Sustainability Climate Change

How plant-based beef helps climate change but hurts jobs

“Plant-based alternatives have the potential to deliver a number of moral goods, but also reveal that a full accounting of the ethics of such a transition will be complex,” said researchers from Cornell University.
Beyond Meat products are seen in a refrigerated case inside a grocery store in Mount Prospect, Ill., Saturday, Feb. 19, 2022. Nam Y. Huh/ AP

Story at a glance

  • A new study from Cornell University analyzed the consequences of the growing popularity of plant-based beef. 

  • Reducing meat can be good for the environment, as cattle production accounts for about 40 percent of the agriculture industry’s carbon emissions. 

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

Plant-based meat alternatives have grown in popularity as they’re seen as healthier and more environmentally friendly than traditional meat. As this new market expands, it also threatens more than one million industry jobs. 

Researchers at Cornell University explored how plant-based beef alternatives are disrupting America’s agriculture industry, potentially threatening more than 1.5 million industry jobs — while also reducing agriculture’s carbon footprint by between 2.5 and 13.5 percent. 

That’s because the more demand grows for meat protein alternatives, the number of cows needed in the U.S. could decrease by up to 12 million. That carries serious consequences for climate change, as each year a single cow will belch about 220 pounds of methane

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

Even as a whole, the agriculture sector is a heavy contributor to climate change, accounting for about 10 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Cattle production directly accounts for about 40 percent of all agricultural emissions. 

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Enter plant-based meat alternatives, which don’t require any live animals and don’t carry as many steep environmental consequences. It also serves to satisfy more diets, like those who are vegetarian, and some can also be gluten and soy-free. 

Industry groups estimate that plant-based foods in the U.S. are 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 plant-based meats into their menus, like KFC, which began offering plant-based chicken back in January. Before that, the fast-food giant partnered with Beyond Meat, a plant-based vegan meat producer. 

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

“There are good reasons for regulators and policymakers to encourage these up-and-coming technologies,” said Mario Herrero, senior author of the study, in a statement

“Politicians must remain aware to unintended negative consequences and commit to mitigating changes that are ethically concerning, including harms to disadvantaged workers and hard-hit local communities and small producers,” Herrero said.  

Researchers believe that many of the economic losses created by consumers shifting to plant-based beef won’t be felt equally across the country. That’s because most farms in the U.S. are classified as small family-owned and even a small shift in demand can be devastating. 

Mason-D’Croz, lead author of the study, estimated the beef-value chain in the U.S. could contract by as much as 45 percent and challenge the livelihood of more than 1.5 million people employed in that sector. 

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

One model Cornell researchers created looked at how resources freed from contracting beef sectors could allow the pork and poultry sectors to expand. The expansion could swap up to two to 12 million cattle for 16 to 94 million more chickens, or up to 1.4 million pigs. 

The bottom line, researchers said is “plant-based alternatives have the potential to deliver a number of moral goods, but also reveal that a full accounting of the ethics of such a transition will be complex.” 

Researchers recommended regulators and policy makers still encourage plant-based food technologies but remain vigilant to unintended consequence and commit to mitigating them so harms to disadvantaged workers, local communities and small producers are minimized.