Are Plant-Based Foods Environmentally Superior?

November 15, 2021

Have you noticed the growing trend in grocery stores over the last 2 years? Grocery store aisles are becoming increasingly populated by “plant-based” products, a result of the emergent narrative that plant-based diets and plant-centric agriculture will help reduce climate impacts and also improve the health of our population. “Limit animal consumption, increase plant consumption, and improve the environment as well as your health!” While the origin of this sentiment is to be respected - people just want what's best for themselves and the planet - it, unfortunately, rests upon faulty premises. Where the push for a plant-based world misses the mark is first in misunderstanding the necessity for animal inputs in any sort of agriculture and also in assuming that the model for plant production as it stands today is itself a sustainable option moving forward. What we see in most of the plant-based choices available in grocery stores - whether they be meat alternatives, prepared foods, or tasty snack options, are prime examples of what’s known as “greenwashing” - the dressing up of a particular product to make it look and feel like a more environmentally friendly alternative. What you find when you look a little bit deeper under the surface is another way in which companies hoodwink their customers and leverage consumer ideals for their own profits.

Plant-based foods - feel-good packaging out the outside, processed food on the inside.

 

Greenwashing

For many of the plant-based options that claim to be an environmentally sustainable alternative to their animal-based predecessors, a closer look reveals that it’s merely their appearance that is in fact “greener”. The term greenwashing is used to describe a company's attempt to make their product appear more environmentally friendly than it actually is. What you find in most cases, and especially in the growing market of plant-based foods, is that these dressed-up packages carry the same burdens as the alternatives they claim to be superior to - a host of processed ingredients that are derived from unsustainable means. Take the plant-based beef alternative Beyond Burger as an example; while they tout their “burgers” as a solution to making the world a greener place, a brief glance at their ingredients raises more questions that it provides answers. 

The fact that there are 20 ingredients needed to make their burger facsimiles should already beg the question “how sustainable is this, really?” 3 of the primary ingredients used in these meat alternatives are generally produced through highly extractive methods, meaning they take out from the ecosystem more than they put back in. Canola oil and coconut oil in particular come from unsustainable industries and impart heavy loads on the environment through their production. While aiming to replace the standard of factory-farmed beef may be laudable, it’s important to question if the alternatives we’re being presented are really any better or if they’re just trading one problem for another. 



Monocropping Won't Save Us

If the idea stands that eating less meat and more plants will be of greater benefit to the planet, then it would suppose that how we grow vegetables is sustainable, to begin with. This unfortunately is not the case. In order to grow vegetables at the scale necessary for feeding our populace, most farms rely on mono-crop agriculture methods. Growing a single variety of plants over a large area has its benefits, namely the ability to produce massive yields, it has many drawbacks as well.

Growing and harvesting the same crop year after year disrupts the balance of healthy soil and productive farmland - this way of farming kills the nutrients in the ground leaves the soil unable to support healthy plant growth. Since the land used for monocropping is disturbed too often in the name of productivity, synthetic fertilizers are a must in order to increase land fertility. Our dependence on chemical fertilizers doesn’t bode well for our environment, as the way we produce them is through the extraction of fossil fuels. Gloss over the list of ingredients on most plant-based options and you’ll find their primary ingredients are output from this unsustainable method of mono-crop growing - wheat, almonds, soy, and vegetable oils. Unless there is a radical shift in the way we produce vegetables at scale, a push towards a world fed mostly on plants is only kicking the can further down the path of monoculture farming, and only exacerbating the damage that is being done with these unsustainable practices.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t shun vegetables, it simply means that we should strive and advocate for better ways of producing food regardless of the industry. No matter how laudable the drive towards plant-based living may be, the fact is we need better ways of producing whatever it is we produce, a way that doesn’t rely on the failing crutch of synthetic fertilizers.

 

It’s Not the Cow it’s the How

Nobody wants to see the continuation of factory farming. Just about everyone would agree that the way animals are raised and handled within these operations is detestable. This doesn’t mean that we should throw away the baby with the bathwater - animals are an essential piece to creating a healthy and sustainable food system. For countless generations, farmers have relied on the reciprocal nature of animals and plants. Without fertilizers and other man-made amendments for plant growth, the inputs that animals provide to the earth are a necessary component for a functioning ecosystem. While animals are set to graze farmland they end up putting just as much into the ground as they take out from it. They put healthy pressure on the grass and cover crops that trigger new growth and captures atmospheric carbon as well as recycling the plants they consume in the form of manure - aka “plant-based fertilizer”. When managed with a bit of strategy, animal agriculture, and that of cows, in particular, has shown to have a net positive effect on carbon emissions (whereas the plant-based alternative that has also been studied, showed the exact opposite effect - a net negative effect on carbon emissions), proving how impactful animal husbandry can be in improving our climate. Just as plants are not the problem, but the way we produce them is, animals are no more insidious than the ways in which they are managed. As the author of the book “The Sacred Cow”, Diana Rodgers says, “it’s not the cow, it’s the how”.  In lieu of calling for less meat, we should call for better meat to address any issues that preside within the industry - and learn to incorporate animals in a way that creates a truly sustainable and resilient food system.

By 2027 the plant-based industry is estimated to become a $72 billion market. As the popularity of plant-based foods grows, and the amount of financial support along with it (in 2018 James Cameron partnered in a $140 million investment of pea protein), so too does the momentum behind the industry it is bred from. As we’ve been pointing towards throughout this article series, before taking a label at face value it’s important to ask “is this really true?” If cows have been a part of agriculture for thousands of years, is it really true that they’re bad for the environment? If mono-crop agriculture is known to cause damage to our farmlands, is it true that more plants are going to save the planet? From an environmental perspective, with our current model of production, shifting our diets from animal-inclusive to plant-centric would essentially move from a focus on factory-farmed animals to factory-farmed plants.

The issue of sustainability may be big, but an important piece of the solution is in fact small. Small farmers, those growing food locally, are a way for us to opt-out of the industrial agricultural system. By supporting your local growers, however frequently, you can aid in keeping the footprint of food smaller and improving the health of your local environment - economically and ecologically. We at Fulcrum Farm raise our animals with as little inputs as possible and we donate our food to the veterans within our area, which in turn bolsters the health of our community and feeds our passion to provide. If there’s one thing farming will teach you, it’s that nature loves a good feedback loop.

Subscribe to Blog