How vegetarian beef helps climate change but hurts jobs

Story at a glance

  • A new study from Cornell University analyzed the consequences of the growing popularity of vegetarian beef.

  • Reducing meat can be good for the environment, with livestock production accounting for about 40 percent of the agricultural industry’s carbon emissions.

  • But the growth of plant-based beef alternatives threatens more than 1.5 million jobs in the industry.

Plant-based meat alternatives have grown in popularity as they are seen as healthier and more environmentally friendly than conventional meat. As this new market expands, it also threatens more than a million jobs in the industry.

Researchers at Cornell University have discovered how alternatives to plant-based beef are disrupting the US agricultural industry, potentially threatening more than 1.5 million industrial jobs — while reducing agriculture’s carbon footprint by between 2.5 and 13.5 percent.

This is due to the increased demand for meat protein alternatives, and the number of cows required in the United States could be reduced by as much as 12 million. This carries dire consequences for climate change, as one cow each year will excrete about 220 pounds of methane.

Methane is 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide when it comes to trapping heat in the atmosphere and accounts for about 20 percent of all global emissions.

Even overall, the agriculture sector is a significant contributor to climate change, accounting for about 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Livestock production directly accounts for about 40 percent of all agricultural emissions.

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Enter plant-based meat alternatives, which require no live animals and do not carry many severe environmental consequences. It also caters to more dieters, such as those who are vegetarian, and some can also be gluten and soy free.

Industry groups estimate that US plant-based foods have a $7 billion market — with retail sales data from 2021 showing grocery sales of plant-based foods that directly replaced animal products grew 27 percent in the past year.

Some of the country’s largest fast food chains have been quick to incorporate vegan meat into their menus, such as Kentucky Fried Chicken, which began offering vegan chicken in January. Prior to that, the fast food giant had partnered with Beyond Meat, a vegan meat producer.

However, Cornell researchers argue that technological disruptions to plant-based meat alternatives inevitably lead to consequences, including to the livelihoods, working conditions and human rights of millions of workers across the country.

“There are good reasons for regulators and policy makers to encourage these emerging technologies,” Mario Herrero, senior author of the study, said in a statement.

“Politicians must remain aware of unintended negative consequences and commit to mitigating changes that matter morally, including harm to disadvantaged workers, hard-hit communities and small producers,” Herrero said.

Researchers believe that many of the economic losses caused by consumers switching to vegetarian beef will not be felt equally across the country. That’s because most farms in the United States are classified as small family owned, and even a small change in demand can be devastating.

Mason-D’Croz, the study’s lead author, estimated that the US beef value chain could shrink by up to 45 percent and challenge the livelihoods of more than 1.5 million people working in the sector.

On top of potentially eliminating millions of jobs, another unintended consequence of expanding plant-based meat alternatives could risk any potential climate change gains.

One model devised by Cornell researchers looked at how resources freed from contracting beef sectors could allow the pork and poultry industries to expand. The expansion could result in the swap of up to 2 to 12 million head of livestock for an additional 16 to 94 million chickens, or up to 1.4 million pigs.

The bottom line, the researchers said, is that “vegetarian alternatives have the potential to offer a number of ethical benefits, but also reveal that fully accounting for the ethics of such a transition would be complex.”

The researchers recommended that regulators and policy makers still encourage plant-based food technologies but remain vigilant about unintended consequences and commit to mitigating them so that harm to disadvantaged workers, communities and small producers is minimized.

Posted on August 5, 2022

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