Confronting the Climate Crisis with Meat Alternatives

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Should policymakers invest in plant-based meat and cell-based meat to reduce the climate impact of meat consumption?

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President Joseph R. Biden’s major infrastructure program includes efforts to tackle climate change, but critics have highlighted its failure to address the meat system in the United States. Livestock represents 14.5 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, and experts have advised shifting diets away from meat to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Countries and consumers who want to reduce meat consumption can eat less meat or switch to meat alternatives: cultured meat––meat produced from cells in a lab––or plant-based meat.

But will a shift to fake meat help combat climate change?

Cultured meat can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A new study shows that the carbon footprint of cultured meat could drop by 80 percent if producers make it using renewable energy. Cultured meat production could also significantly reduce land use and global warming impacts, relative to beef, pork, and chicken production.

Plant-based meat also has the potential to combat the climate crisis. Plant-based food companies, such as Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, tout the environmental benefits of plant-based meat and have commissioned studies with findings that support these claims. Critics point out, however, that these companies do not disclose data about greenhouse gas emissions.

To ensure that meat and meat alternatives meet food safety standards, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulates animal-based meat and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates plant-based meat. Since 2019, the USDA and FDA have jointly overseen regulation of cultured meat products.

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission may also soon propose climate risk rules that require companies to disclose greenhouse gas emissions. This would aid the public in evaluating corporate claims about the environmental benefits of meat alternatives.

This week’s Saturday Seminar explores how policymakers can regulate meat and meat alternatives to combat climate change.

  • Could “cultured meat” produced from animal cells help mitigate climate change? Possibly, but cultured meat needs a regulatory framework first, argues Nicolas Treich of France’s Toulouse School of Economics in a recent article in Environmental and Resource Economics. Consumers need to accept that cultured meat is safe for it to succeed as a measure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, according to Treich. He warns that regulatory efforts must balance innovation and safety while protecting consumers from misleading claims.
  • To reduce greenhouse gas emissions, policymakers can implement “green defaults” to nudge consumers to eat less meat, argue Johanna Meier of Germany’s Ruhr University Bochum and her coauthors in a recent paper. “Green defaults” influence behavior by defaulting consumers to environmentally friendly options unless they actively select a different option. For example, a restaurant could implement green defaults by presenting meat-free meals or meals with reduced amounts of meat. Meier and her coauthors found that green defaults are effective in encouraging consumers to eat less meat.
  • How much does plant-based meat impact U.S. cattle production and associated greenhouse gas emissions? Jayson L. Lusk of Purdue University and his coauthors find that reducing the price of plant-based meat has a small, non-disruptive effect on U.S. cattle production. They recommend that experts conduct more research on the rate of consumers’ substituting plant-based meat for other meat products in the United States and other areas of the world.
  • Recognizing the harmful externalities that accompany animal-based meat production, Natalie R. Rubio, Ning Xiang, and David L. Kaplan of Tufts University weigh plant-based meat production against cell-based meat production in an article in Nature Communications. They recommend that plant-based meat producers seek out new protein sources that better emulate the meat-eating experience for consumers, and cell-based producers research the cost and nutritional value of cultivated meat. Rubio, Xiang, and Kaplan suggest that producers of meat alternatives explore hybrid cell-based and plant-based products to address the potential problems of each option.
  • Any solution to climate change should address the livestock sector, a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations concludes. Pierre Gerber and several coauthors assess global emissions from livestock and opportunities to mitigate them. Gerber and his coauthors highlight that greenhouse gas emissions from livestock are substantial, but institutions can readily reduce up to a third of those emissions. They explain that regulators can make emissions costly or mitigation profitable, which would drive the private sector to innovate better environmental solutions.
  • Regulating meat consumption proves difficult because of complex effects on the environment, human health, and animal welfare, Céline Bonnet and several coauthors explain in an article in Food Policy. Using the example of a carbon tax, Bonnet and her coauthors show that beef consumption should decrease and, in turn, reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But emissions may not fall overall, they explain, if consumers merely substitute away from beef and consume more pork, chicken, and milk. Bonnet and her coauthors recommend that regulators should encourage research and development of cultured meat and plant-based meat.

The Saturday Seminar is a weekly feature that aims to put into written form the kind of content that would be conveyed in a live seminar involving regulatory experts. Each week, The Regulatory Review publishes a brief overview of a selected regulatory topic and then distills recent research and scholarly writing on that topic.