From the Impossible Whopper to Tofurkey: What’s the Environmental Impact of Plant-Based Meat?

A woman creates a ball of "impossible burger."
Photo provided by Impossible Foods
November 26, 2019

Plant-based meats have been gaining popularity in recent months, from the Impossible Whopper to Beyond Meat, and with Thanksgiving around the corner, it’s not too late to grab a Tofurkey. We connected with Wellesley duo Jaclyn (Jackie) and Erich Hatala Matthes to discuss the increasing popularity of these kinds of products and their impact on the environment. 

Jackie Hatala Matthes is an assistant professor of biological sciences who investigates ecosystem disturbances, including insect and pathogen outbreaks and climate change; she has weighed in on UN climate change reports on animal and plant extinction. Erich Hatala Matthes is an associate professor of philosophy who researches and teaches the ethics, politics, and aesthetics of cultural heritage, art, and the environment. He’s currently teaching a first-year seminar on the ethics of eating. In 2016, the pair collaborated on a book chapter about the ethics of food waste.

Q: What impact can selecting plant-based meat over animal meat have on the environment? 

Jackie Matthes: In almost all circumstances, plant-based meat substitutes have a lower environmental impact than animal meat. Animals that are raised for meat consume plant-based food, and as a rule of thumb it takes 10 pounds of animal food to produce one pound of animal meat. This means that about 90 percent of the plant-based food animals consume is released as solid or liquid waste, or exhaled as carbon dioxide, making it much more efficient from an energy perspective to directly consume plants instead of consuming animals that consumed plants. Not to mention the problem of dealing with the environmental impact of large amounts of animal waste on water quality. 

The consumption of animal meat is also a large source of the greenhouse gases that are causing climate change. Greenhouse gases are emitted during the agricultural production of plants in order to feed animals (with about 90 percent of that energy lost along the way) in addition to direct greenhouse gas emissions from animal waste and methane from cattle burps. 

Q: What is the connection between moral issues and environmental issues when it comes to deciding whether to eat meat? 

Erich Matthes: Environmental issues are moral issues: Whether one is ultimately concerned with the environmental impact on humans, other animals, or the protection of environmental systems for their own sake, to reason about what you ought to do in relation to these concerns is to engage in moral thinking. 

That being said, different moral concerns may lead to different conclusions about what we ought to do. Animal rights groups and environmental conservation groups, for instance, have not always been natural allies. 

Happily, I think greater availability of plant-based meats is something everyone can get behind. Preliminary data suggest that the vast majority of plant-based meat consumers are not vegetarians. That’s great news, because it means people who would have otherwise been eating meat are choosing a nonmeat option. If the primary consumers of plant-based meats were already vegetarians (and the number of vegetarians has not exactly been increasing), there would be less to write home about. 

Q: How much of an effect can plant-based meat have on the climate crisis?

Jackie: Ultimately, to slow the climate crisis we need to drastically reduce greenhouse emissions, of which 13 to 18 percent come from animal livestock, but of which the large majority comes from burning coal, oil, and gas. However, we need all solutions, and consuming more plants and fewer animals is also generally associated with improved overall human health. So like increasing the efficiency of a building to save on energy costs while reducing fossil fuel use, reducing average American meat consumption could also be a win-win by improving human health while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

From an environmental impact perspective, the adoption of plant-based meats by corporations is encouraging, because even small reductions in the amount of meat Americans consume can translate into large reductions in greenhouse gases. And on average, people in the U.S. and Canada eat twice as much protein as the daily requirement, with more than half of that coming from animal protein. Making the choice between animal meat and plant-based meat easier, even on an occasional basis for people who are not vegetarians, could go a long way. 

Erich: I think it remains to be seen whether the greater availability of plant-based meat alternatives will yield more vegetarians, but as I suggested, I’m not sure converting people to strict vegetarianism is nearly as important as reducing the meat consumption of nonvegetarians. And from a pragmatic perspective, I think it’s much easier to convince someone to reduce their meat consumption than to give it up altogether. 

No one thing is going to be enough to substantially mitigate the effects of climate change, and we will need to address many other kinds of adaptive strategies beyond what people eat. But it will at least help!