Are plant-based meats actually sustainable? (Impossible Burger & Beyond Meat)

Are plant-based meats actually sustainable? (Impossible Burger & Beyond Meat)


This video is sponsored by CuriosityStream.
Get access to my streaming video service, Nebula, when you sign up for CuriosityStream
using the link in the description. The future of meat is split into two very
different paths. One that begins in the windy flats of Kansas, within the manure laden pens
of cows fattened on excessive amounts of corn, and another that starts on the squeaky clean
dishes of a lab, grown from yeast and modified to mirror the taste of its rival. Each has
its environmental impact, but they both reveal certain unpleasant realities in our food system.
Industrial factory farming and plant-based meats in many ways have co-evolved in a world
that seeks cheap and easy silver-bullet solutions to nuanced food system problems. Ultimately,
these two meats are intertwined. And to understand this new wave of plant-based meats, we need
to understand the current state of beef farming. So today, I’m going to ask three important
questions: what are plant-based meats replacing? What are its impacts? And what does it mean
that we are placing our trust in these tech-based meats to fix our food system? So first, the tale of the hamburger. Trace
your way back to its humble beginnings, and you’ll find yourself in Garden City, Kansas.
A town that the author of Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollen, calls Cattle Metropolis. An
apt name considering that the city is the birthplace of one of the first CAFOs or Concentrated
Animal Feeding Operation, and now hosts a variety of these CAFOs in and outside its
city limits. These feeding operations are part of the reason why the price of hamburger
beef can stay so low. They pack a ton of cows in a small area to maximize the profit from
the land. To put it simply, the way cows are raised for slaughter on these feedlots is
more akin to a factory than a farm, and thus the often-used moniker “factory farm.”
After they’ve met the requisite “entry weight” calves are brought to these feedlots
and are forced to subsist on a concoction of corn, protein supplements, and antibiotics
until they are around 1,100 pounds or 14-16 months old. Then, they are sent to slaughter.
Alongside the variety of animal cruelty concerns directed at concentrated feedlots, several
environmental issues arise from stuffing cows in tight quarters, and then, in turn, stuffing
their bodies full of vegetation that their stomachs aren’t equipped for. One of the
major issues for these types of feeding operations is, to put it bluntly, poop. According to
the U.S. Center for Disease Control, “large farms can produce more waste than some U.S.
cities” claiming that “a feeding operation with 800,000 pigs could produce over 1.6 million
tons of waste a year.” For open-air feedlots, often this waste just piles up underneath
cattle, and when it rains, runs off into waterways, ultimately causing downstream drinking water
pollution in the form of antibiotics and higher levels of nitrates. For indoor factory farms,
manure often has to be scooped out, but because it tends to be too antibiotic laden or the
specter of diseases like E. Coli persist, farmers refuse to put it on their fields.
As a result, operators dump the manure in holding ponds that can overflow if it rains,
or pile it high and wait. In addition, the surrounding air quality is greatly affected
through an excess of particulate matter, ammonia, and hydrogen sulfide, which can cause damage
to the lungs and eyes among other symptoms. But the most infamous gas that finds its way
into the atmosphere from these corn-fed cows is methane. Cows, quite literally, aren’t
able to stomach corn. As a result, belching and the decomposition of their manure happens
at a much higher level, releasing methane that has caused livestock to account for between
14.5 percent and 18 percent of the world’s total yearly emissions. So when we look towards
replacing a meat-based system with plant-based alternatives, this is what we’re trying
to replace. A factory system that churns through cows and externalizes waste onto the surrounding
communities and environment. As a response, plant-based retailers have
stepped in. They seek to replace beef with what they say is something better. This meat
is not born out of the manure-laden feedlots, but instead from the test-kitchens of fancy
start-ups like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods. But what exactly are these beef-like
alternatives? And are their impacts actually less than beef? Once again, let’s go back
to the beginning. In the case of the Impossible Burger, which you can now buy at fast-food
chains like Burger King, that beginning centers around engineers, scientists, and huge machines
like a mass-spectrometer. This seems like a far cry from the confines of a feedlot.
The secret to the Impossible Burgers success is years of research figuring out what makes
a hamburger taste like a hamburger and then translating those components into plant-based
alternatives. Chief among those is a compound called heme. Essentially this is what makes
the Impossible Burger “bleed” and gives it that meaty flavor. Instead of coming from
a cow however, the heme Impossible Burgers use originates from the root nodules of a
soy plant. Now, to incorporate that heme protein into their burgers on a mass scale they genetically
modified a yeast cell to produce the heme at high levels. So, unlike the bean burgers
you might make at home, these new vanguards of the plant-based meat world are much less
farm-based as they are lab-based. But the results speak for themselves. Impossible Burgers
are struggling to keep up with the massive demand and Beyond Meat is currently valued
at $7.5 billion with its product available in over 35,000 locations. But, does this growing
transition to plant-centric meat have a serious impact on the environment? According to a
Beyond Meat sponsored study, it definitely does. The research claims that a Beyond Meat
Burger generates 90% less greenhouse gas emissions, requires 46% less energy, 99% less impact
on water scarcity and 93% less impact on land use. These are significant differences. However,
it’s worth noting that this study is backed by Beyond Meat, and independent studies on
the environmental impact of various plant-based meat corporations are needed for true accountability
. As these two types of meat continue to butt
heads on the public stage, here’s what we know. Demand for cheap beef has given rise
to an industrial farming system that pollutes the air, water, and earth via the factory-like
structure of its corn-fed beef operations. Globally it has also led to significant swaths
of deforestation in old-growth forests like the Amazon, clearing the way for more and
more cattle operations. In response to this destruction, food-tech startups like Beyond
Meat and Impossible Foods are proposing a cleaner, more ethical option. But we should
be wary of relying on techno-fixes, especially in the food world, to clean up our messes.
In many ways, these alternative meats are another example of seeking an easy solution
to the complicated problem of climate change. So, in addition to changing how much beef
we eat, we also need to change the way we approach our food system and farms. In fact,
there are ways to raise cattle that might actually heal the land and sequester carbon
dioxide. But they require hard work and planning. Joel Salatin’s rotational grazing operation
at Polyface farm is a perfect example of this. They continuously move livestock from one
field to another to allow for a varied diet, healthy animals, and carbon-absorbing pasture.
At the end of the day, alternative solutions like Polyface Farms are not necessarily an
indictment of these new food-tech companies, they merely highlight the fact that silver-bullet
business solutions don’t exist when it comes to climate change. A market-based solution
will never single-handedly solve a market-created problem. The only thing that will truly turn
this around is doing everything all at once. So yes, that means eating more Beyond Burgers
or veggie burgers, but it also means employing other solutions like subsidizing farmers during
their transition away from feedlots and towards more environmentally and humanely aligned
farming practices. If you’re exhausted of hearing my voice
and are looking for some really great nature-related documentaries, I’d highly recommend checking
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lost in their library. And If you’re interested about learning more about the future of our
food system, I’d highly recommend the documentary Farming of the Future. It looks at farming
systems like aquaponics and robotic AI that are trying to address a growing demand for
food. It’s definitely worth a watch if you have the time. But if somehow make your way
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65 thoughts on “Are plant-based meats actually sustainable? (Impossible Burger & Beyond Meat)

  1. Personally i Don't think there is a alternative solution to cattle rearing. Alternative solution would require a lot of other resources too. We simply need to stop eating meat.

  2. Beyond meat is so gross to me. I was kinda excited for it but even the smell from it makes me gag. Does anyone feel the same?

  3. Thank you for mentioning regenerative farming – its so often missing from online conversations about how the food system and climate change are linked. I would love to see a whole video of yours breaking down carbon sequestration through soil and grazing! White oak pastures has had some interesting 3rd party research done on the carbon footprint life cycle assessment for their beef compared to impossible and beyond meat, and I'd love to know how reliable it is: http://blog.whiteoakpastures.com/blog/carbon-negative-grassfed-beef

  4. Thanks for mentioning Polyface farms, as everyone isn't going to be vegan it's a good alternative. However that will mean we have to reduce meat consumption as this type of farming isn't going to produce the same quantity of meat, but it still doesn't get rid of meat altogether.

  5. It all sounded great until you mentioned subsidies for farming practices to be more environmentally sustainable and humane. Humane animal farming isn't a thing. A cow/pig being breed into existence for someone to have pleasure based around taste isn't justified when delicious, sustainable and nutritionally viable alternatives exist.

    Other than that the information sourced made for a great video.

  6. i went to a talk by an impossible foods representative, and he actually said that impossible foods actually welcomed beyond meat as a rival, because they're both making good sustainable alternatives to actual beef, and because they need more competitors to take up more of the market share and compete with the traditional meat industry. also, impossible foods seems to pride themselves on transparency. of course, that's all coming from someone who's trying to promote his company, so we should take this information with a grain of salt, but it would be great if impossible foods were genuine about this mindset.

  7. Is a world without animal exploitation sustainable?
    I dare you to make that video.
    Because you always leave the ethics out of it, when it is the most important aspect.
    It's like asking 150 years ago, if making all slaves free would be sustainable…

  8. "Techno-fixes won't solve climate change"…

    WOW… I applaud you… not many people have the courage to say this…
    Techno-progressives will be angry…

  9. Love this analysis! I enjoy plant-based meats, but almost don’t like the beyond burger but it tastes too similar to meat for my taste – but I’m also not the target market.

    I really like that you mentioned we need everything all at once – I’d just add that we should have a weighted approach and not consider all solutions equal 👏

  10. This video was so interesting, I didn’t know cows produce more methane when fed corn because they’re bodies weren’t meant to digest it, and I love the nuanced idea of implementing multiple solutions, and not just saying no to beef. I would never have thought about subsidizing farmers who are switching to more sustainable systems! I love the production and the nuanced ideas, great job!!

  11. Still, these alternative burgers are made of legumes (pea, soy) and vegetable oils (coconut, canola, sunflower).
    All these cultures are detrimental to the environment, they decrease biodiversity, disrupt habitats and degrade soils.
    Considering that, in order to have the same satisfaction, one probably needs to eat double the quantity that you would eat if it was real meat… and also considering that burgers are only a small percentage of meat consumption… then the advantages of vegan substitutes are irrelevant.

  12. This video is pretty fair, and I appreciate you bringing up regenerative/holistic agricultural practices.

    However, nitpicks I must address.

    Fake meat produces mostly CO2 vs cow's methane. Methane oxidizes in a process called hydroxl oxidation which can breakdown methane in the atmosphere in about 10 year, whereas CO2 can stay in the atmosphere for 1000s of years.

    Technically speaking, livestock methane is more immediate heat-trapping but it's lifespan in the atmosphere is negligible. CO2 is the greater threat, and "cultured meat" produces almost exclusively C02.

    https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fsufs.2019.00005/full

    Additionally, the EPA has established that C02 emissions from fossil fuel use are the primary culmination of GHG (2/3rds)
    Also Agriculture (including livestock) is only 9%
    https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/sources-greenhouse-gas-emissions

    If you isolate beef cattle alone, emissions drop down to 1.86%:
    • Total US Emissions in 2016 = 6,511.3
    • Million Metric Tons (MMT) of CO2 Equivalents = 121.3
    • Formula: 121.3 / 6,511.3 *100 = 1.86%

    • Therefore: Beef Production GHG Emissions are only 1.86%

    https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2018-01/documents/2018_complete_report.pdf

    The idea that reducing meat will reduce GHG emissions has also been tested in a hypothetical non-animal food system, and we would only reduce emissions by 2.6%, while also increasing the need for food by 23% and causing essential nutrient deficiencies:
    https://www.pnas.org/content/114/48/E10301

    Do not mistake my words, I do think that meat practices should gear towards more sustainable and ethical practices, but we need to make sure the evidence cited is correct as well.

    Hope this helps. Good day.

  13. GRASS FED BEEF IS NOT SUSTAINABLE AT ALL!

    Find out the TRUTH HERE with PEER-REVIEWED, SCIENTIFIC literature provided for all claims!!

    Is Grass-Fed Beef Sustainable?
    https://youtu.be/qjSWGM73Fkk

    Forget Veganism, Let's Talk About Grass Fed Beef and Agriculture Systems
    https://youtu.be/_zADSiDr_TM

  14. Why we should care about it being sustainable or not? Why something being 'sustainable' actually matters? Isn't it more accurate to focus on the suffering that it prevents on sentient beigns on this planet?

  15. Thank you for noticing that the Brazilian rainforest is being destroyed for the sake of the bio-industry mainly. Everyone always says that it is because of soy. Not even getting that more than 80% of soy is being used for livestock.

    Eating plants directly and cutting out the middle-cow is by definition more efficient. It is the only way I see we will eat in the future.

  16. Cow carbon is from plants and they got it from the air: not quite climate neutral because of the conversion to methane and land/energy/water use (though these are mitigated in places where crops cannot be grown, e.g., steppe biome, marginal land in semiarid areas). However, fossil fuel carbon would stay underground for millions of years if we did not put it in the air; there's a big difference between cow (or human) carbon output and fossil fuel burning. E.g., https://youtu.be/85TQHzS88L4 Otoh, we need to reduce all sources of GHGs as well as increase efficiency in land/energy/water use wherever possible. So, yes: this is far more nuanced than is being portrayed in most outlets.

  17. I was hoping for a more in depth analysis of the environmental impacts of meat alternatives, like you did with the milk alternatives. Maybe another video 🙂

    I've personally never seen fake meats as a means to 'save the planet' really. Yeah, meat is bad, but like, potatoes exist, not every meal needs to include meat or meat-like products. Fake meats are a treat, for those who like the taste but are also looking at their carbon footprint.
    Sometimes I'd like to see more tech used for food. We live in a highly technologised world, a completely 'natural' way of farming might not suit it. Like, most people live in cities, there isn't much soil there to grow stuff. But you could have indoor garden towers, tended to by robots, growing things that might spoil quickly if they had to be imported from another place (also CO2 emissions for transport).

  18. i get that we need a whole system overhaul and such, but one person is not going to be able to do that, especially by lunchtime. i feel like you kind of skimmed over the fact that avoiding meat, specifically beef, is one of the best and only things and individual can do today.

  19. Animal agriculture already takes up 1/3 of Earth's land, and 2/3 of all available agricultural land (FAO,2006). There simply isn't room to transition our cafos to pasture-grazing operations, without causing so much more deforestation and other habitat loss, which wouldn't be offset by the carbon sequestration of grass even if it did work. The reality is that humanity simply has to eat less meat. Cut out the incredibly inefficient middle man of the animals, and eat the plants themselves.

  20. Multifaceted problems require multifaceted solutions. Addressing farming concerns and climate issues require a spectrum of solutions, many of which you list in this video. Popularization of a reduced meat diet, meat alternatives, better farming techniques, government subsidizing for adopters of better farming practices AND penalties for noncompliance farms. A focused, and well communicated video. Par for the course of this channel.

  21. "we find that a nationwide shift to exclusively grass-fed beef would require increasing the national cattle herd from 77 to 100 million cattle, an increase of 30%. We also find that the current pastureland grass resource can support only 27% of the current beef supply (27 million cattle)(…)
    the average methane footprint per unit of beef produced would increase by 43% (table 2) because of slower growth rates and higher methane conversion rates"
    https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/aad401

  22. Demand-side solutions are a huge part of directing resources away from unsustainable options to create long-lasting change. Supply systems follow demand, not the other way around. Fixing broken supply systems by employing things like rotational grazing does not revamp the very basis of the system. Rotational grazing, for instance, has huge problems associated with it, primarily the large amount of resources it needs and its inability to actually meet global protein needs. "Everything all at once" is true; the disavowal of market solutions… not so much.

  23. So we need "more environmentally and humanely aligned farming practices" when raising animals? With even the most 'humane' and sustainable methods of farming, an animal will still be slaughtered. How do you 'humanely' slaughter someone who does not want to die? Even with the best living conditions, can we justify taking the life of an animal? Don't forget, there will still be a victim.

  24. You are wrong. I'm sorry, but there is no sustainable method of cattle raising, it's a myth. The amount of land required for rotational grazing like on Polyface's Farms is not sustainable at any type of large scale. The demand for beef has to massively reduce for that to happen. It would take more land than the USA currently has to meet their own current demand for beef alone, never mind exports.

    Farmers should not receive subsidies to adapt to those methods. In fact, all beef subsidies should end immediately so that the price of beef is adjusted to where it should actually be in order to drive demand down significantly. If the cattle ranchers can't adapt to the demand at true market price, then the cattle ranching industry should die. Furthermore, vegetarians and vegans should not be paying extra taxes to bail out a dying, environmentally damaging industry (especially when said industry is also spending millions trying to suppress plant-based alternatives and spread fake propaganda about the healthiness and sustainability of their products).

    To even suggest that as an option is reckless and profoundly hypocritical. Other meats? Sure, I'd concede that. People who eat chicken are, in terms of CO2 output, basically vegetarian. Beef? Nope. There is no sustainable way to eat beef. You don't have to go vegan, but if you care about the environment at all and continue to eat beef, then you're a hypocrite plain and simple. It isn't an option we should even somewhat consider.

  25. Thanks for the video! Can you make one about which banks to avoid investing your money in? I know a lot of banks invest in fossil fuels, pipelines, tar fields, etc and I would like to boycott those.

  26. I love your videos so much, thank you for having such a pragmatic look at these complex issues. The book "Defending Beef" by Nicollette Hahn Niman really explains how rotational grass fed beef can actually be a net green house gas sink with carbon sequestration… contrary to what many people think about cattle.

  27. This is a huge fabrication of sustainability and food resources. My research group and me believe in natural meat , wrt nutritionally and sustainability. Lab grown meat is not a substitute for natural meat. Sorry to put this in way. Very few studies show the effects of lab grown meat on human beings. And even so estimations of cattle induced climate change is a joke compared to carbon footprint of using cars. The studies have been misinterpreted seriously, I am surprised that no news outlets have ever considered the other aspect.

    Thunderf00t must have a say….

  28. I think our environmental problem arises not from eating meat, but from not having a diverse food diet around the world. Like everywhere you go around the world there are big factory farms. People should go back to how their ancestors ate. Sometimes living a "better life" having "better" food does not necesarrily mean we have to copy the West way of eating. Im from the Middle East btw. but going back to our roots and eating like our ancestors

  29. Straightforward informational video; very informative. My only criticism is you don’t really mention the ETHICAL reasons for eating a plant-based diet. The factory farming portion talks about the cruelty and in humane treatment of animals but much of the reasoning for choosing to be vegan or vegetarian is based on moral concerns vis-a-vis, right and wrong. I think you set up a bit of a false equivalency between eating animals or plant-based diets and their impacts on not only the environment but the human psyche.

  30. I’d love to see you explore the economics of returning to locally raised farm animals and game meat. It’s currently illegal to sell game meat in the US, however I think a key step towards sustainability and healthy living includes shying away from mass produced agriculture.

    There’s a lot of evidence showing significant health benefits from shopping local. I’m wondering if that would be more sustainable, create better conditions for the animals & meat processing, and how expensive that would be to the consumer. I’m assuming quite costly but I’d buy my food that way even so.

    I also mention game meat, as I understand there’s several areas becoming overpopulated with animals that aren’t natural to the environment. For example the pig issue across the us, and the deer issue on many tropical islands. They could provide a great source of food if it were legal to hunt and process them.

  31. I agree with the premise of the video but telling us that it is just as important to find a way to sustainably farm beef is a bit misguided. No, we cannot do that. Just logistically speaking, the energy transfer from producer -> primary consumer is 10%. Just the pure physics of eating consumer (meat) in massive scale is NOT sustainable.

  32. CHANGE THE CLICKBAIT TITLE OF THIS VIDEO!!! This video has almost nothing to do with the sustainability of beyond/impossible meat! It provides no argument that such “meats” are not sustainable, only that the issue hasn’t been studied independently. It is insane to think these products have an environmental impact that even approaches that of real beef, but you are deliberately misleading people into considering that proposition! Shame on curiosity stream for sponsoring this insidious propaganda!

  33. we shouldnt and dont need meat, full stop, the goal would be to try our best to be plant based. Not try our best to consume animals

  34. you neglected to mention a third option. Lab grown meat using stem cells that is identical to the real thing. Has all the benefits of beyond and impossible but its literally the same thing

  35. Very incomplete video, doesn't even cover half the reasons raising cattle is so harmful to the environment, doesn't consider how grass fed cows live longer and therefore produce more methane, eat more feed (which consequently requires more land and water) and produces more waste in its life them cows that are factory farmed. It doesn't really go into any detail about the carbon footprint of beyond/impossible and other environmental impacts it may have. The main point of the video has been completely missed because there was hardly any evaluation of either side of the argument

  36. I recently went to a burger restaurant in Cape Town and saw they offered Beyond Meat burgers. I was impressed that they had catered for vegan/vegetarian customers so I did more research into the Beyond Meat brand. I found it very ironic as the carbon emissions to transport these burgers across the globe from Los Angeles to Cape Town probably far outweighed the environmental cost of eating a burger with locally sourced meat. I am a big advocate for removing beef from your diet for environmental concerns, but I also think that you need to think about if the food you are eating can be sourced locally. ("Local is lekker")

  37. Native populations across the world grazed cattle sustainably for thousands of years. It was only with the rise of colonisation that huge industrial farms and feeding lots began to have an effect on the environment. I know, people in Ireland specifically, have been farming dairy cattle since 3000BC and it is a huge aspect of life here. Hundreds of thousands of people are reliant on it for their livelihood. While I 100% agree that eating less meat is a huge benefit to the environment, cattle can’t be done away with entirely. When it’s done correctly, like in Ireland, it can actually be of benefit to the environment

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