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Swapping beef for plant-based protein could (literally) save lives

Not only would rates of heart disease and stroke decline, but the reduced CO2 emissions that would come from eating less meat would also give the planet more of a shot at survival.

Swapping beef for plant-based protein could (literally) save lives
[Photo: Marvin Tolentino/Unsplash]

Here are two facts that should concern you: By 2050, the planet is expected to house 10 billion humans, and humans–if current trends hold–really like eating meat.

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While we can’t do much about the first, the second is within our power to change. If we cut back on meat in favor of alternative, plant-based proteins, a new report from the World Economic Forum (WEF) finds that we might make a significant impact on overall human health and mortality, and the well-being of the planet.

[Image: courtesy World Economic Forum]
The point of the Alternative Proteins report, says Dominic Waughray, WEF managing director, is not to call for an all-out halt to eating meat, but to make the case for increasing the availability of other, more sustainable proteins. “It can be possible to produce enough nutrition for 10 billion people and improve people’s health without necessarily giving up meat–even red meat–altogether, through innovation in products, improvements in how we produce beef, pork, and chicken, and an effort on the part of the consumer to embrace a more diverse diet,” Waughray says.

Tempering beef consumption with plant-based proteins like beans, nuts, or jackfruit, the WEF finds, could end up saving peoples’ lives. Red meat correlates with higher cholesterol levels and blood pressure, both of which can lead to heart disease and stroke, and delivers few benefits in the way of fiber and potassium. The WEF found that adding more red meat to one’s diet increases the likelihood of diet-related mortality by 1.5%, mostly due to greater heme iron intake, which is associated with heart problems. Incorporating more fiber-rich proteins, like beans and peas, could reduce mortality rates by over 5%.

The WEF team nods to the growing research into lab-grown beef, but from a human-health perspective, there’s little difference between eating meat from a cow and meat produced synthetically. Also, while the popular plant-based substitute, the Impossible Burger, differs from beef in composition, it relies on heme (the iron associated with health risks) to deliver its signature “bloody” look. The WEF says more research is needed to understand how the Impossible burger stacks up against beef, health-wise.

What’s for certain, though, is that both lab-grown meat and the plant-based alternatives WEF studies–including algae, nuts, insects, tofu, jackfruit, and beans–cause considerably less environmental damage than beef. Beef requires 23.9 kilograms of CO2 to produce 200 kcal of food, but plant-based alternatives like beans, insects, and nuts emit only 1 kilogram or less of CO2 for the same amount of nutrition. Overall, beef production accounts for around 25% of total food-related greenhouse gas emissions, and swapping out red meat for plant-based alternatives could conversely reduce emissions from food by nearly 25%. This is an instance in which the report authors feel lab-grown beef has real potential. While current production methods are still fairly energy-intensive, as the process scales and becomes more efficient, energy savings will also increase.

[Image: courtesy World Economic Forum]
Of course, advocating that people change their diets on the basis of personal health and energy savings leaves out an important factor in how people decide what they eat: cost. Ground beef is relatively inexpensive and accessible, particularly when compared to lab-grown alternatives and some rarer plant-based options, like jackfruit. The WEF suggests that the plant-based protein industry could benefit from public-sector investment, in the same way the renewable energy industry has done, to help bring prices down. And on top of that, the agriculture industry has something to learn from the energy sector in how to manage the transition from factory-farmed meat to more plant-based alternatives. Governments could fund farmers to switch to growing protein-rich plants, or help them transition to other jobs in sustainable agriculture.

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With this new report, the WEF wants to demonstrate the potential of wide-scale adoption of plant-based alternatives to beef–something that startups like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat frequently point to as their goal. But what the report makes clear is that the private sector alone can’t bring it about. It will take wide-scale collaboration between companies and governments, and a comprehensive to ensure the livelihoods of agricultural producers remain intact as this massive–and necessary–shift happens in their industry.

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About the author

Eillie Anzilotti is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Ideas section, covering sustainability, social good, and alternative economies. Previously, she wrote for CityLab.

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