A new study from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future finds that further research is needed to determine the impacts of meat alternatives on the environment, animal welfare, and public health.
The article, “Considering Plant-Based Meat Substitutes and Cell-Based Meats: A Public Health and Food Systems Perspective,” summarizes the impacts of traditional meat and its alternatives on the environment, animal welfare, and human health. The study compares plant-based meat substitutes created from vegetable protein, cell-based meat grown from animal muscle tissue, and traditionally farmed meat from whole animals.
Livestock production is responsible for 14.5 percent of greenhouse gas emissions and is a major contributor of climate change, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. Opponents of farmed meat also raise animal welfare as another concern, citing crowded facilities and painful bodily alterations. And red and processed meat consumption have been associated with increased risks of chronic diseases like coronary artery disease and type 2 diabetes.
The lead researcher of the review, Raychel Santo, tells Food Tank that these meat alternatives are often “marketed as a way to address issues” that farmed meat is often associated with. But the study finds that the answers may not be so straightforward.
In response to environmental concerns, the researchers find that plant-based substitutes can be more environmentally beneficial because development of these products emits less greenhouse gases and uses less water and land. But the researchers find that cell-based meat may have a greater greenhouse gas footprint and may use more water and energy inputs.
The study also finds that both farmed meat alternatives have the potential to substantially reduce the number of animals that are raised and slaughtered for consumption. But while plant-based substitutes require no animals, the technology to ethically source animal cells for cell-based meat production is limited. Currently, cell-based meats are still animal-derived.
The researchers explored claims by companies like Beyond Meat which often advertise the health benefits of meat alternatives over farmed meat.
According to the review, plant-based substitutes do not necessarily lead to healthier dietary patterns. Considered ultra-processed foods, plant-based substitutes can contain high amounts of sodium, which is often linked to hypertension and other cardiovascular diseases. Researchers also discovered there is little information available on the nutritional content of cell-based meats.
Santo tells Food Tank, “It would be more accurate to focus on [meat alternatives’] environmental and animal welfare benefits, where they exist.”
With limited literature on meat alternatives, the authors conclude that more independent research is still needed. Many existing studies, they found, were funded by companies developing or promoting meat alternatives. To better understand how the products are affecting the food system, the authors hope that more researchers will investigate the economic, sociocultural, and policy impacts of plant-based substitutes and cell-based meats.
Plant-based substitutes are becoming more popular, and cell-based meats are expected to be available to consumers in 2021. But Santo tells Food Tank, protein consumption, regardless of its source, can bring environmental, animal welfare, and public health costs. Therefore, researchers suggest that these products are viewed with the same caution as farmed meats. “I hope [the review] has started conversations around what other foods we can eat to meet our protein needs,” Santo tells Food Tank.
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