Vegan food's sustainability claims need to give the full picture

Vegan food's sustainability claims need to give the full picture
Are veggie burgers the way of the future? Credit: Ella Olsson/Flickr, CC BY-SA

The IPCC special report, Climate Change and Land, released last night, has found a third of the world's greenhouse gas emissions come from the "land": largely farming, food production, land clearing and deforestation.

Sustainable farming is a major focus of the report, as plants and can potentially hold huge amounts of . But it's incredibly difficult as a consumer to work out the overall footprint of individual products, because they don't take these considerations into account.

Two vegan brands have published reports on the environmental footprint of their burgers. Impossible Foods claims its burger requires 87% less water and 96% less land, and produces 89% fewer than a beef version. Additionally, it would contribute 92% less aquatic pollutants.

Similarly, Beyond Meat claims its burger requires 99% less water, 93% less land, 90% fewer greenhouse emissions and 46% less energy than a beef burger.

But these results have focused on areas where vegan products perform well, and do not account for or potential deforestation. This might change the picture.

How do you measure an environmental footprint?

Vegan and vegetarian "meat alternatives" have become increasingly popular. Often in the form of burgers, the products are meant to emulate the taste, nutritional value, "mouthfeel" and even the cooking experience of a meat burger. The aim is to provide the consumer with products that are like meat in all respects except one: their environmental impact.

Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have each published "life-cycle assessments" (LCA), which measure environmental aspects of products over the supply chain. As is clear from the figures quoted above, both claim their burgers use a fraction of the resources of traditional beef burgers.

These results sound impressive, but LCA results can be misleading when taken out of context. Looking at the underlying reports for Beyond Burger and Impossible Burger it becomes clear that statements such as "less water" and "less land" mean different things in practice.

There are significant differences between the two studies in the calculations of land and water use for the beef burger, and the final results are not expressed in the same units. This does not necessarily mean either of the studies is invalid, but it does mean the statements on the websites are simplified and don't allow for clear interpretation.

Both studies justify their choice of indicators by saying they are the most common used in beef footprint studies. But are they the most relevant indicators for vegan burger production?

By making the comparison only for the environmental aspects most important for meat products, the results may look extra positive for the vegan alternatives, as other aspects might have shown a less favourable result. The results as presented may be true, but they are not the whole truth.

Importantly, the studies compare the results for the vegan burgers with a beef burger produced in the United States. To be precise, it is produced from cattle from average, conventional US production systems.

This is a valid choice, because this is the default burger meat in the US market. But results may be very different for other animals, for beef in other countries, or for unconventionally farmed beef.

Unconventional beef

A third study, released recently, evaluates beef produced at White Oak Pastures, a regenerative grazing farm in the US. Regenerative grazing uses adjusted animal grazing to enrich soils and improve biodiversity, water and nutrient cycling.

The White Oak farm sequesters so much carbon in its soil and vegetation it more than offsets the emissions of its cattle. In other words, it has a negative carbon footprint. This study compared White Oak beef favourably to conventional beef, chicken, pork and soy, as well as the Beyond Burger.

The silent assumption is, however, that no carbon sequestration occurs in conventional beef grazing or on feed and soy cropping land. This is not necessarily true. White Oak Pastures is using grazing to regenerate degraded cropland, so it is likely similar grazing on other farms would result in holding additional carbon within the first few decades.

In Australia, farmers who convert their cropland to pasture (which stores more carbon) are eligible for credits under the Emissions Reduction Fund. There is also evidence cropping systems may sometimes hold carbon as well, in the US as well as in Australia. For example, the carbon footprint of Australian barley and canola may be some 10% smaller when taking carbon sequestration in soils into account.

Clearly, soil carbon can play a major role in the net carbon footprint of many foods. How would the vegan burger versus comparison look if soil carbon and biodiversity aspects had been included?

That said, the White Oak Pastures study does not present the full story either, because soil was only evaluated for their own product, and the study didn't look at any other aspects such as water scarcity or biodiversity.

It is disappointing such prominent products don't publish more comprehensive environmental results, given that this has long been prescribed by the international standards.

Now that the new special report stresses yet again how important soils are in a transition to sustainable agriculture and food, it's time to do better.

Explore further

Meatsplainer: How new plant-based burgers compare to beef

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Citation: Vegan food's sustainability claims need to give the full picture (2019, August 9) retrieved 23 August 2019 from
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User comments

Aug 09, 2019
Disappointing, but not surprising, as veganism is far more driven by religio-ethical evangelism than by any concern for the environment.

Aug 09, 2019
no one should put the burden of eating vegan on other people.

Aug 09, 2019
The vegan meat alternatives rely on a trick of double counting. The main point is concentrating the proteins in the raw plant matter, which typically comes in the low 10% up to 20% protein content, and the starches are basically thrown away.

Now, the trick is that you -assume- the starches are also being used for food, so they don't count as a loss. Overall, this means you assume the entire population is subsisting on a diet that is very poor in proteins in proportion - a diet that is protein-deficient as people need about 10% protein in their diet for an absolute minimum to remain functional. The ideal is about 33% in proteins.

In reality, the meat substitutes are highly wasteful. If you suppose the average source is 15% protein, you have to throw away half the food to boost that up to 30%. In some cases, such as seitan, you're throwing away nearly 90% of the calorific content of the food to extract the proteins - the remainder is used for making things like chips.

Aug 09, 2019
Then there's also the problem that many plant proteins are actually unhealthy to eat. Such as lectin in legumes, which causes malabsorption of other nutrients and inflammation of the gut - basically why beans give you wind.

For example:

It is a family of similar legume lectins. As a lectin, it is an antinutrient that chelates minerals.

SBA binds to intestinal epithelial cells, causing inflammation and intestinal permeability, and is a major factor in acute inflammation from raw soybean meal fed to animals.

To get rid of it, you have to ferment or cook the soybeans extensively, which takes energy and time, and loss of food calories - basically, you need to process it so much that the benefit of using concentrated soy protein is largely lost.

With such poor sources of protein, you can technically maintain adequate protein intake on the population level, but that's just the case of one size fits all: not really.

Aug 09, 2019
Point being that if your protein sources have a concentration just above the minimum required, and you don't throw the starches away in order to keep the efficiency up (costs down), then you're left with a situation where some people, such as pregnant women, or the poor who only buy the cheapest foods, don't get nearly enough proteins - and you get a huge public health issue on your hands.

Such as in countries where vegetarianism is the rule:

80% Indians Suffer from Protein Deficiency, Reveals Survey

Aug 09, 2019
@Eikka, your points about pregnant and nursing women's protein requirements are very well taken, and your point about children, adolescents, and young adults is also very well taken. Such individuals require up to 30 grams of protein per day, and if they don't get it the results are subtle, but include brain damage.

My only quibble, and it's just a quibble, is that adults, and particularly older adults beginning in middle age, have reduced protein requirements. I myself eat much less protein than I did when I was even 30; I just don't want it. My father had training as a nutritional health provider and warned me about it. He maintained that excessive protein after about age 40 could actually be damaging, and showed me research to prove it. Your figures are averages; there is variation based on age to be taken into account as well. If your link doesn't take this into account, you might want to have some healthy skepticism about it.

Aug 09, 2019
Read the link. I'm right. The authors show no awareness of metabolic changes during the human life cycle, and I distrust their research as a result.

Aug 09, 2019
The word 'sustainable' is a misnomer because nothing in reality can be sustained for zero emission. Even the clean energy, vegetarian food, primitive (devoid of modern technology) lifestyle, etc. are NOT sustainable.

Any human action is the spatial and temporal redistribution of mass and energy. Living Homo Sapiens are a threat to the nature. Nevertheless, we must continue to work for what we think is good for nature.

Aug 09, 2019
@Eikka. NDTV is a fake news channel in India, do you know that? They promote superstition widely, and have been banned a couple of times by the Government of India. I would never refer anything as a credible source of information having origins in ndtv tv or their website.

Why can't you provide a reference to a peer-reviewed scientific journal paper? If you can't, all your protein claims are false.

Aug 09, 2019
Protein myth has engulfed the entire 'developed world'. Why can't they replace meat with milk to get the protein? Milk has everything that a human needs to function. Meat-eating countries are a threat to all humans.

Actually, the protein myth started in the beginning of 19th century, if you dig deeper into the protein scam.

Aug 11, 2019
"many plant proteins are actually unhealthy to eat."

Oh, give it a rest. It is well known that you can cover your protein (amino acid, really) need from plants and our Livsmedelsverket recommend more of it - it's healthy for you.

The good news is that people here around are eating more veggies, since it promises to be 10-100 times as effective as meat production. Give or take complications such as in the article.

The vego burgers are useful, since they mean more people will eat veggies. But nutritionally they are as bad as burgers.

Aug 11, 2019
It's obscene for what idiots the AGW Cult takes their flock.
Go eat your vegan burgers Chicken Littles it can't be worse than the Cult's bullshit that you have been happily swallowing.

Aug 12, 2019
no one should put the burden of eating vegan on other people.

Yet for as long as you can remember you are pushing people to ignore human caused climate change.
You can take the monkey out the bush, but not the bush out the monkey.

Aug 12, 2019
It's obscene for what idiots the AGW Cult takes their flock.
Go eat your vegan burgers Chicken Littles it can't be worse than the Cult's bullshit that you have been happily swallowing.

Aah that very monkey quickly switched to one of his original socks (would have loved to poke fun at your good 'ol waterprophet sock but you forgot that sock's password) Anyway antisciencegorilla has been whipped by the circus ringmaster again, feeling the need to post what those 2 peas is communicating between his ears... :)

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