Biotech Updates

Plant-based and Cultured Cell Have the Least Environmental Impact Among Meat Alternatives

April 12, 2023

To construct analyses on potential environmental impacts, resource consumption rates, and unintended trade-offs associated with meat substitutes in the global food system, an inter-European team of scientists detailed the potential variations in the processing level of six types of meat alternative based on factors like greenhouse gasses, land use, non-renewable energy use, and water footprint in their ingredients. Of the six, plant-based meat substitute and cultured meat were found to produce less environmental footprints.

The study was done by analyzing 3,800 articles found in an online database that published studies in the last decade. These were narrowed down to a selection of original studies published in scientific journals in the English language. The key findings of the review by the scientists from Germany, Austria, and Finland are:

  1. Plant-based meat substitutes have a low resource demand and environmental impact as this alternative requires minimal processing of its raw materials and other product components.
  2. Application of alternative/underutilized and wild animals for conventional meat production is not justifiable in terms of environmental impact despite being a source of important nutrients for local rural populations. However, the use of animal-derived components like milk, if considered as secondary byproduct, might be feasible.
  3. Cultured meat has the potential to lower environmental impacts compared to livestock products if the production process is scaled up in a cost-efficient way and if production uses low-emission energy sources. Lower greenhouse gas emission (GHGE) and land use requirements can yield the highest benefits. But it should be regarded as a possible option in the longer term rather than an urgent solution to the current requirements needed to achieve the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.
  4. The environmental impact of sourcing meat from single-cell proteins is dependent on the use of renewable energy. Considering the time required to produce a certain amount of biomass and proteins, the productivity is too low to allow production on an industrial scale. More research is required to come up with more efficient production methods.
  5. The current production of mycoprotein as a meat alternative requires a lot of energy and high-quality raw materials, which results in high GHGE and energy use impacts. Efficient production methods are also needed to explore the environmental benefits of this meat substitute.
  6. Insect biomass has potential to be a viable ingredient in a meat analog matrix. But the processing functionality of insect proteins is limited. It is suggested to combine it with plant biomass for efficient fiber texture formation.

The scientists recommended to conduct holistic studies to better determine the potential synergies between environmental impact and nutritional properties of meat alternatives as both factors are not linearly dependent on each other and can influence human health directly and indirectly.

The published review is open to the public through Resources, Conservation & Recycling.

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