The environmental impact of veggie patties vs meat burgers

No matter how you look at it, veggie patties are much better for the planet than beef. From the popular alternatives and the lesser-known ones and simple plant alternatives, nothing comes even close to beef.

An ‘Impossible’ burger, one of the most famous meat replacements. Image credits: Ted Eytan.

It’s not really hard to envision a not-too-distant future where we transition to renewable energy. Even phasing out oil and coal seem plausible. But one environmental culprit seems much harder to phase out: meat.

The meat industry is one of the largest contributors of greenhouse gas emissions on the planet, so much so that a recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said that shifting towards plant-based diets is a critical way to address climate change, and simply cutting emissions from cars and factories isn’t going to be enough to avoid a crisis. If everyone in the US were to simply reduce meat consumption by a quarter, it would save 82 million metric tons of greenhouse emissions every year, around 1.5% of the country’s total emissions.

While meat consumption has been dropping within some groups (for instance, millennials), it’s hard to imagine that most people would voluntarily give up their burgers. Here’s the good news, though: they don’t have to.

A few years ago, meat alternatives were few and often tasteless, but the past couple of years have witnessed a surge of different options, all fighting to enter our burgers. Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are just two of the biggest names, but there’s a horde of veggie patties vying for your attention.

But how do they compare, environment-wise, with beef?

How does beef compare with Beyond Meat and Impossible Burgers

Protein-rich vegetables are by far more eco-friendly than meat, but how do processed patties fare?

Let’s first look at two of the biggest players on the market, Beyond and Impossible. Both companies have had lifecycle assessments of their products carried out by external experts, and according to both studies, beef is a far worse alternative.

When it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, land use, and water use, there’s no debate. Beef is far worse on all metrics, while the two veggie patties are fairly close in terms of emissions and land use.

It should be said that the figures for beef are estimates and can vary quite significantly based on what cows are fed. However, even under the best conditions, it’s hard to imagine a situation in which beef would be more sustainable — cows need a lot of land, a lot of water, and produce a lot of emissions (the figure above is in equivalent kilograms of CO2, but also includes methane, which is a much more potent greenhouse gas).

This isn’t even the worst estimate for beef. For instance, one study from the Water Footprint Network has found that on average one kilogram of beef needs about 15 thousand liters of water, which is much more than what the studies found.

Calorie per calorie, the charts would basically look unchanged. It’s sometimes said that fake meat isn’t as filling as the beef ones, but according to figures from Harvard University, that’s not really the case here (though it may be true for some burgers).

Whether it’s on a per-patty or per-calorie basis, beef is bound to be the least sustainable option. Here’s a comparison featuring other types of burgers for comparison:

CaloriesFat (g)Sat fat (g)Chol (mg)Sodium (mg)Carb (g)Fiber (g)Protein (g)
Impossible Burger (4 oz)24014803709319
Beyond Burger (4 oz)25018603903220
85% lean ground beef (4 oz)24017680800021
Ground turkey (4 oz)1709280700022
Black bean burger (Sunshine brand) (2.7 oz)260161.5019019810
Credits: Harvard University.

Another argument sometimes brought to support beef is that beef can be local, while plants can be brought from far away, but the data has consistently shown that transportation only makes up a small part of the total emissions on our planet. If you care about the environment, you’re best off focusing on what you eat, not on where your food comes from. A study on European diets found that only 6% of emissions come from transportation.

What about other meat alternatives?

There’s such a great variety of burgers it’s hard to cover all of them. Generally speaking, the more a patty is processed, the less eco-friendly it is. Barring some fringe scenarios, beef will always use more energy, land, and water — and the reason is biological.

Recent studies suggest that only around 10% of energy is converted to biomass from one trophic level to the next. In other words, only 10% of what cows eat is converted into biomass, and the rest is lost. If cows are fed grass from pastures where nothing else can grow, that addresses a part of the problem (but there’s still the problem with other emissions such as methane). Unfortunately, beef and deforestation go hand in hand: almost 80% of the world’s soybean crop is fed to livestock, much of that coming from deforested areas.

Emissions-wise, beef is bound to be worse than all other types of patty.

When it comes to land and water use, the situation is not much different. The difference between raw ingredients is so striking that while processing can reduce the gap between end products, it’s hard to see beef burgers ever being the eco-friendly alternative.

The bottom line: for the environment, beef is hard to stomach

At the scale it is consumed, beef is one of the most environmentally taxing products on the planet. Veggie meat patties have emerged as a more sustainable alternative and behave far better in all major environmental metrics.

Of course, veggie patties still have some hurdles to overcome (especially in terms of taste and price), but they’re making progress in those regards too, and at least on the environmental side, they’re way ahead. Whether or not that’s sufficient to persuade consumers to shift remains to be seen. Recent research has found that 16% of US consumers avoid animal products for environmental reasons, and the feeling is more common in the 18 to 34-year-olds. There has been a historical dietary shift away from beef in the US and Europe, although the total consumption of meat remains very high.

If you love the taste of a burger but also want to keep your plate green, alternatives that mimic the real thing are worth giving a shot. The newer plant-based burgers require considerably less water and land and generate fewer emissions. It’s an important consideration that’s well worth a try.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.