Vegetables are becoming increasingly common in an unusual place: the grocery store meat aisle.

Sales of alternative, or plant-based, meats are booming worldwide. Driven by skyrocketing demand from consumers striving to cut back on meat and companies facing increasing pressure to reduce their environmental footprint, the market is anticipated to reach $23.1 billion by 2025.

And major meat companies have been racing to meet demand, with big players such as McDonald's and Maple Leaf Foods recently launching a suite of plant-based meats.

Meat contributes up to eight billion tonnes of CO2 per year, roughly equivalent to the annual emissions of 1.6 billion cars, and according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a global shift to diets that contain less meat is essential to keep global warming under the 1.5 C limit agreed to in the 2015 Paris Agreement.

“It’s well-known that eating lower down the food chain is more environmentally efficient,” said Navin Ramankutty, professor of global environmental change and food security at the University of British Columbia.

That’s because plants require far fewer resources — water, land, fossil fuels — to produce, per calorie, than meat. It’s also healthier, the IPCC report notes, with excessive meat consumption linked to numerous health issues.

Those factors have fuelled a booming market in alternative proteins, meat- and dairy-like products that are usually manufactured from soy or pea protein, with about 10 per cent of Canadians saying they eat little or no meat, according to research by Dalhousie University’s Agri-Food Analytics Lab.

Companies in their infancy a decade ago, such as Beyond Meat, have become household names. Now, major meat companies have jumped in the fray.

For instance, in the past three years, Maple Leaf Foods has purchased two venerable alternative meat companies — Lightlife Foods and the Field Roast Grain Meat Co. — and announced plans to build a $401-million pea-protein processing plant in the U.S.

“That question of sustainability has be asked in a much wider context than just the production of these plant-based (meats),” says Élisabeth Abergel, professor of sociology and environmental studies at UQAM. #plantbased

This year, the company launched a line of products made from a blend of plant and animal proteins, a “direct response to Canadians’ desire to eat sustainably,” said Michael McCain, Maple Leaf Foods' CEO, in a written statement.

Maple Leaf Foods isn’t alone in banking on sustained consumer interest in plant-based meats.

In the first half of 2020 alone, more than $1.4 billion was invested in alternative protein companies. That’s more than twice the total amount spent last year, according to the FAIRR Initiative, a global network of institutional investors that regularly publishes an index evaluating social, environmental and governance risk factors for 60 major meat and protein companies as a guide for sustainability-minded investors.

For Sylvain Charlebois, director of Dalhousie University's Agri-Food Analytics Lab, those numbers aren’t surprising.

“I don’t think (consumer demand) is going to go away ... COVID may have stalled the momentum a little bit, but I am expecting the momentum to come back,” he said, citing Canadians’ concerns about the environment, their health and the ethical treatment of farm animals.

Even veganism, one of the more challenging plant-centric diets to follow, is on the rise, he noted, with about 600,000 Canadians saying they were vegans this year compared to 400,000 in 2019.

Concerns around meat's environmental and health impacts, and animal welfare, are pushing an increasing number of Canadians to eat less animal protein, Prof. Sylvain Charlebois said. Photo by Maple Leaf Foods

Still, some researchers say that despite the hype, plant-based meats might be less sustainable than they appear.

“That question of sustainability has to be asked in a much wider context than just the production of these plant-based (meats),” said Élisabeth Abergel, professor of sociology and environmental studies at the Université du Québec à Montréal.

Especially when it comes to evaluating industrially produced, plant-based proteins. Simply measuring the number of resources used to produce plant protein and comparing that against the number used to produce an equivalent volume of animal protein doesn’t give an accurate picture of the food’s overall impact, Abergel said.

Plant-based meats remain a small part of the major meat companies’ total production, she said. That makes it difficult for plant-based meats to significantly impact these companies’ environmental footprint without additional, supply-chain-wide changes to how they produce and distribute food.

For instance, only four per cent of Maple Leaf Foods' sales revenue last year — about $176 million — came from plant-based products. However, the company has invested in a suite of initiatives to reduce its overall environmental footprint by 50 per cent (compared to 2014) by 2025.

Maple Leaf Foods has pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from its operations and supply chain by 30 per cent each by 2030. “This is all part of our vision to become the most sustainable protein company on earth,” said Michael McCain, the company's CEO. Photo by Maple Leaf Foods

Abergel said an environmentally conscientious consumer should also consider how the base ingredients for plant-based meats are produced.

“Certain companies use soy, other companies use pea protein. In (both cases), are these grown organically or are they grown in monocultures? Are they part of the same supply chain ... used for feeding cattle?” she said.

“If the soy protein or the pea protein come from monocultures, and the soy is genetically modified, I think that sustainability measures have to take these into account.”

Industrial agriculture is associated with myriad environmental impacts, from nitrous oxide emissions tied to excessive fertilizer use to hurting pollinators through habitat destruction.

Not only that, the economic model that underpins both industrial agriculture and meat production is dominated by a handful of large processing and retail companies. As a result, farmers often have little choice but to sell their crops at an unsustainably low price that isn’t reflected in the prices paid by consumers, according to Cathy Holtslander, director of research and policy at the National Farmers Union.

Farm debt has risen exponentially in the past 20 years, more than doubling since 2000 to reach $115 billion this year. Meanwhile, Canadian farmers’ net incomes have steadily dropped, hovering around $10 billion annually since the mid-1980s, rates unseen since the Great Depression.

That has pushed many out of business — the number of farms in Canada dropped 25 per cent between 1991 and 2011 — and has made it more difficult for those who remain to innovate with more sustainable farming techniques, such as cover cropping to absorb excess nitrogen or interspersing pollinator habitats in their fields.

Abergel also pointed out that many large food processors have also seen other concerns in their supply chains, everything from working conditions to food safety. Those challenges speak to the need for a definition of food sustainability that is broader than just an environmental footprint, she said.

“If you’re somebody who is really concerned about sustainability, you need to go deeper.”

Marc Fawcett-Atkinson / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada's National Observer

Updates and corrections

| Corrections policy
December 26, 2020, 07:10 pm

Editor's Note: This story was updated on December 26, 2020, to clarify that the FAIRR Initiative — a non-profit organization referenced in the article which regularly publishes an index evaluating social, environmental and governance risk factors for 60 major meat and protein companies — is a separate organization from Coller Capital. An earlier version of this article mistakenly attributed the index to Coller Capital, not FAIRR.

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The question is are plant-based meats more 'sustainable' and less harmful to the environment than animal-based meats? The answer is an unequivocal 'yes.'

I would disagree that the answer is an "unequivocal yes". You have to consider the effects of modern convential farming practices, vast fields of monocultures, the draining of sloughs and the cutting of shelterbelts, the application of pesticides,herbicides, fungicides, and artificial fertilizers, all of which occur when farmers take over grazing lands. Producing protein from legumes (peas and lentils) is especially fraught with problems, as these plants are not very competitive and require more inputs than other crops, plus a field will require 'dessication' to stop production so it 'ripens' for harvest. "What is dessication?", you ask. Well, that is spraying an entire field with glyphosate or another herbicide to kill the crop so it can be harvested.

No, this is a confusion of the issue. So is the whole article, really. Sure, agribusiness style farming is deeply problematic. But it's happening anyway; getting rid of it is a separate discussion. The point is, if the agribusiness farming is making meat, you have ten units of agribusiness plant food feeding animals to give us one unit of agribusiness meat food, whereas if the agribusiness farming is making "beyond meat" you have just one unit of agribusiness plant food feeding us directly. One unit of agribusiness for one unit of food is more sustainable than ten units of agribusiness plus whatever is involved in raising the animals themselves, for one unit of food.

It strikes me as likely that it would also be easier to switch a less meat-animal-intensive food system over to more sustainable organic, "agroecology"-type approaches. And corn, a major component of animal feed, is notoriously bad for the soil, whereas peas are nitrogen-fixers.

Just for the record, I'm not a vegetarian although I'm trying to gradually cut down on how MUCH meat I eat, and I hate peas. But lead-pipe-obvious truths do not care whether I'm a vegetarian.

Is this article a work-in-progress? It does not "pay-off" the promise of the headline. Short answer is YES, plant-based are on the rise and are more sustainable than alternatives (factory farming).
What is the point of the lead photo of a man "eating plant-based deli meats for the first time"?
The article muses that soy used may not be organic and thus uses the same supply chain as factory farming and thus doesn't to sustainability ... but did you check the labels? Yves, Beyond Meat, LightLife and most brands use non-GMO ingredients.
Except for the cutline on one photo, animal welfare isn't mentioned: that's what veganism is -- animal rights, not a diet.
The National Farmers Union complains about not being paid enough for their goods but fail to mention the huge subsidies which already go to support unsustainable factory farming. What if we shifted some of those subsidies to plant-based?

I suggest they are not more sustainable as the plants grown to produce these "meats" are done so with current factory farming methods. These practices are well known to destroy soil nutrients and kill millions of animals despite them being touted as animal friendly. The solution imo is to change the way we raise livestock and grow plants. There are many farmers world wide that employ these methods in which animals are raised ethically and sustainably which returns nutrients to the soil in the form of manure from natural grazing behaviour. These methods can sustain the human race with much less environmental damage.

Apart from the problem of explaining how killing someone who is healthy and in the prime of life is ethical, studies have cast serious doubt on the claims made for grass-fed beef or for "holistic management".
"[G]razing livestock – even in a best-case scenario – are net contributors to the climate problem, as are all livestock. Good grazing management cannot offset its own emissions, let alone those arising from other systems of animal production."
"Why eating grass-fed beef isn’t going to help fight climate change"
"Holistic management: Misinformation on the science of grazed ecosystems"

This is a mistaken point. The plants grown as animal feed are ALSO grown with current factory farming methods--and they have to grow a lot MORE of them to result in a given amount of food. Growing LESS with current factory farming methods is more sustainable than growing MORE with current factory farming methods. Therefore, plant-based pseudo-meats are MORE sustainable than actual meats. And that's before we get to the feedlots and the massive pigshit lagoons and so on.

Are they sustainable PERIOD? No, of course not. Agriculture should be shifted to organic, sustainable models. But that's a separate conversation. Within a given model, less meat is, up to a point at any rate, more sustainable than more meat. I do feel that within an organic model including crop rotation there is room for fallow fields with animals grazing on and manuring them. But that probably results in a diet much sparser in meat than the current North American level.

Yeast based meat seems to be the most viable as an alternative to natural meat sourcing. However, there is nothing to the claims of meat-eating being environmentally unfriendly. On the contrary, the real problem is humans and not animals. Fewer humans would require less domesticated animals. Why do third generation hippies ask the wrong questions to the same problem? Yea, let's blame cows because cow farts are nasty. We need a global effort to cut down on the number of people if we want to really impact our environment in a positive way. Not sexy new inventions that will have a minimal impact and we will still have to deal with unwanted children or too many children in most families of many cultures. If we really want to save the planet we should spay or neuter all the hippies so they don't have children and risk causing an unreasonable amount of environmental impact. Think about it. Sterilizing all the hippies and veggie-feel-good-point-a-finger-at-the-carnivore makes as much sense as not eating cows and chickens and yummy piggies. Well, the hippies would be a start, but seriously, some birth control and abstinence could be of good use in many cultures that continue to have 10+ children for no particular reason. The planet will heal itself very nicely in a few centuries "if" we get the population down to a billion or less.

No need to worry -- those scary hippies have stopped having children.
"Fertility rate: 'Jaw-dropping' global crash in children being born"

Cow burps, due to enteric fermentation, that are the bigger issue than farts.

There is a new documentary out that is free to watch until Dec 6th. It is the most science based and logical discussion of this subject that I have seen and I believe that it is worth watching for anyone that is interested in this subject.

Agree absolutely with Mr. Inglis' comment, below.

I have moved farther and farther away from flesh-eating, gradually. My first steps were to drop veal and lamb, because eating babies is monstrous IMO. And lobster, crab, etc., because cooking anything alive is obscene.

Then I moved to only meat from animals slaughtered in accordance with religious practices, because my understanding at the time was that those were less cruel.

I stopped buying beef or pork next, out of a species preference (no mammals on the table).
Then I saw some of the insider videos of how fowl were abused. No more turkey, almost no chicken.
Still working on removing eggs and milk from the menu.

Every step of my path has been primarily driven by aversion to cruelty. At the moment, living in a rural area, I'm OK with wild game that has been killed cleanly and immediately, because those animals have had a natural life--far different from the lives of domestic animals in factory farms. Ontario no longer allows on-site humane slaughter.

My secondary goal has been environmental protection.

Nonetheless, the current Ontario idiot is proposing to plow support funds into meat farming. The current federal government cannot get its act together to establish and implement humane animal legislation, because of effective lobbying by hunting, fishing, and farming groups. It took them, what, a hundred years to enact legislation disallowing humans from buggering animals? Such progress!

I was also expecting more insight into the sustainability of 'meatless meat' but that lack and all the questions raised points to the complexity of determining what is and is not 'sustainable'.

As others have pointed out, plant-based meat-alikes are usually produced using non-sustainable farming methods so therefore are not sustainable. I think it would, though, be fair to say that most plant-based meat production has a lower C footprint than does the production of an equivalent amount of meat (though I would like to see an article on the C footprint of the processes involved in turning veg into mockmeat).

If we are going to have meat it should be produced in the context of traditional or biodynamic farming, such as this farm here: The animals have become part of a larger ecosystem and actually contribute to carbon sequestering by having their manure used to enrich the soil. A biodiverse farm also has other positive ecological effects such as preserving floodplains and preventing erosion, and supporting the wildlife around it. If you have a chance check out the documentary produced about Apricot Lanes Farm called The Biggest Little Farm (it's on Netflix).
On the other hand, no amount of veganism will save the planet if the plant-based food is produced via GMOs and conventional monocropping. It all comes down to farming techniques, not necessarily what we eat.