aYour current level of meat consumption is unsustainable. Animal husbandry is the main driver of global warming and deforestation of tropical forests. The meat industry keeps most of the animals in intensive and inhumane conditions. Red meat is linked to multiple health problems, including heart disease and colorectal cancer.
The food industry has committed to change — chains like McDonald’s and Burger King have signed on to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, no deforestation by 2030, and multiple health goals, too. But how can these giants, and indeed the entire food sector, continue to do so when we consume 340 billion kilograms of meat annually globally, and demand is still rising? Do we just hope that consumers will become vegetarians or vegans on their own?
Meat alternatives are helping some to switch to a plant-based lifestyle. It has grown rapidly in recent years and, ostensibly, offers a good taste for a fraction of the environmental impact of meat and without animal slaughter. However, the pace of growth was not fast enough to achieve the scale of change required. In the US, for example, vegan meat alternatives accounted for just 1.4% of sales in 2021. McDonald’s recently launched the vegan Mc Planet burger, which was successful enough to remain on the UK menu, but not in the US.
There is another way to reduce meat consumption. It uses a change in how food is produced to change what we consume. It can be published immediately and widely. The meat in burgers or similar foods can be mixed with plant-based meat alternatives, or with fresh ingredients like mushrooms or lentils.
Discussions about the benefits of blended products have been circulating for a few years now: In 2015, the James Beard Foundation started a competition for chefs to make the tastiest blended burger. The difference now is that, given the small market share of meat substitutes, and the need to reduce meat consumption, blended products may be necessary to achieve international sustainability goals at the scale and speed required.
Using data on food’s environmental impacts, she estimated what would happen if two food companies representing 2-3% of global beef purchases – Burger King and McDonald’s – swapped 50% of the beef in their burgers for plant-based meat to make blended burgers. Global agricultural land demand will be reduced by about 8.5 million hectares (21 million acres). This is an area the size of Ireland. Given that the total agricultural area is actually declining globally, it is unlikely that new agricultural land will replace the previous grazing areas. Instead, as when the demand for wool collapsed during the 1990s, the Earth will likely return to nature.
In addition to the benefits to wildlife and biodiversity, this land can remove 17 million tons of carbon dioxide from the air each year for an average of 100 years as trees grow. The process could even be speeded up by engaging landowners to replant trees, as China’s “grain-for-green” program did.
Cows also produce significant emissions of greenhouse gases associated with their feed and excrement, and from methane-producing bacteria in their gut. Replacing 50% of the beef at this fast food chain would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 34 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent annually. Combined, this is a 51 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent reduction, more than 80% of the way to the two companies’ net zero goals. From an animal welfare perspective, this change will result in the 4 million fewer cows being raised and slaughtered each year. Furthermore, research has found that even small, processed red meat substitutes for plant-based meat alternatives are associated with lower heart disease, diabetes, and overall mortality.
If you eat meat, this is something you can try yourself – next time you use ground beef in bolognese, burgers, or chili, replace 50% of the volume with lentils or chopped mushrooms. You might as well—in blind taste tests, a recent study found that consumers rated the taste of blended burgers over a beef burger. Perhaps most interestingly, preferences for blended burgers increased when consumers were told they were blended, possibly because people value their environmental and health credentials.
Solutions like this rarely look so promising, even on paper. However, some large companies have had limited success in trying to launch new blended products. Here they were trying to create a new product category and, like purely vegan products, had challenges communicating their benefits. For near-term benefits, we probably just need to mix plants with existing meat products – in the UK a ‘beef burger’ is legally defined as containing at least 62% beef, and ingredient lists say what’s in the products.
Ultimately, these products are better for health, the environment, and animal welfare than meat, and they can even taste better: If we can get this message across and change these products carefully, this could unlock a fundamental solution.