Beef, a climate sin: This meat substitute deserves much more attention

Updated on 5/5/2022 at 12:29 pm

  • How can we do something good for the climate with our diet? Among other things, finding plant-based alternatives to beef.
  • This is the conclusion reached by a research team led by Florian Humpenöder of the Potsdam Climate Impact Research Institute.
  • In the interview, the scientist talks about a meat substitute that has received little attention in Germany but has great potential: microbial protein.

If just one-fifth of per capita beef consumption is replaced by meat alternatives made with microbial protein by 2050, global deforestation could be cut in half: This is the result of a new analysis from the Impact Research Institute. Potsdam Climate Change (PIK) published in the journal “Nature” has been published and for the first time comprehensively examines the potential impact of these ready-to-market foods on the environment.

The meat substitute produced from fungal cultures by fermentation resembles real meat in taste and consistency, but is a biotech product. Compared to beef, these meat alternatives require significantly fewer land resources and therefore can greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions from livestock and the expansion of cropland and grazing land.

In an interview with our editors, Florian Humpenöder, PIK researcher and lead author of the study, talks about why we can make an important contribution to climate and environmental protection by asking ourselves what’s on our plates every day.

Mr. Humpenöder, how is my personal meat consumption and global deforestation connected?

In short: a lot of forest is cut down for meat, especially beef. First of all, cattle need a lot of space to graze on pasture. In addition, there is the arable land on which the concentrated feed is grown, that is, mainly soybeans. Forests are often cut down for both, such as tropical rainforests in Latin America. On the one hand, this causes CO2 emissions, but it is also a strong driver of biodiversity loss. Additionally, methane emissions are caused by processes in the cow’s stomach. This is the starting point of our study.


© 1&1 Mail and Media

In his research he investigated how this could be changed in favor of the environment – result: with microbial protein. What exactly?

Microbial protein is so named because it is produced by microorganisms, specifically fungal cultures. This is very similar to brewing: mushroom cultures are “fed” sugar into large steel tanks, the bioreactors, and multiply rapidly. The result is a protein-rich substance that has a consistency and nutritional profile similar to beef. This biotechnology already exists today and is available in supermarkets in some countries, such as Switzerland or Great Britain. Compared to consuming beef, microbial protein has a significantly lower impact on the environment. Of course, the sugar that feeds the crops must also be grown on farmland. The bottom line, however, is that this meat alternative has a significantly better climate footprint, especially in terms of land use and greenhouse gas emissions.

What is the result of your study?

Florian Humpenoeder
Florian Humpenöder of PIK, lead author of the study.

© PIK Potsdam

What distinguishes our study from previous ones is that we have placed environmental benefits in the context of the entire agri-food system. We asked ourselves: what if 20 percent of per capita beef consumption was replaced by microbial protein by 2050? That would have a very strong effect. Compared to simply “business as usual,” i.e. a growing and wealthier world population with a growing appetite for meat, the use of microbial protein would not only halve annual global deforestation, but also CO2 emissions from agriculture. It is important not to treat microbial protein as a the solution for climate protection considered. It is one building block among many to achieve a transformation of agricultural and food systems. Towards greater sustainability and less environmental impact.

But if microbial protein has so many benefits, why isn’t it much more common, ending up on our tables every few days?

That falls more into behavioral research: Why do people eat the way they do and how do you get them to change that? In Swiss supermarkets there are entire shelves with products based on microbial protein. The product was approved in the USA and Great Britain 20 years ago.

Of course, ordering microbial proteins from Switzerland is not a climate-friendly solution… What can each individual do in concrete terms?

In relation to the eating habits that we have in Europe, the US or Australia: basically consume much less red meat, but more fruits, vegetables and legumes. This is also recommended by the EAT-Lancet Commission, which developed the so-called Planetary Health Diet a few years ago: a healthy diet for people and more sustainable for the planet. Overall, microbial protein may ease the transition for some people because it’s a technical solution that doesn’t require as much behavior change. Furthermore, it would make sense to subsidize the consumption of climate- and environment-friendly products and impose higher taxes on products with a strong negative environmental impact, such as beef. Canteens can also play an important role here, for example by introducing a meat-free day and offering good vegetarian alternatives every day. Because nutrition is the greatest direct contribution of each individual to climate change. Affects everyone. It is a lever that you hold in your own hands.

You can find more topics about the climate crisis here

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