• Agriculture
  • Greenhouse Gas Emissions
  • Climate Change
  • Climate Change

Beefing Up the Meat Replacement Industry

Anne Wrobetz
Oct 04, 2016


The environmental impact of agriculture is astounding. Water, fertilizer, large farm vehicles, processing, shipping, and spraying crops all take a major toll on the planet. But for as great an impact as farming plants has, raising livestock for meat has it beat. According to a 2014 study from the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, beef production releases 2 to 6 times as many greenhouse gases as any other animal product.

But the burger has always been a staple of the American diet, and it’s not leaving our dinner tables anytime soon. How can the industry reconcile this staggering carbon footprint? The answer lies in high-tech substitutes to the traditional beef burger.

Plant-based meats are one solution to the resource-intensive meat production industry. There are a variety of veggie patties available on the market, and their popularity in American cuisine is on the rise. Most of these do not share the same protein or fat content as actual beef burgers, and therefore are marketed as more of a healthy alternative than a direct replacement. Despite having existed for many years and wide distribution networks, many veggie patties simply do not fill the hockey puck-shaped hole left by beef on the American table.

Some companies are developing more realistic plant-based meat replacements by distilling plants into protein and fat components, creating a more familiar (but environmentally friendly) burger. Beyond Meat, a company based in Manhattan Beach, California, has developed a pea-protein based substitute that not only tastes meatier but, due to the addition of beet juice extract, also resembles hamburger in its color. These burgers are entirely plant-based and, theoretically, cut down on the environmental impacts of beef farming. Beyond Meat’s burgers were released on the market in the spring of 2016. It will be interesting to see whether these products and similar burgers become popular outside of their debut city of Boulder, Colorado.

Where's the (Lab-Grown) Beef?

The most similar alternative to large-scale farmed meat starts with a single cell. By growing meat cells directly in a lab, scientists have successfully grown hamburger without ever having to set foot on a ranch. This technology is relatively nascent, and lab-grown beef will probably not become available on the market for several years. Memphis Meats, one company developing a lab-grown meat product, expects to have its wares on the market within 5 years.

One of the biggest issues with lab-grown meat is that it does not fall under the same regulatory body (the Food and Drug Administration) as normal meat. However, once licensing and regulation issues are worked through, you can expect to see lab-grown sausages, meatballs, and burgers on grocery store shelves.

The world of technology is becoming more connected, and humanity is becoming more aware of its impact on the planet and climate change. As with all other fields, agriculture will undergo major changes over the next several decades. Soon, the energy- and emissions-intensive burgers of yore may become a thing of the past.