Vegan Food's Sustainability Claims Need To Give The Full Picture

Vegan Food's Sustainability Claims Need To Give The Full Picture Are veggie burgers the way of the future? Ella Olsson/Flickr, CC BY-SA

The IPCC special report, Climate Change and Land, released last night, has found a third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions come from the “land”: largely farming, food production, land clearing and deforestation.

Sustainable farming is a major focus of the report, as plants and soil can potentially hold huge amounts of carbon. But it’s incredibly difficult as a consumer to work out the overall footprint of individual products, because they don’t take these considerations into account.

Two vegan brands have published reports on the environmental footprint of their burgers. Impossible Foods claims its burger requires 87% less water and 96% less land, and produces 89% fewer greenhouse-gas emissions than a beef version. Additionally, it would contribute 92% less aquatic pollutants.

Similarly, Beyond Meat claims its burger requires 99% less water, 93% less land, 90% fewer greenhouse emissions and 46% less energy than a beef burger.

But these results have focused on areas where vegan products perform well, and do not account for soil carbon or potential deforestation. This might change the picture.

How do you measure an environmental footprint?

Vegan and vegetarian “meat alternatives” have become increasingly popular. Often in the form of burgers, the products are meant to emulate the taste, nutritional value, “mouthfeel” and even the cooking experience of a meat burger. The aim is to provide the consumer with products that are like meat in all respects except one: their environmental impact.

Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have each published “life-cycle assessments” (LCA), which measure environmental aspects of products over the supply chain. As is clear from the figures quoted above, both claim their burgers use a fraction of the resources of traditional beef burgers.

These results sound impressive, but LCA results can be misleading when taken out of context. Looking at the underlying reports for Beyond Burger and Impossible Burger it becomes clear that statements such as “less water” and “less land” mean different things in practice.

There are significant differences between the two studies in the calculations of land and water use for the beef burger, and the final results are not expressed in the same units. This does not necessarily mean either of the studies is invalid, but it does mean the statements on the websites are simplified and don’t allow for clear interpretation.

Both studies justify their choice of indicators by saying they are the most common used in beef footprint studies. But are they the most relevant indicators for vegan burger production?

By making the comparison only for the environmental aspects most important for meat products, the results may look extra positive for the vegan alternatives, as other aspects might have shown a less favourable result. The results as presented may be true, but they are not the whole truth.

Importantly, the studies compare the results for the vegan burgers with a beef burger produced in the United States. To be precise, it is produced from cattle from average, conventional US production systems.

This is a valid choice, because this is the default burger meat in the US market. But results may be very different for other animals, for beef in other countries, or for unconventionally farmed beef.

Unconventional beef

A third study, released recently, evaluates beef produced at White Oak Pastures, a regenerative grazing farm in the US. Regenerative grazing uses adjusted animal grazing to enrich soils and improve biodiversity, water and nutrient cycling.

The White Oak farm sequesters so much carbon in its soil and vegetation it more than offsets the emissions of its cattle. In other words, it has a negative carbon footprint. This study compared White Oak beef favourably to conventional beef, chicken, pork and soy, as well as the Beyond Burger.

The silent assumption is, however, that no carbon sequestration occurs in conventional beef grazing or on feed and soy cropping land. This is not necessarily true. White Oak Pastures is using grazing to regenerate degraded cropland, so it is likely similar grazing on other farms would result in holding additional carbon within the first few decades.

In Australia, farmers who convert their cropland to pasture (which stores more carbon) are eligible for credits under the Emissions Reduction Fund. There is also evidence cropping systems may sometimes hold carbon as well, in the US as well as in Australia. For example, the carbon footprint of Australian barley and canola may be some 10% smaller when taking carbon sequestration in soils into account.

Clearly, soil carbon can play a major role in the net carbon footprint of many foods. How would the vegan burger versus beef burger comparison look if soil carbon and biodiversity aspects had been included?

That said, the White Oak Pastures study does not present the full story either, because soil carbon sequestration was only evaluated for their own product, and the study didn’t look at any other aspects such as water scarcity or biodiversity.

It is disappointing such prominent products don’t publish more comprehensive environmental results, given that this has long been prescribed by the international standards.

Now that the new special report stresses yet again how important soils are in a transition to sustainable agriculture and food, it’s time to do better.The Conversation

About The Author

Maartje Sevenster, Research Scientist Climate Smart Agriculture, CSIRO and Brad Ridoutt, Principal Research Scientist, CSIRO Agriculture, CSIRO

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

books_food

enafarzh-CNzh-TWdanltlfifrdeiwhihuiditjakomsnofaplptruesswsvthtrukurvi

follow InnerSelf on

facebook-icontwitter-iconrss-icon

 Get The Latest By Email

{emailcloak=off}

LATEST VIDEOS

Tiny Plankton Drive Processes In The Ocean That Capture Twice As Much Carbon As Scientists Thought
Tiny Plankton Drive Processes In The Ocean That Capture Twice As Much Carbon As Scientists Thought
by Ken Buesseler
The ocean plays a major role in the global carbon cycle. The driving force comes from tiny plankton that produce…
Climate Change Threatens Drinking Water Quality Across The Great Lakes
Climate Change Threatens Drinking Water Quality Across The Great Lakes
by Gabriel Filippelli and Joseph D. Ortiz
“Do Not Drink/Do Not Boil” is not what anyone wants to hear about their city’s tap water. But the combined effects of…
Talking About Energy Change Could Break The Climate impasse
Talking About Energy Change Could Break The Climate Impasse
by InnerSelf Staff
Everyone has energy stories, whether they’re about a relative working on an oil rig, a parent teaching a child to turn…
Crops Could Face Double Trouble From Insects And A Warming Climate
Crops Could Face Double Trouble From Insects And A Warming Climate
by Gregg Howe and Nathan Havko
For millennia, insects and the plants they feed on have been engaged in a co-evolutionary battle: to eat or not be…
To Reach Zero Emissions Government Must Address Hurdles Putting People Off Electric Cars
To Reach Zero Emissions Government Must Address Hurdles Putting People Off Electric Cars
by Swapnesh Masrani
Ambitious targets have been set by the UK and Scottish governments to become net-zero carbon economies by 2050 and 2045…
Spring Is Arriving Earlier Across The US, And That's Not Always Good News
Spring Is Arriving Earlier Across The US, And That's Not Always Good News
by Theresa Crimmins
Across much of the United States, a warming climate has advanced the arrival of spring. This year is no exception.
The Last Ice Age Tells Us Why We Need To Care About A 2℃ Change In Temperature
The Last Ice Age Tells Us Why We Need To Care About A 2℃ Change In Temperature
by Alan N Williams, et al
The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that without a substantial decrease…
A Georgia Town Gets Half Of Its Electricity From President Jimmy Carter's Solar Farm
A Georgia Town Gets Half Of Its Electricity From President Jimmy Carter's Solar Farm
by Johnna Crider
Plains, Georgia, is a small town that is just south of Columbus, Macon, and Atlanta and north of Albany. It is the…

LATEST ARTICLES

Hurricanes And Other Extreme Weather Disasters Prompt Some People To Move And Trap Others In Place
Hurricanes And Other Extreme Weather Disasters Prompt Some People To Move And Trap Others In Place
by Jack DeWaard
If it seems like extreme weather disasters such as hurricanes and wildfires are becoming more frequent, severe and…
If All Cars Were Electric, UK Carbon Emissions Would Drop By 12%
If All Cars Were Electric, UK Carbon Emissions Would Drop By 12%
by George Milev and Amin Al-Habaibeh
The COVID-19 lockdown has led to reduced pollution and emissions in the UK and around the world, providing a clear…
Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro Is Devastating Indigenous Lands, With The World Distracted
Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro Is Devastating Indigenous Lands, With The World Distracted
by Brian Garvey, and Mauricio Torres
The Amazon fires of 2019 drove the greatest single year loss of Brazilian forest in a decade. But with the world in the…
Why Countries Don't Count Emissions From Goods They Import
Why Countries Don't Count Emissions From Goods They Import
by Sarah McLaren
I would like to know if New Zealand’s carbon emissions of 0.17% include emissions produced from products manufactured…
Green Bailouts: Relying On Carbon Offsetting Will Let Polluting Airlines Off The Hook
Green Bailouts: Relying On Carbon Offsetting Will Let Polluting Airlines Off The Hook
by Ben Christopher Howard
The coronavirus pandemic has grounded thousands of aircraft, contributing to the largest-ever annual fall in CO₂…
Longer Growing Seasons Have A Limited Effect On Combating Climate Change
Longer Growing Seasons Have A Limited Effect On Combating Climate Change
by Alemu Gonsamo
Climate warming is leading to early springs and delayed autumns in colder environments, allowing plants to grow for a…
Both Conservatives And Liberals Want A Green Energy Future, But For Different Reasons
Both Conservatives And Liberals Want A Green Energy Future, But For Different Reasons
by Deidra Miniard et al
Political divisions are a growing fixture in the United States today, whether the topic is marriage across party lines,…
How The Climate Impact Of Beef Compares With Plant-based Alternatives
How The Climate Impact Of Beef Compares With Plant-based Alternatives
by Alexandra Macmillan and Jono Drew
I am wondering about the climate impact of vegan meat versus beef. How does a highly processed patty compare to…