The Hidden Cost of Plant-Based Meat

Cows Beef Cattle

Plant-based meat is believed to have a smaller climate impact than conventional meat.

Although plant-based “beef” may reduce carbon dioxide emissions, it also threatens 1.5 million agricultural jobs. 

The use of plant-based beef substitutes has the potential to lower carbon dioxide emissions, but recent economic developments indicate that this trend might disrupt the agricultural workforce and jeopardize more than 1.5 million jobs in the sector.

According to new research from Cornell University, Johns Hopkins University, and international partners, the United States food production could reduce its agricultural carbon footprint by between 2.5% and 13.5% by embracing meat protein alternatives, primarily by reducing the number of cows required for beef production by two to 12 million.

The researchers noted that although taking steps to slow climate change is important, technology disruption may have a variety of economic repercussions, both good and bad, affecting issues like livelihoods, working conditions, human rights, fair wages, and health equity.

“A reduced carbon footprint and increased food system resource-use efficiency are reasons alternative proteins could be in a portfolio of technologies and policies to promote more-sustainable food systems,” said lead author Daniel Mason-D’Croz, a senior research associate at Cornell.

“Still, plant-based alternatives to beef are not silver bullets,” he said, “with their impact on other environmental dimensions of the food system – such as total water use – ambiguous.”

The economic effects of several scenarios in which plant-based beef substitutes replaced 10%, 30%, or 60% of the present U.S. beef market were compared by the researchers to examine the possible disruption caused by these substitutes.

“In the aggregate, food system changes would have a small, but potentially positive impact on the national gross domestic product,” said Mason-D’Croz.

“But these changes would not be felt equally across the economy,” he said, “with substantial disruptions observed across the food system, particularly in the beef-value chain, which could contract substantially by as much as 45% under the 60%-replacement scenario – challenging the livelihoods of the more than 1.5 million people employed in these sectors.”

“There are good reasons for regulators and policymakers to encourage these up-and-coming technologies,” said senior author Mario Herrero, professor of sustainable food systems and global change. “Politicians must remain aware of unintended negative consequences and commit to mitigating changes that are ethically concerning, including harms to disadvantaged workers and hard-hit local communities and small producers.”

Reference: “Ethical and economic implications of the adoption of novel plant-based beef substitutes in the USA: a general equilibrium modelling study” by Daniel Mason-D’Croz, MA, Anne Barnhill, Ph.D., Justin Bernstein, Ph.D., Jessica Bogard, Ph.D., Gabriel Dennis, BSc, Peter Dixon, Ph.D., Jessica Fanzo, Ph.D., Mario Herrero, Ph.D., Rebecca McLaren, MD, Jeda Palmer, BSc, Travis Rieder, Ph.D., Maureen Rimmer, Ph.D. and Ruth Faden, Ph.D., August 2022, The Lancet Planetary Health.
DOI: 10.1016/S2542-5196(22)00169-3

The work was funded by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, Johns Hopkins, and the Wild Futures Project at Cornell, with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

33 Comments on "The Hidden Cost of Plant-Based Meat"

  1. “… has the potential to lower carbon dioxide emissions, …”
    However, without a thorough, ‘cradle to grave’ analysis of the net CO2 production for specific husbandry and factory practices, one cannot say with certainty that plant-based meat will achieve reduced CO2 emissions. There may be other concerns as well because animals can take themselves to water while it is often necessary to irrigate croplands, requiring impounding water and moving it to areas of need through pipes and ditches.

    Despite what the main-stream ‘news’ media would have one believe, there are well-educated researchers who dispute the alleged dangers of increased anthropogenic CO2. While many vocal supporters of the disruption of fossil fuel energy sources, such as high-school dropout Greta Thunberg, only acknowledge negative aspects of increasing CO2, one should look at the net impact of the assumed anthropogenic increase in CO2. While most scientists believe that CO2 has significant impact on temperature, the belief is not unanimous. There are good reasons to believe that the role of CO2 is over-stated.

  2. So.. substituting sales of cow meat with plant based alternatives may reduce the number of people needed to produce cow meat? Shocking.

    I’m not sure this counts as “hidden”, more like “fully expected by everyone involved”.

  3. Can’t really take this seriously. Clearly written from a biased perspective and downplaying the climate catastrophe then just throw in a few things like human rights to try and bolster your case

  4. “Plant-based meat” is an oxymoron. At best. All true meat is ultimately plant based: specialized animals (herbivores) convert plants to meat. “Plant-derived meat substitute” is, I suppose, too unwieldy for the headline?

    @Wiggens: your “climate catastrophe” is also a product of a biased perspective, which conflates weather with climate and mistakes natural variability for anthropogenic change. … Steps to reduce CO2 emissions do come with an economic cost and will impact some humans’ “right” to consume protein-rich foods, by driving up their cost.

  5. It’s pretty simple… The higher up the food chain you consume, the higher the amount of resources (water, land, petroleum) used and waste products (CO2, polluted water sources, etc.) produced. Any move towards consuming less resources and producing less waste is an improvement, period.

    So, eat more plants, and less animal products. The people working in the cattle industry will have to adapt and move on, much like the abacus makers of the past.

    • Yes, it is “pretty simple.” All you have to do is eat Soylent Green. Or, to carry your argument to the ultimate conclusion, eat only things from the bottom of the food chain, like blue-green algae. We can pretend that humans didn’t evolve into what we are today by learning to cook meat. We can ignore the ability of chefs to produce culinary delights, and eat just like the brainless creatures that evolved to survive on the bottom of the food chain.

      The reason that the abacus has gone out of favor is because it is old technology that has been replaced by newer and better. You are advocating regression rather than advancement. It is ironic that humans have brains capable of putting people on the moon and hitting asteroids deep in the solar system, and you propose that we go back to eating porridge. There is more to life than just surviving. Reducing the standard of living just so that a larger population can be sustained doesn’t seem very smart to me.

  6. Did you know that many meat and dairy farms are converting to plant-based production and reaping massive monetary benefits? Most ranchers are now beholden to one of the few massive multi conglomerate factory farm corporations such as Cargill, Tyson, Smithfield… They are not making hardly any money and are barely staying afloat in massive debt. Look it up.
    This puff piece CLEARLY points to the fact that you are supporting these corporations that do not care about our planet. Please think about the words you write, they can make an impact.
    Factory farming is the number one driver of methane production, rainforest destruction, ocean acidification, and cruelty worldwide. Are these dismal jobs worth more than our planet? When will people start to realize that we cannot eat money. Eat plants!

  7. The planet is more important than keeping a destructive industry alive.
    Skipping the filtration of resources through animals and eating the plants directly lowers CO2, lowers water consumption, lowers pollution of our ground water (medications ending up in manure which we then spray onto our fields)
    And even if the net gain were to be 0, which is really hard to get (we’d have to only eat avocados and almonds from far away), the biggest reason, the abuse and slaughter of innocent animals is still unaffected by this.
    No matter how much we try to justify eating beef, we all consider ourselves to be animal lovers. A cow, pig or chicken are just as sentient and interested in staying alive as our dogs and cats!

  8. Farmers can adapt to a humane, ethical food system. They will still cultivate the plants required for human consumption, there will just be no animal in the middle that will consume these plants first. This is so much better for the environment. And perhaps slaughterhouse workers will find employment in the food industry that doesn’t involve the horror of killing a sentient being and the other dangers involved. These grisly facilities are typically hazardous and unclean, causing workers to become ill or injured. OSHA reports 17 “serious” incidents each month in U.S. slaughterhouses. Two slaughterhouse employees lose limbs each week. Workers lose eyes, fracture fingers, and suffer brain injuries often.

    OSHA also says slaughterhouse workers are three times more likely to get hurt than other Americans. Workers in pig and beef industries are seven times as likely to get RSI. Two-thirds of Upstate New York dairy farm workers have had at least one job accident, and many claim they’re told to labor through sickness and injuries. Chicken plant workers fear being fired if they take “unscheduled” potty breaks, thus many wear diapers.

    When talking about the “costs” of raising animals for food…it’s ALWAYS too high for everyone involved. Especially the animals that pay with their lives.

  9. Shellatthebeach | October 12, 2022 at 11:48 am | Reply

    Those jobs will be replaced by jobs in the plant-based sector that offer safer, healthier working conditions than factory farms and slaughterhouses–jobs no one wants anyway.

  10. Eh, cry me a river.

  11. Cows…cattle/pigs/chicken/sheep have been producing plant-based “meat” since creation.

  12. Don’t be ridiculous those jobs won’t be lost farmers can get back to farming Remember When there was more than corn in Kansas. That’s right we’re talking varied vegetables problems healthy soil.

  13. Wonder who paid for this article? Big meat and dairy. Smh…

  14. We need a massive reforestation program to work simultaneously with a reduction in meat and dairy farming techniques and it’s expensive use of land. We need it now with every other environmentally positive tactic we can muster if we really hope to avoid the true horrors we are hurtling toward. I do not think the world leaders have it in them. You just cannot hear them talking through to a stabilized planet! Frightening!

  15. Jonathan Mitchell | October 15, 2022 at 7:29 pm | Reply

    Okay, well I guess we should drop all hope for world peace because a huge number of military-industrial-complex jobs would be lost in the process. Oh, you think human lives (and the lives of other sentient beings) are more important than jobs? Well too bad. The ruthlessness of corporate capitalism demands that the economy keep growing at the expense of well-being. It’s not like we could strive for a future that eliminates harmful and unsustainable industries while also supporting the livelihoods of people who have to transition out of those industries. But I guess that logic is too complex for the ideological dogmatism of libertarians.

  16. This was clearly funded by the agricultural lobbyists in a last ditch effort to keep their bottom line. A few thousand measly jobs are worth the planet? Give me a break. Every single job on the planet means nothing if we destroy ourselves and our home, so stop writing such nonsense please.

  17. HAHAHA, I guess we should all not quit smoking cigarettes too! Because people will lose their jobs.

    Never should have invented the tractor either… All those farmers lost their jobs.


  18. I’ve been a vegetarian all my life, 40 years, and I don’t do it to reduce CO2 emissions, that’s moronic. I do it because humans are not carnivores and I don’t care to proliferate cancer.

  19. The number one contributor to greenhouse gases is decaying plant matter. So let’s grow more plants for fake beef. That’ll fix it. We could also follow other countries suit and tax cow farts and burps. Actually looking into ways to counter the real problems just doesn’t make any sense. Capturing or harnessing these gases before they get into the atmosphere, naw that’s just nuts huh.

  20. Oh I gave up plant based processed meat and meat over a year ago. In return, my body gave up my lupus and kidney disease, dropped 15 lbs and my cholesterol is 138. Plant based processed meat is not any healthier than meat. Whole food, plant based is the way to go. There’s job shortages in many other industries. People who process flesh might want to think about a more pleasant job track

  21. Saves the lives of billions of animals and produces tons of jobs in the new, less harmful industry. Less harmful for us, for the animals and for the climate.

  22. It is funny to see that you spend some time just saying bad things about something that is changing the field. Plant based things are nicer than those veggie beans, they sounds like whatever, like I am eating a burger but also a meal.

    I do also have meat allergy, that I developed by eating meat every day like you reader, but what they do not say is the meat that I was consuming had tons of things that made me intolerant to meat, and now this article is saying plant base meat are bad, if you show me cases that develops intolerance of it I can agree with you. I also cook with the same product and I need to share that when was meat people could feel good but bloated, now they have a nice burger and does not feel that heaviness.

    I also feel that this kind of article it is a meat person writing to not lose the meat on the market, only thinks about yourself and that’s sad, why not be more open? Have some veggies or maybe sometimes vegan people happier! This product is good and does not consume an animal.

    I hope that who wrote this can be now thinking that are more people over there that needs junk food, as they want to feel like normal, do a bad decision on getting a MC Donald’s.

    If you still can’t relate, try to think that your child might or have the intolerance or wants to be different, be vegetarian, whatever was the decision I would say that you will agree if you were at the same position you want to be able to, hang out with friends on any place and order things not in a special menu, or with a special things, more like I want that burger with the veggie Pattie, could feel so nice to have it, like the world that anyone can be feeling normal.

    I hope that the meat eater of this article can imagine yourself without the meat, how bad life can be without an option to feel that you can still be normal even though you have a condition, medical one.

  23. Where are all these plants going to be grown that will replace the cows? Much of the land that cows are grown on cannot be cultivated. Where will the fertilizer for all these fields of crops come from? Artificial fertilizers contribute to greenhouse gases. Humans cannot survive on a vegan diet without man-made supplements; therefore we are not naturally adapted to be vegan. There are more things to consider than just reducing animal production.

  24. Shellatthebeach well said. The labor market is capable of adapting. It’s called progress!

  25. Factory farms are vectors for the next pandemic.

  26. Aren’t you supposed to include “brought to you by the cattle farmers of America?” Somewhere in the article? Absolutely silly to weigh job losses in a stunningly destructive industry to the saviour of our planet.

    Clyde. How well is the meat industry paying you to come on here and embarrass yourself so thoroughly in the comment section?

  27. So humans evolved and developed larger brains than our ancestors by eating animal fats and proteins. We don’t possess a foregut as bovines do or the long hindgut that gorillas do, so we can’t process plants as they do. Yet we’re expected to go along with this silly plant based diet trend driven by idiots.
    Do some research. Read the work of scientists such as Professor Tim Noakes who’ve spent a lifetime studying this. We aren’t herbivores, vegetarianism is not healthy. It’s a scam pushed by those with huge investment in the “plant-based” industry.

  28. I’m uncertain how it can be said that total water use benefits are ambiguous. We know well how much water is involved in Animal Agriculture. How could the impact on water be unclear if we were to reduce or eliminate animal agriculture? To call it ambiguous is simply disingenuous.

  29. Who facilitated this article?
    More production of plantbased goods creates jobs. Additionally, industries and businesses go down all the time and people change careers. Its called evolving and doing what’s right for the planet and also animals. This is how we progress as society. Slavery used to be legal and no one cried when people lost their jobs.

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