Microbe-based faux beef could cut CO2 pollution by more than 80 percent

The meat alternative is high in protein and amino acids.
Loukia Papadopoulos
Vegan burger patties made out of pea protein.Rocky89/iStock

We have all heard of meat alternatives and their many benefits from being better for health to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Now, a new study published on Wednesday in Nature journal is quantifying those advantages.

The research found that replacing just 20 percent of global beef and lamb consumption with meat alternatives could see reductions in tree loss and CO2 pollution of more than 80 percent. That's an impressive amount!

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions from meat production

"With a relatively small change in the consumption of ruminant meat, greenhouse gas emissions from tropical deforestation can be strongly reduced," lead author Florian Humpenoder, a scientist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), told AFP.

"This is an important contribution to reaching the Paris Agreement climate targets, with additional co-benefits for other sustainability goals."

Conventional meat production is known to destroy CO2-absorbing tropical forests to replace them with grazing pastures and cattle feed crops while belching livestock produces significant amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas 30 times more potent than CO2. This spells disaster for an already struggling environment. 

An estimation of meat production over the next 30 years

The researchers calculated what current agricultural methods and meat consumption patterns would result in over the next 30 years and they found that they would need a global pasture area of nearly one million square kilometers (390,000 square miles). They then found that by simply replacing a mere 20 percent of meat production with meat alternatives the necessary pasture area would decrease to even below current levels.

"About 1.2 million sq km less agricultural land is required for the same protein supply," said senior author Alexander Popp, also from PIK.

Better yet, microbe-based faux meat is rich in protein and amino acids making it an ideal substitute for regular meat. With so many advantages both environmental and health-wise for the use of meat alternatives the only question that remains is: why haven't we made the shift yet?

Ruminant meat provides valuable protein to humans, but livestock production has many negative environmental impacts, especially in terms of deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions, water use and eutrophication1. In addition to a dietary shift towards plant-based diets2, imitation products, including plant-based meat, cultured meat and fermentation-derived microbial protein (MP), have been proposed as means to reduce the externalities of livestock production3,4,5,6,7. Life cycle assessment (LCA) studies have estimated substantial environmental benefits of MP, produced in bioreactors using sugar as feedstock, especially compared to ruminant meat3,7. Here we present an analysis of MP as substitute for ruminant meat in forward-looking global land-use scenarios towards 2050. Our study complements LCA studies by estimating the environmental benefits of MP within a future socio-economic pathway. Our model projections show that substituting 20% of per-capita ruminant meat consumption with MP globally by 2050 (on a protein basis) offsets future increases in global pasture area, cutting annual deforestation and related CO2 emissions roughly in half, while also lowering methane emissions. However, further upscaling of MP, under the assumption of given consumer acceptance, results in a non-linear saturation effect on reduced deforestation and related CO2 emissions—an effect that cannot be captured with the method of static LCA.

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