How is meat consumption affecting climate change?

By Natasha Spencer-Jolliffe

- Last updated on GMT

As the global population continues to expand, the challenge of providing food in an environmentally responsible manner is becoming more prominent. Could move away from meat, towards plant-based alternatives, be the answer? GettyImages/etorres69
As the global population continues to expand, the challenge of providing food in an environmentally responsible manner is becoming more prominent. Could move away from meat, towards plant-based alternatives, be the answer? GettyImages/etorres69

Related tags Meat Climate change

A recent Oxford University study explores various diets and their impact on the environment, advocating for the reduction in animal-based food consumption.

Researchers from the University of Oxford examined the environmental impact of different types of diets in a recent study​ published in the Nature Food​ journal. The scientists examined consumers who are vegan, vegetarian, fish-eaters, and meat-eaters, by analysing data from over 55,000 people and information from over 38,000 farms in 119 countries.

Results show that reducing the consumption of animal-based foods can help lower the environmental impact of our diets. For example, analysing dietary impacts, the researchers found vegans had around 25% of the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and land use impact, 46% of the water use, 27% of eutrophication, and 34% of the impact on biodiversity compared to the high meat-eaters in the study.

The plant-based sector is forecasted to value €7.5 billion by 2025, reaching a retail market value of €5.8 billion in 2022, according to Good Food Institute’s latest retail market insights. Scientists’ findings and growing evidence prompt global food manufacturers to explore new and novel product development opportunities in the sector.

A clear environmental message

In the University of Oxford study, researchers found at least 30% differences between low and high meat-eaters for most of the indicators explored. Although there was a considerable difference between these figures depending on where and how food is produced, the scientists said there is a clear relationship between environmental impact and animal-based food consumption. The findings therefore “should prompt the reduction”​ of animal food consumption.

As the global population continues to expand, the challenge of providing food in an environmentally responsible manner is becoming more prominent. “The reliance on animal products as a primary component of our diets exacerbates this challenge,”​ Sanjay Sethi, Executive Director of Plant Based Foods Industry Association (PBFIA), India’s first association formed to represent the interests of the plant-based industries, told FoodNavigator.

“Plant-based meats, in particular, can feed more people with significantly less negative impact on the planet, animals, and humans, while still delivering on taste and functionality consumers are accustomed to,​” Rachel Dreskin, CEO of Plant Based Foods Association (PBFA), the only US trade organisation representing plant-based foods, told this publication.

Producing plant-based foods requires significantly less land, water, and carbon-producing processes and contributes far less to ocean acidification and biodiversity loss. “We cannot avoid climate and environmental disasters without addressing our food system and cutting back on the number of animals raised for food,”​ Dreskin adds.

For example, a chicken takes approximately nine calories to receive one calorie from feed. Meat production produces methane, a GHG that is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide, Sethi notes.

“Considering these alarming realities, plant-based foods are a viable solution,”​ says Sethi. The move towards plant-based foods presents an opportunity to introduce novel and tasty alternatives in food service outlets, prompting consumers to become aware and transition to plant-based varieties such as meat, seafood, milk and cheese.

“Shifting towards more plant-based diets is one of the pillars to enable the development of sustainable food systems and attain the objective of halting climate change and environmental degradation,” ​Silvia Alunni, Policy Officer of UK-based Plant-based Food Alliance, told FoodNavigator.

Consumer awareness is the primary driver of meat-mimicking growth

Consumer awareness about the environmental benefits associated with plant-based foods is increasing. Research from PBFA and data science and research company 84.51’s forthcoming Plant-Based Migration Analysis report found a third (33%) of shoppers who increased the amount they spent on plant-based foods in 2022 said their purchasing was motivated by environmental reasons.

Consumers have become increasingly aware of the health benefits of minimising meat consumption too. They are looking for healthy and sustainable foods, with consumers interested too in adopting a flexitarian diet.

“As the number of meat consumers in India continues to rise, the plant-based meat sector is growing even faster,” ​Sethi says. A large portion of the population focusing on reducing animal cruelty and being willing to switch to healthier for the planet foods with long-term benefits is a key driver behind this growth.

The sensory experience of consuming plant-based meat is vital to attracting consumers. Market alternatives must deliver the expected taste, flavour profile, and texture consumers want to encourage them to eat more plant-based foods. Plant-based meat-like properties such as elasticity, fibral properties, and soft and chewy texture help persuade users to consume them.

Plant-based meats that aim to be more of a one-to-one replacement for animal-based foods tend to have more fibre and be lower in saturated fat than their animal-based counterparts, Dreskin says. Made from plant ingredients, these foods are cholesterol-free and produced without antibiotics or hormones.

Latest developments in the meat-mimicking sector

However, “there’s much more to accomplish in this growing sector, particularly regarding flavours, appearance, and how consumers approach these products,”​ Sethi says. The plant-based meat category is diversifying in line with consumer interest in a growing variety of options—from plant-based chicken types, more categories of seafood, innovation in crumbles, deli slices, and meatballs, the US PBFA says.

Unique ingredients are rising, too, as brands hone in on trends in clean label options and promote more vegetable-forward plant-based meats, along with the advancements to deliver plant-based meats according to consumer tastes and preferences.

“Taste motivates consumers,” ​says Dreskin. Plant-based food companies are evolving to provide foods that meet desired flavour and texture profiles and deliver on nutrition expectations.

“While animal-based meat has been largely limited to products in stores for decades, there is no limit to what plant-based meat can be or be made of,” ​Dreskin says. When a novel ingredient is used, or a new technique is discovered, more ideas are sparked, allowing for continuous and exciting product innovation.

Progressing plant-based production

“The industry will continue focusing on how to make products more sustainable and nutritious,” ​says Alunni. It will consider the three main drivers of consumption: price, taste and convenience.

Plant-based meat companies are working towards developing clean-label products, utilising extrusion, a technique that produces various textures, high-moisture extrusion, and blending. They aim to replicate meat’s fibrous, chewy attributes and create multiple products like minced meat, shredded cheese, and crispy nuggets. Extrusion proves cost-effective for large-scale production of plant-based foods.

Incorporating advanced technologies, like 3D printing, enables the creation of intricate textures in plant-based foods. The plant-based industry can also tap into artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning technologies to enhance food production and marketing. AI can, for example, personalise recommendations for plant-based products, while machine learning can optimise food formulation.

Prioritising natural ingredients and avoiding artificial additives, manufacturers create plant-based meat products that seek to resonate with health-conscious consumers looking for transparency.

Producers will work with the current ingredients such as pea, soy, and rice protein known to provide essential amino acids and contribute to a meat-like texture, along with the popularity of nutritious ingredients like mung beans, oats, peas, chickpeas, lentils, artichokes, and fava beans.

Simultaneously, it will look at other plant protein sources like algae, faba bean, lupine, and mushrooms to offer consumers a more diversified and inclusive range of options based on their sustainability requests and health requirements. “The innovation potential is endless,” ​says Dreskin.

“However, the industry must be put in the conditions to develop smoothly without the current regulatory and market hurdles,” ​says Alunni. “A supportive legislative framework and continued public and private funding support for the plant-based sector is the only way to achieve that,” ​Alunni urges.

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