Some time ago, I wrote a post on climate change and meat. I did some reading, and learned that, yes, animal-based foods do have categorically larger carbon footprints than plant-based foods. Worse, processing and transportation have very little to do with it–eating local, organic, minimally-processed etc. may be a good idea for many reasons, but climate change is not one of those reasons. The vast majority of the carbon footprint of an edible animal is simply due to the fact that it is an animal.
I couldn’t find a detailed explanation as to why, but a likely explanation has to do with the flow of energy. Simply put, every time energy changes form, a portion of it is lost (as per the Second Law of Thermodynamics) and the higher on the food chain you eat, the more energy has been lost along the way–and the more energy is involved, the more carbon emissions (I’m summarizing the post on meat, here, which I linked to above).
Lamb and beef, in that order, are by far the worst for the climate, at least in part because both are ruminants and therefor have digestive processes that produce huge amounts of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.
So while I’m not going to say everyone necessarily should become vegan (only the Sith deal in absolutes!), it is clear that meat cannot remain a major staple for large numbers of people.
But many of today’s vegetarians and vegans eat diets that look and taste as much like omnivorism as possible, thanks to the wonders of food science. The prevalence of fake meat and dairy is only likely to grow as the fakes get more and more appealing.
So, what’s the carbon footprint of fake meat?
Carbon Foot-printing Fake Meat
What I’m calling “fake meat” here includes anything that can stand in for meat on the table but was never part of a living animal. In some cases the phrase is a misnomer. A portobello burger, for example, doesn’t resemble meat and isn’t meant to, it’s just a vegetarian dish that is good in some of the same ways hamburgers are. And ground beef made from cloned cells in a lab (which can be done, it’s just too expensive to market yet) is real meat by any reasonable definition, it just wasn’t taken from a dead animal. But “fake meat” is a reasonable shorthand for the entire dietary genre.
Clearly, with such a wide variety of possible foods, we’re not after just one carbon footprint. On the other hand, tracking down individual footprints for anything that could possibly be used as a meat substitute would be time consuming and, in some cases, fruitless (I have tried; there is a reason I’m posting one day late this week!).
What we’re really after is a generality; is shifting to fake meat really a good idea for the climate? The short answer is a very cautious yes.
Making the Sausage
Fake meat, by definition, isn’t what it looks like or tastes like, so the trick is to pay attention to what it is, not what it seems to be.
A meatless hot dog made of seitan, for example, has much more in common with a hot dog bun than a hot dog, from either a nutritional or environmental perspective. Seitan is essentially wheat protein. It’s made by rinsing all the starch out of whole wheat dough. Carbon-footprinting a seitan product therefore involves analyzing the emissions involved in wheat production, plus those involved with processing. A meatless hot dog made of soy might have a very different footprint, and lab-grown cells would be different yet again.
One of the most exciting fake meats at the moment is the Impossible Burger, which has been through multiple iterations and is currently made mostly out of soy protein flavored with heme, a molecule found in blood that is partially responsible for the distinctive taste of red meat. It is largely thanks to heme that the Impossible Burger is almost indistinguishable in taste tests from ground beef. Fortunately, heme is not found only in blood. In this case it’s produced by genetically-engineered yeast.
Carbon-footprinting the Sausage
The Impossible Burger has been the subject of formal footprint analysis; its global warming potential (including that involved in processing) is 89% smaller than that of beef. There are a lot of details I have not been able to gather about that analysis (the footprint of beef can vary slightly, depending on how it’s raised and processed and so forth, so did they use average beef, or one particular kind for the comparison?), but I have a hard time imagining that the unknowns could make more than a few percentage points of difference either way.
Some back-of-the-envelope calculations (using figures from this article) therefore suggest that an Impossible Burger patty has a carbon footprint somewhere between that of an equivalent weight of rice and beans and an equivalent weight of egg. From a climate change perspective, it is a vegetable.
Most other processed fake meats are likely in the same range, for the simple reason that they, too, are vegetables, and processing them is unlikely to involve substantially more emissions than processing the Impossible Burger does.
Lab-grown meat could be an exception, simply because it is so different from other products–it deserves its own analysis–but since commercially viable production methods have not yet been developed, it’s too soon to say what the emissions of those methods might be.
As I wrote in my post on meat, carbon-footprinting animal products may be a little less straight-forward than it seems. For example, milk has a much smaller footprint than beef does, presumably since the footprint of the cow is spread out over her lifetime production of milk, rather than the smaller bulk of her meat alone. So the more meals an animal produces, the smaller her associated per-meal carbon footprint is? If that’s the case, then beef made from a cow previously used for milk should have a smaller per-pound footprint than dairy does, since eating the meat spreads the animal’s emissions out even farther. But is that true, or is there a piece of the puzzle missing?
More troubling yet is the issue that cattle and sheep are hardly new, so how can their emissions be causing a new problem? The obvious answer is that there are far more cattle and sheep and other domestic animals than ever before–much of the zoological part of the biosphere is currently either humans or animals being raised to be eaten by humans–but before we created what I like to call the modern massive mountain of moo, there were lots more wild animals. How can domestic animals have more emissions than the wild animals they replaced?
The reality is that climate change is best understood by looking at the biosphere as a whole, not by adding up the carbon footprints of various individual activities. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the levels of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere were, roughly speaking, stable, because the energy flow through the biosphere was stable, inputs balanced by outflow, like a savings account kept roughly stable through careful budgeting. Lately, though, we’ve been spending down the account, an activity that produces the short-term illusion of riches but always results in poverty at the end,
There are two forms of spending down the account: we can take energy out of long-term storage, by burning fossil fuels, or we can take energy out of short-term storage through unsustainable use of natural resources, such as excessive logging. Although there are greenhouse gasses, such as CFCs, that are a bit of a different story, the bulk of the problem of climate change is a shift in the energy flow of the biosphere caused by one form or another of spending down the account.
The question is, how can the replacement of wild ruminants by domestic cattle and sheep change the energy budget of the planet? Isn’t a bovine fart a bovine fart whether the bovine in question is a steer or a bison?
I haven’t seen this issue addressed by any other authors, but in some way or other, the way we raise meat animals must either require fossil fuels or it must constitute an unsustainable use of a living system. If meat did neither, it could not alter the energy budget of the biosphere.
A Vision for Moo
There are certainly those who believe we must all go vegan, or at least nearly vegan, for the good of the planet. The statement is controversial, in large part because there are considerations other than climate in play. Eating animals is the subject of legitimate ethical debate, an important consideration, albeit an unrelated one (it is possible for two equally important issues to have no direct bearing on each other). Eating animals is also an intrinsic part of various cultural and economic systems (another important but different issue). And there are environmental issues associated with meat other than climate–for example, grazing animals have been used in ecological restoration (for examples and discussion, please read this book and that book). So how all these various considerations might pull and tug real life into the actual future is far from clear.
But I’m still stuck on how the mountain of moo changes the biosphere.
Meat animals can’t possibly be contributing to climate change simply because they are eaten by humans as opposed to by wolves or carrion beetles. Since we have it on good authority that they are part of the problem, they must be so either because fossil fuel is used on their behalf, or because they are themselves consuming resources at an unsustainable rate.
Vegetables could also be produced with fossil fuels and at an unsustainable rate, and they eventually would be if humans all went vegan but did not otherwise change our habits.
The solution is therefore to make meat (and everything else) fossil fuel free and sustainable.
Now, there would be much less meat in such a scenario, so diets would have to change, but that would be an effect, not a cause. It’s the energy budget we have to fix first and centrally, otherwise we’re just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
Does that make switching to the Impossible Burger pointless?
We won’t build a new food production system if we continue to demand food that requires the old one. We have to create the tools we’ll need to build the future, and arguably that includes fake meat that meat enthusiasts want to eat. We need to develop the production systems, the distribution systems, and the cultural preferences that the future demands, and we need to do it today.
But let’s not forget that the one thing we really must stop eating is oil.