The Hypocrisy Of The Plant-Based Protein Movement

You don’t need to be a foodie or home chef to have noticed that plant-based and lab-created alternatives for traditional animal proteins have been flooding the market in recent years. With their celebrity endorsements, media-amplified funding, and flashy marketing campaigns, they promise consumers better health, a better environment, and a better society.

By Jaclyn Elizabeth4 min read
Pexels/Ave Calvar Martinez

But here’s the catch – they do none of that. In fact, the entire movement actually undermines each of those promises. The money alone is staggering. Plant-based meat products have swollen to a net worth of more than $20 billion, and dairy alternatives are now worth over $26 billion. Experts anticipate both to grow. On top of this, lab-grown “meat products” are quickly gaining momentum as well. 

The movement is funded by deep pockets, including celebrities and tycoons like Bill Gates (who also happens to own 275,000 acres of U.S. farmland), Mark Cuban, and Ashton Kutcher. But there is far more to the issue than dollar signs.

Removing Livestock from the Picture Hinders Real Sustainability

While they’ve become familiar ideas in our Western lexicon, “plant-based” and “alternative” animal proteins are still very new food industries. That means a lot of the lifecycle assessments and claims of their sustainability compared to traditional animal-derived foods are incomplete at best and insincere at worst.

In our modern jargon, sustainability is typically used in the strict context of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), overall carbon footprint, and perhaps water consumption. But these goalposts are an oversimplification of what should be a very broad concept. Authentic sustainability ought to include things like land conservation, utilizing resources via product recycling and upcycling, and relationship to the broader food system.

When you take into account all of these details, accurately doing a lifecycle assessment of two different food products side by side is quite difficult, if not virtually impossible. As one analysis published in Environmental Science & Technology put it: “While uncertainty ranges are large, the findings suggest that in vitro biomass cultivation could require smaller quantities of agricultural inputs and land than livestock; however, those benefits could come at the expense of more intensive energy use as biological functions such as digestion and nutrient circulation are replaced by industrial equivalents. From this perspective, large-scale cultivation of in vitro meat and other bioengineered products could represent a new phase of industrialization with inherently complex and challenging trade-offs.”

Consider the claim that the meat alternative base sietan (made from wheat gluten) has a carbon footprint 130 times smaller than traditional beef. But an assessment like this only considers the direct end product. It can’t account for the impact of all the additives, like vitamins and minerals (both natural and synthetic), and other fillers that each contribute to sustainability.

Livestock can actually reduce carbon in the atmosphere and GHGs by grazing and food recycling.

Here’s a secret about authentic food animal products: Livestock can actually reduce carbon in the atmosphere and GHGs by grazing and food recycling. Managed grazing,  which occurs in both grassfed and conventionally produced beef cycles, can help the land remove about one-fifth of carbon pollution. Cattle, pigs, and poultry are also capable of reusing plant food byproducts including almond and cottonseed hulls, distillers grains, and fruit and vegetable waste, among others.

Livestock of all types also contributes to the hugely important organic fertilizer sector via manure. Pastured animals can help promote healthier earth and biomass by enhancing soil composition as they graze. This allows for regrowth, which can contribute to healthier, carbon-storing pastureland the next year or be used for crop production. 

Manure is an essential organic fertilizer. Without it, the alternatives are chemical fertilizers which require extensive resources to produce. In fact, the conflict in Ukraine has brought down pressure on the chemical fertilizer sector and left many farmers to rely more heavily on animal manure. 

Ironic how all these net positives – sustainable land management, organic fertilizer, and food product recycling – are widely supported by mainstream media. But simultaneously, they’re seeking to replace the very heart of those systems by promoting the false promises of both plant-based and lab-grown proteins.

Plant-Based Protein’s Dubious Health Claims

Wellness and healthy eating are huge alleged selling points of both cell-based and plant-based protein alternatives. Ironically, many circles that support them are in favor of eating a more naturalistic and holistic diet that contains fewer animals and more plants.

But here’s the thing, they are leaning on heavily processed man-made creations to replace wholesome nutrients straight from an animal. Consider plant-based “meat,” “dairy,” and “egg” products. These are made from a complex cocktail of highly processed plant proteins that usually lean on a base like soy, seitan, or tree nuts. Because they are unpalatable, they are then loaded with additives that alter the texture to boost the overall eating experience and are fortified for nutrition.

But even on a per-serving basis, these alternatives fall short, having fewer essential nutrients – especially zinc, iron, B12, and protein – compared to authentic meat. They also come loaded with high levels of sodium, which is typical of most processed foods. 

Cultured meat products are still made in an artificial growth medium, so don’t be fooled into thinking they’re totally unprocessed. 

The up-and-coming lab-based alternatives, which are made by culturing real animal cells in a petri dish, may seem to offer a solution here. But before delving into the weeds, remember that even cultured meat products are still made in an artificial growth medium – which is a blend of chemicals, proteins, and other preservatives. So don’t be fooled into thinking these are totally unprocessed. 

They also come with their own issues. Certain nutrients in meat, dairy, and eggs can be heavily influenced by the management of the animal. Omega-3 fatty acid is a great example of this, which is more prevalent in grassfed animal products. This is not so easy to replicate in a lab setting. Additionally, micronutrients like B12 and iron are difficult to pin down with cultured cells. And with this technology still in its infancy, there’s a lot that remains to be seen. 

Real Meat and Antibiotic Resistance

Some proponents of a vegan lifestyle point to ditching livestock entirely as being a boon to societal health. They argue: Wouldn’t eliminating this part of the food system cut down on antibiotic resistance and zoonotic diseases?

Antibiotic resistance isn’t a livestock-only issue. Human medicine, poor hygiene practices, and improper use of prescription drugs are also major contributors. And the animal industries are already tackling this issue – just this June, new regulations went into effect requiring that all livestock and companion animal drugs now require a veterinarian’s prescription, meaning that over-the-counter purchases are no longer allowed. This means there will now be even more veterinary oversight to manage the amount of antibiotics for all animal production. 

And bear in mind that federal regulations already scrutinize antibiotic usage in food animals to protect against contamination. The system in place is working well, since less than 0.5% of all meat sampled tested positive for any antibiotic residues, according to a U.S. Residue Program Report

Closing Thoughts

Livestock has been an essential part of human nutrition and cultivation for just about our entire existence, so why are we just now seeing them as a huge problem?

The powers that be enforcing the “alternative” products on the market should give us pause – considering the elites and billions of dollars tying the whole thing together. It’s interesting to consider that the United Nation’s COP27 served its attendees cultured chicken courtesy of GOOD Meat. It makes you wonder why they are so set on setting this precedent. 

We don’t live in a bubble. Eliminating one segment of our food cycle interrupts the rest. Do we really want a world without organic fertilizer or sustainable grassland management? Do we want to serve dinner created in a petri dish to our children? And do we believe the self-serving claims that tout healthier people and a healthier planet when their products actually fly in the face of just that?

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