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Low Carbon Food

Is plant-based meat an effective alternative to cut down CO2 emissions?

What is common to the celeb couple Virat Kohli/Anushka Sharma & Genelia/Riteish Deshmukh?

Both of them are co-founders / investors in Indian plant-based meat startups. While Virat/Anushka have invested in Blue Tribe, Genelia/Riteish are the co-founders of Imagine Meats.

Shows how quickly the plant-based meat sector has grown from an obscure, geeky niche to a high profile market segment.

What's the reason behind this sudden spurt in interest?

The protein carbon footprint

All proteins are not made the same when it comes to CO2 emissions. The protein carbon footprint - the CO2 emissions equivalent per Kg of protein - can differ vastly depending on the source of protein.

And this is how vastly different it can be: While it less than 10 Kg of CO2 per Kg of protein, for beef it is thirty fold higher - 300 Kg CO2 eq/Kg of protein.

This massive difference between plant-based and animal-based proteins brings us to the topic of livestock emissions, as these emissions are majorly responsible for the high carbon footprint.

Livestock are a pretty massive source of greenhouse gas emission, emitting about 7 billion tons of CO2 equivalent per year, about 14% of total GHG emissions - the entire transport industry world over does not emit a lot more!

Cattle raised for both beef and milk alone are responsible for most of these emissions, and represent about 65% of the livestock sector’s emissions.

Just like humans, livestock exhale CO2 during respiration, but this is a net zero emission. Livestock, in addition, also emit significant amounts of methane as a result of enteric fermentation within their bodies. The methane is released in their burps and belches, and to a smaller extent, in their flatulence (fart). As methane is a far more potential GHG than CO2 (25 times the global warming potential of CO2), emissions from this segment is very high in terms of their total global warming potential.

In addition these methane emissions from enteric fermentation, significant amounts of greenhouse gas emissions also occur from feed production & processing for livestock, and emissions occur to a lesser extent from livestock manure. FAO estimates suggest that feed production and processing and enteric fermentation representing 45% and 39% of total emissions, respectively. Manure storage and processing contributes about 10%.

Emission intensities are highest for beef (about 300 kg CO2-eq per kilogram of protein produced), followed by meat and milk from small ruminants (165 and 112 Kg respectively). Cow milk, chicken products and pork have much lower average emission intensities (less than 100 CO2-eq/kg.). For plant-based sources, emission intensities are less than 10 Kg CO2-eq per Kg of protein!

So, clearly animal based, meat based protein is pretty bad from an emissions perspective. But expecting humans to give up on meat and chicken might be a bit too ambitious.

So how about trying to give them what they want, but from sources that emit far less?

Two alternative low carbon sources for meat exist currently - cell-based meat and plant-based meat. 

While the cell-based meat sector uses biotechnology to convert cells from an animal into animal meat (so it is animal meat but without having to raise and kill the animal), the plant-based meat sector simply uses a mix of plant-based ingredients (such as as soy) and mash them up in a special way to make them taste like meat.  

While it is early days yet for reliable estimates, claims from the industry suggest that plant-based and cell-based meat could cut down CO2 emissions from the meat value chain by over 80%, even up to 90%. 

I will keep the focus of the rest of my answer on plant-based - rather than cell-based - meat, though many of my reasonings could be applicable to the latter too.

Is plant based meat an effective avenue to cut down CO2 emissions?

The short and simple answer to the above question is Yes.

There’s little doubt that the meatless meat wins when it comes to the health of our planet. The comparative numbers I have mentioned above should be enough to convince most folks.

There are of course critics who worry that plant-based meat might not be as good for the planet as it implies, though that is not the same as saying that it could be anywhere near as bad as conventional meat. And it doesn't help that some of the leading global companies in the plant-based meat sector are not fully transparent in their disclosures of greenhouse gas emissions they produce across the entirety of their operations.

Indeed, plant-based meat have their own impacts on the environment. But, multiple studies have shown how these do not come close to the adverse impacts that the traditional meat industry does.

To get a better feel for the difference in environmental impacts between conventional meat and plant-based meat, some data on the following dimensions will help:

  • Water usage, and 
  • Land usage


Studies have shown that it takes between 2,000 and 8,000 gallons of water to produce a single pound of beef; in contrast, it takes only about 300 gallons to produce one pound of tofu - that's almost 90% less if one were to take an average of the above range for beef water requirements.

In addition, livestock production contributes to significant groundwater pollution.

Land use

Large swaths of the world’s forests have been slashed and burned to create more room for raising cattle, including 15% of the ever-shrinking Amazon rainforest.

“Replacing a share of farmed meat in the diet with plant-based substitutes could theoretically free up cropland to feed more people or provide other ecological services such as reforestation,” write the authors of a 2020 study published in Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems. They estimate plant-based meat uses 41% less land than fish farming, 77% less land than poultry, 82% less land than pig farming, 89% less than beef from dairy cows, and a whopping 98% less land than beef from beef herds.

My take on the effectiveness of plant-based meat as afar  decarbonization avenue

In my thirty year professional career, a large part of which involved estimating stuff, I have learnt one thing: When product A is an order of magnitude better than product B on key attributes, it is pointless to discuss whether it is nine times better or eleven times better.

The same is the case for the discussion of plant-based vs. conventional meat. There is little doubt that plant-based meat fares better environmentally compared to conventional meat.

The bigger - and more important - question is: How can we make plant-based meat mainstream?

All questions at ASK Narsi