability as well - beyond the environmental impacts, there is also an impact on community. In fact, some studies show that small farming communities could suffer greatly should fake meat become the norm.
When you think about it, do you know any farmers that produce tofu-burgers? Not exactly. And while of course, some farmers do grow soybeans, the price they receive for these is far below what they would make from raising meat animals.
Fake meats come from large corporate-owned factories, not from small-scale family farms. As Local Harvest asks, "Do we want more colonization of our food supply by venture capitalists or do we want democratized, small-scale farming businesses that invest in and give back to our communities?"
In my opinion, a food supply that is managed by corporations instead of families and individuals, one which is so opaque as to obscure not only the origins but the complete life cycle of our food, and which we have zero control over or say in, is decidedly NOT sustainable.
In fact, it is the opposite of sustainable. It means that our food supply can easily be disrupted by weather patterns in a completely different part of the country (or the globe). It means that a lapse in food safety at one plant could kill thousands (or even millions) of people. It means that we have no connection to our food, and no way to know whether it was grown or raised ethically or in an environmentally responsible manner.
Now, I know I'm going to have some people yelling at me for this article, but please understand that I'm not saying that everyone should continue eating lots of meat, or even that these fake meats are necessarily a bad thing. Instead, I am suggesting that neither of these options are as black and white as some may make it seem.
I do think that most people in America eat way too much meat - and this obviously has environmental consequences. However, it is also possible to raise and consume meat much more sustainably and responsibly, especially on a smaller scale.
I also feel that not eating meat is a perfectly valid choice, and that most of us would do well to eat less of it than we do. But be aware that when you choose to substitute something else for meat in your diet, that has consequences as well, and we would be wise to consider both sides before we embrace the fake meat trend as the absolute solution to eating sustainably.
In the interest of a thoughtful discussion of our food supply,
Sources: Local Harvest Newsletter - January 2018.