Comparing “Plant-Based Meats” to Regenerative Beef
Our recent FoodPrint of Fake Meat Report looked at the new wave of “plant-based” meat products, examining whether they deliver on their promises of being better for the environment, good for human health and appealing enough to displace the industrial meat industry.
In the report’s section about what else we might compare ultra-processed meat alternatives to instead of factory-farmed beef, we included a graphic about regenerative beef’s potential for sequestering carbon in soil. It caused a stir! According to feedback we saw on social media and some that was sent directly to us, we learned that some felt the graphic oversimplified things, overstated things or got things wrong/used shoddy science.
We know that these alternative meat products elicit strong responses all around, and that the potential of regenerative agriculture, specifically livestock, also brings up lots of opposing and heated viewpoints. But we don’t like to oversimplify or overstate or get science wrong, and we are always open to taking a hard look at what we’ve published to make sure we haven’t.
Did we oversimplify emissions of different foods for our graphic?
Upon reflection, we have decided we did oversimplify in our desire to make a graphic that quickly and simply showed the potential benefits of beans, tofu and regenerative beef when it comes to GHG emissions. Our graphic both should have been titled differently — we think “Potential Carbon Footprint Comparisons for Proteins” says it better — and should have included an explanation of our math to avoid the callout for it using shoddy science (see below).
With this graphic we hoped to give a visual sense of what might be possible with regenerative beef grazed under the right conditions, a kind of best case scenario, mainly to show that there are other things to compare these products to besides factory-farmed beef when it comes to climate benefits.
Soils and farming practices are incredibly variable: producing the same food in one place will produce radically different emissions in one study than it will in another. A better graph would have reflected that variation for all the foods listed, showing a range of values instead of one fixed value for each food. Beef is always difficult to show accurately here: given the range of ways beef is produced and how difficult it is to measure soil carbon, there aren’t a lot of peer reviewed studies examining the carbon cost of beef that’s actually raised regeneratively. This led us to use information from one study. As critics pointed out, it’s never a good idea to rely on only one study for definitive information, however, and with that in mind, we’ve removed the graphic from the report.
Did we use shoddy science?
There are two issues here: first, the math itself, which was done by the FoodPrint research team, and which we stand by. The sequestration figure from the graphic comes from Rowntree et al (2020) under a scenario proposed by the authors. While they did find that net emissions were positive for the farm overall, they also note that “if we were to attribute the soil C sequestration across the chronosequence to only cattle, MSPR beef produced in this system would be a net sink of −4.4 kg CO2-e kg CW−1 annually.”
The figure quoted here is kg CO2 equivalents per kg of the cows’ weight after slaughter. Because weight after slaughter includes a lot of inedible material that doesn’t make its way into burgers, it isn’t directly comparable to the other foods in the graphic. We used well-established animal-weight-to-edible-meat ratios to convert the figure that appears in the paper to the one that appears in the graph. We stand by the math, but we should have explained how we came to that figure, especially when that isn’t a number you can find in the primary source without explanation.
The second issue here is whether assigning the carbon sequestration on the farm to the cows alone is a valid choice, and this is one where there’s room for discussion. The pasture system studied by the researchers included cows, pigs and chickens along with sheep and goats . In a complex, living system like a multi-species pasture, it’s difficult to appropriately allocate the gains in soil carbon to each species, especially when they spend differing amounts of time on the pasture. But pigs and chickens are not typically credited with the same soil-enriching benefits that are assigned to cattle, and at the studied farm, cattle spent far more time on the pastures than the other species. With this in mind, it isn’t an unprecedented way to interpret the research, which is why it was mentioned by the authors themselves.
Did we overstate the potential of regenerative?
This was not meant to be a comprehensive report about regenerative beef. In our attempt to cram a lot of information into a not-that-long report on fake meats, we wanted to bring it up as another way to think about addressing the harms of industrial meat production. We firmly believe that regenerative systems with animals can offer environmental benefits over industrial agriculture. Regenerative agriculture uses a suite of practices that steward the land, rebuild topsoil, and increase soil health, biology and fertility. The measures of these benefits are being studied and already point to the potential for regenerative agriculture to restore degraded lands and soil fertility — and for land restoration to be a means of increasing carbon and nitrogen sequestration into the soil.
Our main goal in making the graphic was to show that even when we assess meat alternatives in the terms that they’re most celebrated – carbon emissions – they don’t necessarily come out on top.
FoodPrint has always been clear about the importance of eating less meat first and better meat second. Eating meat isn’t a dietary essential, but many people aren’t interested in giving it up – targeting this audience and giving them a less harmful version of what they want is one of the main selling points for meat alternatives, after all. But it’s also a good way to think about the potential of regenerative: if there are going to be animals in the food system, it’s important to make sure that they’re being raised in ways that can improve the land rather than further degrade it.
Finally, our report covers a lot of terrain — including an examination of fake meat’s environmental impacts aside from emissions; the health profile of these products; as well as a careful look at their place in the market and their potential for displacing meat sales. There is a lot of useful information in there as well as important questions raised. We hope you will give it a look in its entirety.