Beef production suffers from a bad reputation when it comes to its impact on the environment, with plant-based alternatives touted as the far more eco-friendly option. But is that fair? Are the raft of new meat alternative burgers, with soy as their principal ingredient, really any better?
Britain is on the brink of a burger revolution. With US plant-based sensations Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger tipped to arrive on UK shores soon, British contenders have emerged in the form of Moving Mountains’ ‘B12 burger’ and Iceland’s ‘No Bull’ burger, which are both completely meat-free, but crafted to bleed and taste just like the real thing.
Unlike traditional meat-free products, these burgers aren’t designed to appeal to vegans - they are targeting at the growing number of ‘meat reducers’ who want to cut back on their meat consumption but aren’t willing to compromise on taste and texture.
While they are billed as better for health and the environment, however, many of the emerging plant-based patties list soy protein as their primary ingredient. Unlike the US, where this trend first emerged, Britain doesn’t grow soy. And our grass-fed beef production systems are arguably vastly less damaging than America’s intensive feedlots. So will UK shoppers actually do the environment any favours by chowing down on imported soy-based alternatives? Or would they be better off sticking to home-grown British beef?
Beef has long been the enfant terrible of climate change. The oft-quoted 2006 Livestock’s Long Shadow report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimated livestock was responsible for about 18% of the world’s human-induced greenhouse gas emissions - with beef cattle responsible for the bulk due to the potent warming effect of the methane they emit.
What about chicken and pork?
Cows have always taken most of the heat on climate change, because pigs and poultry are faster-growing and produce much lower methane emissions than ruminants.
A 2013 report from the UN FAO put the average global emission intensity of chicken at 5.4kg CO2e/kg carcase weight for meat, and pig meat at 6.1kg CO2e/kg carcass weight. That’s compared to the 46.2kg CO2e/kg emissions intensity the FAO attributes to global beef production.
However, grazing ruminants like cattle and sheep provide a way to convert Britain’s extensive grasslands into food. Pigs and poultry, on the other hand, are fed with grains like wheat, barley and soy - meaning they are competing with humans for arable land.
According to the WWF, producing 100g of chicken meat takes 109g of soy. So, for the 18.6kg of chicken eaten each year by the average person in Europe, 20.3kg of soy is needed. Producing 100g pork meat, meanwhile, takes 51g soy - so for the 25.4kg of pork eaten each year by the average European, it takes 12.9kg of soy.
As a result, intensive pig and poultry farming has been blamed for the aggressive expansion of soy plantations into areas like the Amazon, the Cerrado, the Atlantic Forest and the Gran Chaco.
The Food Climate Research Network’s 2017 ‘Grazed and Confused’ report notes that while even grass-fed beef is far from climate neutral, the prospect of an industrialised white meat future ‘could not only cause further grassland conversions and exacerbate pressures on existing arable land but would also raise other very serious concerns’.
These include environmental concerns related to pollution and fossil fuel consumption, as well as antimicrobial resistance and zoonotic disease transmission.
The UK’s pig and poultry sectors are working hard to reduce their environmental impact, with research going on around alternative feed sources, as well as pollution management. They have also achieved significant reductions in antibiotic usage and lead the world on welfare.
But the fact pigs and poultry require significantly more inputs than grass-fed beef means some experts suggest the most sustainable British food system would be one that uses existing arable land to produce crops for humans to eat directly, while keeping grazing cattle and sheep to produce food from our grasslands.
At the time, much was made of the fact livestock emissions were even greater than those estimated for transport, though the report’s authors subsequently admitted they had made a mistake. While the livestock figure included all greenhouse gas emissions associated with meat production - including fertiliser production, land clearance, methane emissions and vehicle use on farms - the transport figure included only the burning of fossil fuels.
And that wasn’t the only flaw in the FAO’s calculations, according to former Ecologist editor Simon Fairlie, whose 2010 book ‘Meat: A Benign Extravagance’ claims the CO2 emissions attributed to livestock were distorted by the assumption cattle ranching was the sole driver of Amazon deforestation, when in reality it was also driven by land speculation and logging.
In 2013, the FAO published another report, which revised the livestock figure down to 14.5% of the total, with beef cattle accounting for 41%. An accompanying report on the methodology revealed these figures still included land use change emissions based on 2005 deforestation rates in South America and the Caribbean, despite the significant slowdown in deforestation achieved in the intervening years, and the fact most land use change was by that point being driven by soy production for pig and poultryfeed.
The 2013 FAO report did, however, recognise that emissions intensities vary “greatly” across different production systems. They were much higher in Latin American beef systems, where deforestation accounted for a third of emissions, than in Europe, it said.
With its rain-fed pasture system and nutrient-rich grass, Britain’s beef system is more environmentally friendly than most, because it requires fewer inputs. A 2010 report by WWF and the Food Climate Research Network (FCRN) puts UK beef production emissions at 12.14 kg CO2e/kg, compared with an average of 32.00 kg CO2e/kg for beef produced in the rest of the world.
“The UK is one of the most sustainable places in the world to produce beef. It’s not like the feedlots in the States or trying to raise beef cattle in an arid area,” says James Wilde, AHDB head of media & PR.
According to AHDB research, over 90% of the nutritional needs of Britain’s ruminants are met with either grass or silage, while the abundant rain in this country means it takes only 67 litres of water from the pipeline to produce a kilo of beef. That’s in stark contrast with the 15,000 litres/kg beef figure cited regularly by anti-meat campaigners, which came from a 2013 report by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.
Britain’s beef production system isn’t just less polluting than most, it also benefits the environment in many ways, Wilde argues. “We know grazing ruminants aid biodiversity across the countryside, and the very nature of them grazing helps shape the countryside, which aids tourism,” he says.
It’s impossible to ignore the fact even British beef has a high emissions intensity compared with plant-based foods, and even other meats. But the figures “almost never” take into account carbon sequestration, Wilde argues. “Having cattle grazing permanent pasture makes it a very effective carbon sink,” he says.
Under optimum conditions, grassland can sequester up to three-quarters of a tonne of carbon annually. This not only takes carbon out of the atmosphere, but also increases soil organic matter, making land more resilient to drought and heavy rain, says Sustainable Food Trust policy director Richard Young.
’The UK is one of the most sustainable places in the world to produce beef. It’s not like the feedlots in the States’
These benefits are, however, limited. “The level of sequestration depends both on past and future land management,” adds Young. “Well-managed grassland will not sequester that much more carbon in future. It will just maintain existing levels.”
And while grass-fed beef requires fewer inputs than beef from intensive feedlot systems, it is also associated with higher methane emissions, because eating roughage causes cattle to release more methane through enteric fermentation than eating grain.
Young believes climate change campaigners have put too much focus on methane, which is the result of a natural cycle whereby ruminants “essentially recycle atmospheric carbon photosynthethised by the plants they eat, rather than increasing the total amount in the atmosphere”. While it is much more potent than carbon dioxide, methane also has a relatively short atmospheric lifetime, lasting for only about 12 years before it breaks back down to biogenic CO2, he adds.
In contrast, the burning of fossil fuels to produce nitrogen fertilisers for arable crops “is effectively putting new carbon into the atmosphere”. And while CO2’s warming effects are weaker, they are permanent. Beef farmers use nitrogen fertilisers too, Young admits, but while the UK has cut the amount it uses on grasslands, “we haven’t reduced it at all on arable cropland”.
However, Tara Garnett, co-ordinator and lead researcher at the FCRN, warns methane emissions can’t be ignored, with their sheer potency increasing the risk of the world ‘overshooting’ the 1.5°C/2°C global warming target, and potentially tipping us into unknown climatic territory. “The effects of methane might be temporary, but so long as you continue rearing cows, the warming effect continues,” she adds.
Which isn’t to say we should forget about tackling CO2, Garnett stresses. In order to avoid catastrophic climate change, all greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced. And that, she insists, will require a change in diet - starting with a cut in the amount of meat we eat.
With a greenhouse gas intensity of just 0.3 to 0.6 kg CO2e/kg, according to a 2013 study published in the Journal of Cleaner Production, soy is a promising alternative source of protein. Not only does it require a fraction of the water, acreage and energy needed to produce beef, but it has “many environmental advantages” over other crops, says Isaac Emery, an environmental scientist for the Good Food Institute. “As a legume, they are able to fix nitrogen, and so soy requires little or no fertiliser. This means less pollution of local waterways and lower energy use compared to other crops.”
As with beef, however, not all soy is equal. Currently, the world’s biggest producers of soy are the US, Brazil and Argentina. Sourcing from the US is tricky, because so many of the country’s farmers are still growing GM crops, which aren’t acceptable in the UK. And in Brazil and Argentina, there have been some “legitimate concerns about deforestation”, admits Emery.
The effects of methane might be temporary, but so long as you continue rearing cows, the warming effect continues
Indeed, when land use change related to deforestation is taken into account, soy’s greenhouse emissions intensity could be as much as 17.8 kg CO2e/kg, according to the 2013 study - higher than British beef. And clearing huge swathes of land to grow soya has other environmental impacts, says Food Ethics Council director Dan Crossley. “Soybeans require huge amounts of land and in areas of fragile ecosystems, soybean production threatens biodiversity and wildlife,” he says.
Environmentalists have claimed the rampant soy expansion in South America has been driven by animal feed production, but Young contests whether this is actually true, pointing to the huge amount of soy oil that ends up in food. “There is an awful amount of misinformation,” he claims. “Of the 3.1 million tonnes of soya product we import into this country - whole beans, oil and meal - only 1.1 million tonnes is sent to livestock. About one million is used directly in human food and the other million tonnes goes into products like paint and pharmaceuticals.”
What’s more, while UK poultry and pork producers remain heavily reliant on soya as a feedstuff, research conducted by AHDB suggests just 0.1% of global soya production is used in feed for British cattle and sheep.
It is possible to source sustainable soy from non-deforested areas of Brazil, and there are currently growing trials in Europe, which would reduce its impact. But Young questions whether it makes sense for Brits to turn away from the food we can grow with our own natural resources to foods with imported ingredients.
Of course, soy isn’t the only option for plant-based burgers, with some manufacturers, including Beyond Burger, opting to use pea protein instead.
The UK could scale up its production of peas and other legumes like fava beans - offering a home-grown alternative to soy - but the scope for large-scale production is limited, claims Young. When grown across large areas in intensive systems, legumes are very vulnerable to pest attacks and require “substantial applications of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides”. he says.
What’s more, 70% of Britain’s farmland is under grass for sound environmental or agricultural reasons. Much of it is unsuitable for crops because it is too steep, rocky or acidic, and converting the rest to arable land would release carbon into the atmosphere and lead to further soil degradation - already a “very serious problem”, says Young. “After 50 years, typical arable land will have lost the equivalent of 250 tonnes of CO2 per hectare, so there are huge benefits to maintaining grassland and keeping ruminants on it.”
Garnett concedes grass-fed beef could have a role to play in a sustainable British diet, with its biodiversity benefits making it the “least bad” way of rearing animals, but she points out a lot of the UK’s grasslands are currently improved with fertilisers. “If we are talking about biodiversity-friendly grazing systems, the chances are the productivity of those systems are going to be much lower and we get back to the same conclusion, which is that we need to be eating less meat.”
So perhaps rather than choosing between plant-based or beefburgers, Brits should be enjoying the most sustainable versions of both - and avoiding more intensively reared meat. Unless, of course, the real answer actually lies in ‘clean meat’ - the other alternative protein trend promising to take our plates by storm.
“We estimate that from one acre of cropland, we could support the production of 1,700-3,500 lbs of clean meat per year, compared with 960 lbs of chicken or 100 lbs of beef,” says Emery. “That dramatic improvement in efficiency means reduced agricultural pollution and less cropland expansion into rainforests and other vital natural areas worldwide.”
With Josh Tetrick, CEO of San Francisco-based company Just, claiming clean meat products could be served in Asia and the US ‘before the end of 2018’ - and production costs falling rapidly - lab-grown burgers could well be the revolution we’ve been waiting for.