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.
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.