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Vegan meats cut emissions fastest

Ajit Niranjan
July 25, 2022

Investing in efforts to replace animal flesh with vegan meats would quickly and effectively cut greenhouse gas pollution, a report from Boston Consulting Group has found.

An employee slices vegan meat alternatives at a vegan Butcher in the UK
Plant-based meats are coming closer to animal flesh in texture and tasteImage: Hollie Adams/Getty Images

Nearly two centuries after Carl Müller opened a butcher's shop in the town of Rügenwalde on the Baltic coast, his great-great-great-great-grandson runs a thriving food business employing 851 people. 

But what sets Rügenwalder Mühle apart from sausage-makers across Germany, the country that invented bratwurst and frankfurters, is that most of its sales now come from plant-based food.

People laughed when a meat-processing company started selling vegan alternatives in 2014, said spokesperson Claudia Hauschild. Now, "meat-free nutrition is no longer a niche. It's part of mainstream society."

Companies like Rügenwalder Mühle are jumping on — and pushing along — a boom in fake meats. Customers are demanding climate-friendly alternatives to animal flesh, and producers are finding ways to make them cost less and taste better.

Freshly slaughtered pigs in a German slaughterhouse
Customers who ate plant-based meats were most concerned about health, welfare and environmental issues with animal fleshImage: Bernd Thissen/dpa/picture alliance

Globally, alternative proteins are set to rise from 2% of protein eaten today to 11% by 2035, according to a report published Friday by management consultancy Boston Consulting Group (BCG).

But the shift is happening too slowly to keep weather extremes from drastically worsening. Even if people were to immediately stop burning fossil fuels, greenhouse gas pollution from food — most of which comes from meat and dairy — would heat the planet beyond the 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) target to which world leaders promised to try to limit global warming. Cows and sheep belch methane, a powerful but short-lived planet-heating gas, and forests are being razed to make pastures and grow soy, three-quarters of which is fed to livestock. 

There's a strong need to "moderate our demand for meat, milk — and above all, beef," said Tim Searchinger, an agricultural researcher at the environmental think tank World Resources Institute. "If everybody on the planet ate as much meat as the average American, we'd need another planet." 

A worker at a cattle farm in Namibia
The meat and dairy industry is responsible for most of the emissions from agricultureImage: Oleksandr Rupeta/NurPhoto/picture alliance

Climate-friendly investments

By 2030, BCG expects 8% of the meat market to have been replaced by alternative proteins — a shift that would avoid nearly as much greenhouse gas pollution as the shipping industry emits today. The technologies are already so advanced, the authors found, that every dollar invested into plant-based protein saves three times more emissions than a dollar put into greening industries like cement or steel

Although plant proteins have a bigger impact than other clean technologies, they have received less attention, said Benjamin Morach, an investment expert at BCG who co-authored the report. "We have here a winning technology [...] that just needs to be played very well now on the field."

Experts say investments in clean alternatives to concrete and steel are also still sorely needed to fund research to make those alternatives cheap and effective. But a strong push to scale up plant-based proteins could even buy time for that by quickly cutting emissions — particularly of methane. The gas heats the planet 82 times more than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period and makes up about half the emissions from agriculture.

A Brazilian cowboy with a herd of cattle
Large tracts of the Amazon rainforest have been razed to clear land for cattle pastures and soy fieldsImage: Mauro Pimentel/AFP via Getty Images

The BCG report found that some plant-based proteins made from soy and peas can already compete with animal flesh on texture and cost, though sales suffered during the pandemic. Fake meats made by fermenting proteins or growing cells in a lab are expected to reach their potential within a decade. "The biggest barrier — to be brutally honest — is and will remain the consumer," said Morach.

For most of their history, companies marketed fake meats at vegetarians and vegans, who make up less than 10% of the population in most wealthy countries. The initial demand spurred companies to develop tastier alternatives that have become increasingly appetizing to a bigger market: meat-eaters who want to cut down but not give it up entirely.

In Germany, about half of people who eat meat plan to eat less, according to a study published in 2020. At the checkouts of an Edeka supermarket in central Berlin, which was redesigned last year to offer a wider range of sustainable products and showcase fake meats at the entrance, customers can regularly be seen putting meat products and vegan alternatives onto the conveyor belts. A spokesperson for Penny, a German discount supermarket chain that launched a vegan brand in 2020, said sales of meat-free alternatives saw double-digit growth in the first quarter of 2022.

Three-quarters of consumers say a healthy diet is a motivation for buying alternative proteins, the BCG report found, with 55% citing the environment and animal welfare. The biggest barriers to increasing consumption were nutrition, health and taste.

A chef cooks 3D printed plant-based steaks mimicking beef in Israel
Vegan meats (here 3D printed plant-based steaks) have so far struggled to replace animal productsImage: Amir Cohen/REUTERS

Simulating texture main challenge

Texture is one of the biggest challenges. Rügenwalder Mühle started with sandwich toppings that built on its expertise in sausages and cold cuts, and only in recent years added hot foods and barbecue alternatives that were more difficult to simulate. "From a consumer perspective, a hearty bite is important for the taste of meat alternatives," said Hauschild.

Oatly, a Swedish food company that has revolutionized the dairy market with oat-based alternatives, saw a breakthrough when it developed vegan products that mix well with coffee. The company worked with baristas to launch a special edition that is now sold at counters from Starbucks cafes to the restaurants of German trains.

Because proteins clump together in the acidic brew, "many plant-based drinks would curdle when mixed in with coffee," said Caroline Orfila, head of food science at Oatly. Technological innovations that prevent this have "drastically changed the market for plant-based drinks."

Switching subsidies for meat to healthier alternatives

Reaching an 8% market share of alternative proteins by 2030 would require capital investments of $86 billion (€84 billion) in plant-based proteins and avoid 0.38 gigatons of greenhouse gases, according to BCG.

Still, that amount of money is less than the meat industry receives in taxpayer-funded subsidies each year. Governments paid farmers $233 billion in agricultural support measures globally in 2017. About one-fifth of the subsidies went directly to meat production and 10% to dairy. A further 22% was used to subsidize grain — nearly half of which was then fed to animals.

A farmer at a dairy farm in the US
Worldwide, the meat and dairy industry received more than a third of all agricultural subsidies in 2017Image: Jerry Holt/ZUMA Wire/imago images

Switching these subsidies away from meat would increase fruit and vegetable consumption by 10% in rich countries and 5% in the rest of the world, according to a study published in the journal Nature in January. The shift would lead to about 444,000 fewer deaths from diet-related illnesses by 2030, the study found. As well as cutting greenhouse gas emissions, "Such policy options would lead to considerable gains in health without harming the economy," said Florian Freund, an agricultural economist at the Technical University of Braunschweig and co-author of that study.

While switching subsidies to fake meats would provide fewer benefits for health than channeling them into fruit and vegetables, it could speed up the adoption of plant-based diets by convincing meat-lovers on taste. Some consumers gladly consume cheap, unprocessed and protein-rich foods like chickpeas and lentils, although analysts are skeptical these can fully replace the animal meat market. Alternative proteins, on the other hand, have no theoretical barrier to mimicking the taste and texture of meat.

"Governments spend almost no money promoting this or even helping to do the research and development," said Searchinger. "The money that's gone into this is so trivial, it gives you hope."

Edited by: Sarah Steffen

Ajit Niranjan Climate reporter@NiranjanAjit