Science

The Rise of Plant-Based Meats

Issue 9, Volume 113

By Vinson Chen 

Cover Image

You walk into your favorite fast food chain and see a sign advertising their new plant-based meat item. You try it out and are pleasantly surprised. Well, you are not alone! This is an experience that is becoming more and more common. Burger King’s Impossible Whopper, Panda Express’s Beyond Orange Chicken, and Chipotle’s plant-based chorizo are all examples of plant-based meat taking the fast food scene by storm. In recent years, these fast food chains have been pressured to explore plant-based alternatives to meat as the public has become more aware of the environmental consequences of our demand for meat. This demand has led to the rise of factory farming, a method of animal farming that maximizes profit and has severe environmental and ethical consequences.

Factory farming has faced scrutiny for its inhumane practices, with many animal rights activists claiming that factory farming is a form of animal cruelty. To maximize their gains, factory farms often pack large numbers of livestock into tight spaces. In some cases, they feed their livestock food containing animal carcasses, wastes such as feces, and growth hormones. Livestock are also fed more grain than is recommended by the government to reduce the amount of time required until slaughter.

In addition, the conditions on factory farms make it easier for animal diseases to spread among livestock. For example, cryptosporidiosis is a disease spread by ingesting feces from an infected individual. Cramped conditions and animal feed that often contains feces greatly increase the risk of mass infection on a factory farm. These dangers extend to humans, increasing the meat’s potential to spread diseases, such as E. coli or swine flu.

Along with ethical and health concerns, factory farming poses severe environmental concerns. Factory farming requires a huge amount of water to feed and raise livestock. Cattle are generally the most profitable animals to raise, but also require the most water. Multiple studies have concluded that a single pound of beef requires around 1,800 gallons of water to produce. Around the world, about 20 percent of freshwater is used to support animal agriculture, and about 98 percent of that water is used to grow crops that feed livestock. Since animals on factory farms must be supported by high crop production, the livestock and crops required to feed them take up about 77 percent of agricultural land, while only contributing to 18 percent of global caloric intake.

Factory farming also contributes to pollution and climate change. It emits extremely high amounts of greenhouse gases, contributing to 37 percent of methane emissions globally. Methane gas contributes to global warming 25 times more per unit than carbon dioxide. Furthermore, the manure from livestock and fertilizers plays a role in greenhouse gas emissions. Large numbers of livestock coexisting in highly concentrated areas produces lots of waste. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, factory farms produce around three times more waste than the entire American population. Although this manure is often reused as fertilizer, rainwater and poor storage often lead tocontamination in bodies of water. The manure then builds up and strips the water of oxygen, destroying aquatic ecosystems. Manure can also end up in drinking water for humans, which can spread fecal diseases.

Following the laws of energy transfer, 90 percent of energy contained in the crop supply grown to feed livestock is lost to heat when eaten. This significant decrease means that raising livestock requires an incredible amount of crops. On the other hand, producing plant-based meat requires fewer crops, less land, and less water, as the crops being grown are directly used in the final product. According to the United Nations Environment Assembly, plant-based burgers require 75 to 99 percent less water than traditional beef burgers. Moreover, plant-based meats contribute significantly less to greenhouse gas emissions when compared to actual meat. Depending on the type of meat, plant-based meats produce anywhere between 30 to 90 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than traditional meat production. This is especially prevalent with plant-based beef products.

With the effects of factory farming becoming an increasingly larger problem, a greater effort to produce and eat plant-based meats has emerged, leading to huge commercial success. The plant-based meat market is expected to grow 15 percent annually between 2022 and 2028, with a predicted value of $15.8 billion by 2028. Notable companies include Beyond Meat, which is currently valued at nearly $900 million, and Impossible Foods, currently valued at around $4 billion.

Companies that produce plant-based meats try to find a combination of plants that can substitute the taste, texture, and nutritional value of actual meat. They accomplish this mimicry through countless trials and extensive research to find the most meat-like combination of plants. For instance, many plant-based meat companies utilize protein from beans and fat from vegetable oils like coconut butter to help mimic meat. These substitutes make plant-based meats just as healthy—if not more—than actual meat. Reviews of various plant-based meat products, including Beyond Meat burgers and Impossible burgers, generally agree that they are very similar to meat in terms of taste and texture. The recent rise of plant-based meat has overshadowed traditional veggie burgers that often either have a mushier or chunkier texture than plant-based meats, depending on how ground up the vegetables are. Traditional veggie burgers also do not try to mimic meat, so their taste and nutritional value are very different compared to plant-based meats and traditional meats.

However, many people have yet to embrace plant-based meats. One of the main reasons is that plant-based meats currently cost more than actual meats. For instance, the Impossible burger costs around $6.80 per pound while traditional low-fat, non-organic beef costs around $4 per pound. However, this is changing because more plant-based meat factories are being built as demand increases. Some plant-based meats are even projected to be equal in price to their counterparts as early as 2024.

Decreasing prices and introducing plant-based meat to the fast food scene are making plant-based meats a much more accessible option to the public. Plant-based meats also provides a way for people to go vegetarian or vegan without losing their love for meat. This makes the transition to vegetarianism or veganism easier and more appealing. As factory farming becomes an increasingly controversial issue, many of us will soon face the decision between eating plant-based meats or its conventional counterpart.