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Government policies support environmentally harmful meat production

The Animal Agriculture Alliance met recently with an agenda that included issues ranging from drugs in meat to consumer perception. This gathering is timely, as the meat industry faces an onslaught of criticisms regarding animal welfare, antibiotic resistance, human health and adverse environmental impacts.

Meanwhile, a new study presented at the American Society for Nutrition annual meeting last month finds that plant-based meat alternatives have far less environmental impacts than their animal counterparts. The study analyzed production emissions of 39 meat substitutes, finding they produce 10 times fewer greenhouse gas emissions than similarly produced processed beef.

While many existing studies illustrate the detrimental environmental impacts of meat production, this report is one of the first to analyze and compare the environmental impacts of the production of meat substitutes. Researchers examined pesticides, fertilizer and energy used for production, as well as metrics from factory production. Although some meat substitutes can be processed, the emissions are still far smaller than meat production and processing.

The study also compared each to driving a car. While eating an 8-ounce steak emits comparable emissions to driving a car 29 miles, consuming a similar meat substitute is comparable to driving just 3 miles. These findings point toward yet another strong argument for consumers to shift away from eating destructive meat products to eco-friendlier products, including meat substitutes.

The potential impact of these findings is immense, considering the sheer size of the U.S. meat industry: Beef alone is a $95 billion-a-year business, according to the federal government. That size translates into huge lobbing power, allowing the beef lobby is to flex its political muscle in various ways in Washington and state capitals around the nation.

As a result, producers in the plant-based foods industry operate at an economic disadvantage by comparison. For example, corn and soy subsidies — commodities mostly used to feed cattle and other farm animals — keep beef prices artificially low and inhibit changes in meat production practices.

The meat industry also enjoys a huge advantage in marketing its products thanks to government-mandated “check-off” programs, which are funded by meat producers but overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The programs are widely known by ubiquitous ad campaigns such as “Beef, it’s what’s for dinner.” Recently these programs have come under fire in various ways, including legal challenges by smaller producers, as well as charges that monies are being misspent.

Most recently, the meat industry won a significant victory in the federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans by pushing science aside and maintaining the status quo recommendation to eat meat as part of a healthy diet — this, despite the advisory committee’s clear recommendation to the contrary, in addition to advice from the World Health Organization.

The good news is that, despite Big Beef’s best efforts, consumers are already shifting their diets away from animal products toward healthier plant-based foods. Meat substitutes are rapidly growing, projected to reach $5 billion in sales by 2020. As the population becomes more informed (and as millennials become more influential), the demand for plant-based foods is increasing.

For example, 36 percent of consumers eat plant-based meats, and are demanding that food production be environmentally responsible. But to continue to meet that consumer demand, government policies must shift away from supporting industries that damage the environment and our health.

There is also a global imperative, given the climate change impacts of meat production. “As the world population grows, there’s an urgent need to produce protein-rich foods that are friendlier for the environment and healthy for people,” says Alfredo Mejia, associate professor of nutrition at Andrews University and the study’s lead author. “Our research shows that consumers can continue to enjoy meat-like tastes and textures while also significantly reducing their carbon footprint.”

Now is the time for government policies to catch up.

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