The Meat Wars: Regenerative, Grass-fed, Plant-Based, and the Race for Better Beef
Welcome to the meat wars – the stage has been set and the arena is getting very loud . Not sure who threw the first punch but plant-based meat has been swinging and hitting lately, propelled by Impossible Foods’ partnership with Burger King and its recently announced mega-funding round, followed by Beyond Meat’s jaw-dropping IPO a month later. Now Nestlé, Tyson Foods, Hormel and others are also getting into the plant-based game.
If you are in the regenerative-grazing/grass-fed livestock business, you’re probably starting to feel like the house is betting against you, and you know what they say – the house always wins.
So What’s the Fight?
We love beef but beef doesn’t love us back. 80 percent of beef in the U.S. comes from industrial farms (aka factory farms) controlled by four companies (Tyson, Cargill, JBS USA and National Beef) that exert a huge strain on our natural resources. Thanks to this massive industry, beef had emerged as the biggest dietary contributor to climate change. The bottom line is we want to avert an ecological crisis in a few decades, we need to find a better way to produce it.
Putting cell-based meat aside for the moment – because we’re still a few years away from seeing a product on menus or in the meat aisle of a grocery store – the two big contenders that can solve the problem with beef are plant-based meat and grass-fed beef.
The Plant-Based Solution
What’s the proof that plant-based meat is the solution to the planet’s beef problem?
Beyond Meat: In 2018, Beyond Meat commissioned University of Michigan scientists to lead a third-party, peer-reviewed life cycle analysis comparing the environmental impact of making a quarter pound Beyond Burger versus everything that goes into making a quarter pound U.S. beef burger. The study found that the Beyond Burger uses 99 percent less water, 93 percent less land, generates 90 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions , and requires 46 percent less energy than a beef burger.
Impossible Foods: In 2019, Impossible Foods commissioned Quantis to carry out a life cycle assessment comparing the environmental impact of ground beef from cows to the impact of the Impossible Burger. The study found that an Impossible Burger uses 87 percent less water, 96 percent less land, 89 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions, and 92 percent less dead-zone creating nutrient pollution than ground beef from cows.
I’d say the above numbers are pretty impressive.
What’s Wrong with Plant-Based Meat?
So far the biggest criticism I have come across from a sustainability standpoint against Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods is that both companies rely on industrial farming for some key ingredients.
In the case of Beyond Meat, the worst case scenario being presented is that the company’s continued growth and global expansion will lead to a future where we shift from the soy and corn monocultures of today to pea and soy monocultures in the future. It stems from the fact that pea protein is the key ingredient in Beyond Meat’s products and the demand for pea protein will lead to more industrial pea farming, and therefore more use of fertilizers, loss of biodiversity, soil fertility and environmental pollution. To be fair, I haven’t seen any expert or organization seriously make this argument but I’m attempting to present both sides, so here it is.
The attacks against Impossible Foods on the other hand are much more severe because they use GMO soy as a key ingredient. More importantly, Impossible Foods seems to have come out publicly against regenerative-grazing and grass-fed beef, so they are are attracting a lot more criticism at the moment. But is Impossible Foods contributing to destructive soy monocultures which involve use of synthetic fertilizers that are damaging the environment? The fact is the vast majority soy grown today is used to feed livestock in factory farms and not to make plant-based meat, so again, the real enemy appears to be industrial beef production.
Are these sustainability arguments against Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods worthy of further debate and discussion? Of course they are. But it appears that even at scale, if you assess plant-based meat on some key metrics like land, water, and energy use, as well as greenhouse gas emissions, products from Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods and all other plant-meat companies, easily (and not surprisingly) outshine industrial beef because they take livestock completely out of the meat equation.
The other arguments against plant-based meat focus on the fact that the products are processed and use protein isolates, vegetable oils, added sodium and other additives and preservatives not found in beef from cows. As you can see, this is veering into health and nutrition territory, and I’m focused on sustainability for the moment, so will have to leave these issues for another day and for people who are better qualified to address them.
I think both Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods and the entire plant-based foods industry should welcome any criticism. No solution that involves the use of natural resources is ever going to be perfect, and if listening to critics can help companies see the potential drawbacks and downstream negative implications of their ingredient choices or their growth and success, it will help the industry be prepared to address them head-on.
The Grass-Fed Beef Solution
Now onto the grass-fed corner. Grass-fed beef producers aren’t hip food-tech startups backed by Silicon Valley VC giants and celebrity investors. They are ranchers who typically run small family-owned and operated farms that are often passed down from generation to generation. Ranchers who are proponents of regenerative-grazing and grass-fed beef may appear to have almost nothing in common with the new crop of plant-based companies, but they are ostensibly trying to tackle the same challenge of producing meat without destroying the planet.
So what do they have to say for themselves?
If the plant-based corner has the Good Food Institute championing their cause and the Plant Based Foods Association representing their interests, the grass-fed corner has the Savory Institute. The Savory Institute (run by Alan Savory) describes its mission as follows: large-scale regeneration of the world’s grasslands through holistic management to address the global issues of desertification, climate change, and food and water insecurity.
Another hero of the grass-fed movement is Joel Salatin, the rancher/farmer made famous by Michael Pollan’s 2006 bestselling book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” and later featured in the 2008 documentary “Food, Inc.”. Joel runs Polyface Farm, which is located in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Polyface Farm is considered to be a model in regenerative farming and holistic range management, where cattle mimic the grazing patterns of wild herd animals. The whole system doesn’t use chemical fertilizers or industrial animal feed and is considered to be “beyond organic.” Joel and his farm attract hundreds of admiring visitors from around the world and his techniques for raising livestock has inspired scores of family farmers.
Okay, that’s all well and good, but where’s the proof that regenerative-grazing and grass-fed beef is a solution to the planet’s beef problem?
White Oak Pastures: A six generation, 152-year-old family farm that happens to be a Savory hub in Southern Georgia also recently commissioned Quantis to conduct their own life cycle assessment on beef raised by White Oak Pastures
The study found that White Oak Pastures’ cows store more carbon in the soil than their cows emit during their lives, and that the farm is offsetting at least 100 percent of the farm's grass-fed beef carbon emissions and as much as 85 percent of the farm's total carbon emissions. The net result is that White Oak Pastures beef has a carbon footprint 111 percent lower than a conventional U.S. beef system, and the system effectively captures soil carbon, offsetting a majority of the emissions related to beef production.
If you are curious about soil sequestration through regenerative-grazing and want to nerd out even further, read this study titled “Impacts of soil carbon sequestration on life cycle greenhouse gas emissions in Midwestern USA beef finishing systems.”
In summary, here’s what the case for grass-fed beef boils down to:
If the land is managed well, cattle can sequester carbon in the soil, as well as revitalize the soil.
Properly managed livestock can be a net positive for grassland ecosystems, wildlife habitat, and rural communities.
If you want to stretch the argument in favor of grass-fed beef, one can also focus on the fact that fossil fuels are a bigger problem than cattle when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, and that cattle are not the only agricultural source of methane.
What’s Wrong with Grass-Fed Beef?
First and foremost, as I pointed out in the Eat For The Planet book, carbon emissions and soil degradation are just two amongst a long list of environmental impacts of industrial animal agriculture. Farming animals (whether at an industrial scale or via holistic land management techniques) does contribute to excessive use of land, and freshwater, nitrous oxide emissions (around 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide) and methane emissions (roughly 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide). Also, the more widespread such farms become, the more likely they are to cause deforestation, and species extinction. Restoration of the grasslands through holistic management – while a positive step for sure – doesn’t address any of these other downstream impacts of using livestock to produce beef.
But that’s not even the knockout punch against grass-fed beef. According to one recent study, less than a quarter of U.S. beef demand could be met with grass-fed production, and doing so would pump out more than 40 percent more greenhouse gases than the current industrial system.
While regenerative grazing/grass-fed beef is better for the environment than industrial/conventional meat production, the problem is it does not scale. And any attempts to scale it will result in only further damage to the environment.
White Oak Pastures may be better than industrial beef producers, but the real problem has less to do with how we’re producing beef and more to do with how much we have to produce to feed the world.
Tackling the Real Problem
The real question is how do we feed our growing global population a meat-heavy diet as it goes from 7.7 billion people today to nearly 10 billion people by 2050? With the appetite for meat incredibly high in the developed world and rising quickly in the developing world, what’s the best solution that can sustainably feed us in the decades ahead?
At best, grass-fed beef and regenerative-grazing are reductionist solutions to livestock’s carbon emission problem. Any attempt to tout the sustainability benefits of grass-fed beef, without an accompanying caveat explicitly stating that it may only work if everyone decided to cut down on their meat consumption, is flat-out disingenuous. I think most proponents of plant-based meat would be happy to cheer on their grass-fed beef counterparts, provided the ranchers came out and said “Everyone needs to eat more plants and plant-based meat and less meat from livestock, and if and when you choose to eat meat from livestock, make sure it is grass-fed.”
A Peace Proposal
Is grass-fed beef environmentally superior than beef from factory farms? Of course it is. Can it play a role in the future food system as plant-based and cell-based meats transform the food industry? Undoubtedly, it will.
But is it the panacea to all environmental and food security challenges of feeding the world beef?
No freakin’ way!
I’d posit that the grass-fed vs plant-based fight from a sustainability standpoint is an unfair one for the reasons outlined above. In fact, I’d even go as far as to say that both camps have more in common with each other than they care to admit or acknowledge .
So here’s my two-sentence peace proposal that can put an end to the wars. If we can all agree on these two statements (at least as a starting point), we can turn the plant-based meat vs. grass-fed beef debate into a constructive dialogue.
Plant-based meat is a sustainable solution that can help feed the world’s growing population a meat-heavy diet.
Grass-fed beef is a sustainable solution that can help feed the world’s growing population, provided everyone drastically cuts down their consumption of meat (from livestock).
The irony is if plant-based meat is successful at disrupting the industrial meat industry/factory farming, it automatically sets up the conditions that make #2 possible.
Will it stop both camps from throwing punches?
I’m not holding my breath.