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Impossible Burger vs. beef: Which is better for the environment?

Replacing your usual burger with a plant-based version might not have as big an impact as you thought.

kroger burger plant

Will eating a plant-based diet really help the environment? No one knows for sure, but it might be worth a shot.

Kroger

You've seen the headlines and heard the quotes -- Americans need to stop eating meat or the world will end. That very concept is part of why the plant-based food movement has grown so strong, with companies like Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat, Quorn and others attempting to recreate meat out of plants. 

One quote that really caught my eye: "If the average American cut just a quarter pound of beef a week from their diet, about one hamburger, it would be the equivalent of taking 10 million cars off the road for a year," Sujatha Bergen, director of health campaigns at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told HuffPost earlier this year.

But just how accurate are the soundbites about this issue? Are things really that bad? Will eating faux meat burgers in place of real beef burgers solve climate change and other environmental issues?

Read more: 10 essential kitchen tools for a vegan kitchen in 2019 | Go greener with these cool eco-friendly products for 2019

As it turns out, no one really knows yet. 

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Fake meat vs. real meat: Which one is better for the environment?

There's currently no black-and-white answer to this question, and based on research articles and interviews with experts, it seems like there might not be a real answer for a while.

"What's better for the environment is such a loaded question because 'environment' doesn't just mean climate change," Dr. Frank Mitloehner, an environmental expert and professor in the Department of Animal Science at the University of California, Davis told CNET. He points out that we also have to think about the impact on air and water quality when evaluating whether plant-based or animal meat is better for the environment. 

Considering all of the factors, Mitloehner says there's just no simple way to determine whether plant-based foods or animal-sourced foods are objectively better for the environment. 

Of course, opinions -- even those of agriculture and environmental professionals -- vary based on who you talk to. 

"There's never a 100% consensus in science," says Dr. Jareer Abu-Ali, a food scientist and founder of vegan yogurt company Revele. "But the majority of research seems to support that eating a plant-based diet is better if you're looking at things from an environmental standpoint, and that maintaining a plant-based diet is more sustainable as the population continues to grow." 

Is animal farming bad for the environment?  

Depending on where you look, you might find that livestock farming contributes as little as 2.8% of total greenhouse gas emissions or as much as 14.5%

True, animal agriculture produces carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases, but Mitloehner encourages people to look at two important caveats: 

  1. Methane is the most significant gas produced from livestock, but methane only remains in the atmosphere for a short time compared to carbon dioxide, which can remain in the air for hundreds of years. 
  2. There are bigger issues being clouded by this everlasting debate, such as human pollution and the burning of fossil fuels for electricity, transportation and industry. 

One study even suggests that lab-grown meat could actually be worse for the environment over time.However, all that study really proves is that assuming cell-based meats are better for the environment is just as dangerous as assuming that animal agriculture is the biggest driver of climate change. 

Abu-Ali argues that if nothing changes, the consequences could be dire, mainly from a resources perspective. 

"If we maintain the [current] usage of meat and dairy, every time we need to feed more people with meat and dairy, we need to utilize a lot more agricultural land than if we were to feed them plants," Abu-Ali says, "which means more deforestation and more greenhouse gases and more destruction. The problem continues to grow as the population grows."

For example, this report points out that some experts estimate animal agriculture as constituting nearly 30% of the world's total human water usage and this report says that livestock takes up 30% of the world's ice-free land. Some organizations estimate that the grain crop lost to animal feed could feed an additional 3.5 billion people worldwide each year

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Scientists, agriculture experts and environmental experts disagree on how big the impact of animal agriculture is, and whether plant-based meat can save the day.

Beyond Meat

Can eating a plant-based diet help the environment? 

Yet another tough question to answer (no big surprise there). The reason there's no straightforward answer to this question is that every food -- whether sourced from animals or plants -- has a unique impact on the environment, Mitloehner says. 

"If we compare gallon to gallon the consumption of real milk from a cow and almond milk, then the real milk will have a carbon footprint 10 times higher than the almond milk," Mitloehner says. "But the almond milk has 17 times the water footprint -- you need 17 times more water to make the equivalent amount of almond [milk] to real milk."

But Abu-Ali argues yes, that eating a plant-based diet can help the environment, simply due to the fact that growing plants uses less resources and less space than does raising animals for food. 

"About 18% of the world's calories come from meat and dairy, but about 80% of farmland is used for meat and dairy," Abu-Ali says, citing this study published in the journal Science. "So there's a very disproportionate usage of resources and that creates some big problems."

And what about all those quotes and statistics? 

Statements like "four pounds of beef equals the emissions of a transatlantic flight" are usually false and misleading, and that's according to both Mitloehner and Abu-Ali. Those statements are often based on "convoluted math," Abu-Ali said, and don't accurately depict the actual state of affairs. 

"It's a joke," Mitloehner said when I asked him about the Sujatha Bergen quote that compares beef to cars. "The impact that animals have on carbon emissions is completely different than the impact a vehicle has."

He explains that the impact is different because the sources of carbon are different: Vehicles burn fossil fuels and animals produce carbon that came from the atmosphere environment and will eventually return to the environment, a process known as the biogenic carbon cycle.

impossible-burger

All agriculture and food production has an environmental impact, plant-based or not. It's the job of both manufacturers and consumers to reduce their total environmental footprint regardless of diet.

Impossible Foods

OK, but the environmental situation still isn't ideal

That's true -- there's still work to be done to reduce the environmental impact of all food production, both animal and plant-based. Mitloehner argues that animal agriculture has actually made incredible leaps toward sustainability in the last few decades. 

"We understand societal expectations, and we have an interest in optimizing the stewardship of our land," Mitloehner says. "Nobody has a greater interest in developing our lands sustainably than we do, because this is land we want to pass on to the next generation."

You can do your part to help, too. Abu-Ali and Mitloehner offer some insightful advice on how to do so for vegans and omnivores alike.

Abu-Ali urges consumers to demand better plant-based products from manufacturers, to not let manufacturers get complacent with meat alternatives that taste "just OK." If that's the case, he says, consumers will always gravitate back to what tastes better to them which, for most omnivores, is real meat.

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Making plant-based meat that's appetizing and wildly available (like this Impossible Whopper from Burger King) will encourage more people to make the switch from real beef.

Impossible Foods

"You are the consumer and you have the power to vote with your wallet," Abu-Ali said. "Don't stop demanding better products. If this [plant-based] movement is going to survive, it needs to be dealt with seriously by manufacturers and something that provides a long-lasting alternative to meat and dairy." 

Mitloehner's biggest piece of advice is to simply plan your meals properly to avoid waste, regardless of whether you eat animal products or not. When you waste food, you're not just wasting food. You're wasting all of the resources that went into creating the food -- labor, water, cropland, fertilizer, energy and transportation --  and unused food sits in landfills and releases methane (the very greenhouse gas from livestock that people get worked up about) into the atmosphere. 

About 20% of all animal-sourced foods are wasted and about 50% of all plant foods are wasted, he says. Do your part by shopping smartly. 

"Don't buy massive packages that you won't get through," Mitloehner says. "If you know you're a single or double household and you know that you won't go through a gallon of milk, don't buy a gallon. Buy a pint."

Correction, Oct. 31, 1:07 p.m. PT: An earlier version of this story had an organization's name incorrect. It's the Natural Resources Defense Council.