Meat and Dairy Alternatives: Are They Better for the Planet?

November 19, 2021


But years of research on the environmental impact of food make one thing clear: Plant proteins, even if processed into imitation burgers, have smaller climate, water, and land impacts than conventional meats. Apart from environmental impact, reducing meat production would also reduce animal suffering and the risk of both animal-borne disease and antibiotic resistance. The criticisms against the new wave of meatless meat appear to be more rooted in broad opposition to food technology rather than a true environmental accounting — and they muddy the waters in the search for climate solutions at a time when clarity is sorely needed. 

Different animal products have vastly different emissions. For instance, pigs and chickens emit far less than cows and sheep. But according to recent peer-reviewed research from the University of Oxford and Johns Hopkins University, which compiled several estimates, all of these animal foods (except some chicken) generate more emissions than plant-based meats. (Editor’s note: Jan Dutkiewicz, one of the authors of this article, was a co-author on the Johns Hopkins paper.)

This research consisted of meta-analyses of multiple life-cycle assessments, or LCAs, which measure the total environmental impact of a product. While some of the plant-based meat estimates were commissioned by the faux meat companies themselves, including Beyond and Impossible, others were not, and all used internationally agreed-upon LCA standards for accounting of every emission source throughout processing. 

Even the lowest-emitting beef from dedicated beef herds (34 kg carbon dioxide equivalent, or CO2e) and lower-emitting beef from dairy cow herds (15 kg CO2e) came in far above the highest-emitting tofu (4 kg CO2e) and plant-based meat (7 kg). 

Chicken and pork production emit far less CO2 equivalent than beef. And while there is some overlap (the lowest-emitting chicken [3.2 kg CO2e] and pork [6 kg CO2e] rival the emissions of the highest-emitting plant-based meat), the average emissions of tofu and plant-based meats are still lower than the average emissions of both chicken and pork.


Producing a glass of dairy milk every day for a year requires 650 sq m (7,000 sq ft) of land, the equivalent of two tennis courts and more than 10 times as much as the same amount of oat milk, according to this study. 

Almond milk requires more water to produce than soy or oat milk. A single glass requires 74 litres (130 pints of water) – more than a typical shower. Rice milk is also comparatively thirsty, requiring 54 litres of water per glass. 

However, it’s worth noting that both almond and rice milk still require less water to produce than the typical glass of dairy milk.


2 Responses to “Meat and Dairy Alternatives: Are They Better for the Planet?”

  1. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    I’m pouting because all those additional nut-milk products has bumped my favorite soymilk off the shelf. (What I like best about soy is that you don’t have to keep sniffing to see if it’s gone barfingly bad.)

    (Yeah, my life is so hard.)

  2. Gingerbaker Says:

    More anti livestock propaganda? Lovely.

    That water figure for cow’s milk? It’s just barely over the volume of milk produced. Dairy cows produce about 10 gallons of milk a day, and drink between 10 – 20 gallons of water a day. Let’s put the water usage of livestock vs crop agriculture into perspective, shall we? From the EPA:

    That land figure for cows? Hardly surprising because cows use pastureland for grazing. Pastureland that has already been there for 100 years. On farms.

    That emissions figure for cow’s milk? It’s based on the EPA 100-year GWP CO2 -eq, which is what they use for fossil fuel methane. Guess what? Cows don’t have a CO2 component to their emissions, so their REAL emissions are about 1/500th of the EPA figure.

    Not to mention that a dairy cow is NOT just making milk. It is also making more cows. And hundreds of pounds of meat and leather and blood meal, and organic fertilizer, and bone meal. Almonds don’t do that.

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