A special edition of Frontiers presents the evidence around environmental and human health ramifications of meat and dairy products, compared to their novel alternatives.
Today’s consumers have access to increasingly more novel meat and dairy alternatives. These foods, which often look and taste like livestock-derived meat (for example, imitating the sensory profile of a burger with processed pea protein), frequently differentiate themselves with claims about a lower environmental footprint. But what does the science show?
A report released during this week’s climate conference by The UN Environment Program (UNEP) titled “What’s Cooking? An assessment of the potential impacts of selected novel alternatives to conventional animal products” compiles evidence, including CGIAR research from ILRI and the Alliance of Bioversity and CIAT, to further a balanced understanding of how these alternatives can help transform food systems.
Contributing author Ana Maria Loboguerrero, Research Director for Climate Action at the Alliance, acknowledges livestock’s economic, nutritional, and cultural significance. She says that policymakers should consider multiple factors:
“The environmental impacts of meat production depend on many variables, including the type of meat, modes of production, production practices and the nature and magnitude of support from governments”.
In short, animal agriculture should not be considered as one singular system.
However, with up to 20% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions coming from animal agriculture, transitioning to alternatives could offer climate benefits, especially for high-emitters that use high amounts of land and water, like intensively-produced beef.
The report examines three forms of foods: plant-based, fermentation-derived, or cultivated meat. The findings indicate significant environmental potential, for example, compared to beef, the report finds around 90% reductions in land use that can contribute to biodiversity and forest conservation. According to the report, novel alternatives can yield positive benefits for animal welfare and could contribute to public health, particularly in decreasing zoonotic diseases.
The report highlights the importance of considering varying cultural and socioeconomic contexts, meaning that widespread integration of these foods should not be uniform across global diets. Instead, regional adaptation will be crucial to ensure that uptake of novel alternatives forms part of an equitable food transition.
As regulations, incentives, subsidies, and other frameworks proliferate around these types of foods, continued research is necessary to inform policymakers as to the different factors that influence animal agriculture and its alternatives. Loboguerrero says:
“Science can play a relevant role to inform these discussions.”