Forests that help absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere are commonly cleared out for cattle grazing or growing its feed. This practice furthers greenhouse-gas emissions from animal farming.
A solution could be in already existing biotechnology. Researchers from Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) found that replacing 20 per cent of cattle meat with microbial protein – an alt-meat produced in fermentation tanks – could cut deforestation by 50 per cent.
“The food system is at the root of a third of global greenhouse gas emissions, with ruminant meat production being the single largest source,” says Florian Humpenöder, a researcher at PIK and lead author of the study.
The researchers used microbial protein in a computer simulation to detect its environmental effects in future scenarios until 2050. The simulation accounts for population growth, food demand, dietary patterns, and land use in agriculture.
“We found that if we substituted 20 per cent of ruminant meat per capita by 2050, annual deforestation and CO2 emissions from the land-use change would be halved compared to a business-as-usual scenario,” explains Humpenoder.
She added that the reduced numbers of cattle reduce the pressure on land and reduce methane emissions from the rumen of cattle and nitrous oxide emissions from fertilising feed or manure management.
Isabelle Weindle, co-author of the study, explains that there are three broad groups of meat analogues – plant-based, cell-based, and fungi-based (microbial protein) – all available in a large variety in supermarkets. And by comparing all three, the researchers found that microbial protein requires the least agricultural land while still producing the same protein supply.
Microbial protein is made in specific cultures, just like bread or beer. The microbes live on sugar and stable temperature and can churn out a protein-rich product that tastes, feels, and even is as nutritious as red meat. In addition, the US Food and Drug Administration approved using microbial protein as a safe meat alternative (mycoprotein) in 2002.
According to the study, this goes under the assumption that the world’s population still prefers to eat beef, and the taste of plant-based meat substitutes isn’t sufficient. The market-ready meat alternative offers a similar taste and texture to cattle-raised beef but utilises fewer land resources and produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions.
“The substitution of ruminant meat with microbial protein in the future could considerably reduce the greenhouse gas footprint of the food system,” says Humpenöder. “The good news is that people do not need to be afraid they can eat only greens in the future. They can continue eating burgers and the like; it’s just that those burger patties will be produced differently.”