The science is clear: We need to act now if we hope to mitigate the most extreme impacts of global warming, many of which are already starting to be seen in unprecedented weather events, food insecurity, drought, wildfires, and more. While there are many strategies and approaches that can help reduce global greenhouse gas emissions and slow the advancement of climate change, plant-based diets and food systems represent a particularly promising opportunity.
In their new report titled The Untapped Climate Opportunity in Alternative Proteins, Boston Consulting Group (BCG), found that each dollar invested in improving and scaling up the production of plant-based meat, dairy, and eggs, resulted in seven times more emissions reductions compared to green buildings and 11 times more than zero-emission cars.
According to the report, consumer adoption of plant-based proteins like meat, dairy, and eggs, is growing and plant-based protein could be on track to represent 11% of market share by 2035. Impressively, BCG estimates that the carbon emission savings associated with an 11% market share would be equal to decarbonizing 95% of the aviation industry.
The BCG report highlights the fact that encouraging consumers to fly less or retrofitting their homes to save energy presents considerable economic and individual consumer tradeoffs. Given the urgency of our current environmental crisis, these sorts of behavior changes are unlikely to take hold with enough force to move the needle on climate change. Shifting to plant-based foods, however, represents a relatively small change according to BCG – especially considering their research shows consumers are motivated to do so due to climate concerns.
The Far-Reaching Impact of Industrial Animal Agriculture
While the plant-based meat, dairy, and egg market is growing, BCG points to the fact that these categories could grow much faster with increased investment that would enable technological advancements and innovation leading to better products, broader ability for companies to scale production and reach consumers. Understanding the gravity and impact of a food system built around industrial animal agriculture further emphasizes the need for additional support for the burgeoning plant-based industry.
For context, the global agriculture sector accounts for around one-third of greenhouse gas emissions, and industrial animal agriculture–raising animals for meat, dairy, and eggs, as well as monoculture crops for livestock feed–is responsible for around 57% of emissions related to our food system. On average, animal-based foods produce twice the amount of greenhouse gas emissions than plant-based foods, illustrating the considerable opportunity for food-related solutions to climate change.
Our appetite for industrially produced meat, eggs, and dairy is driving global deforestation, represents a leading cause of biodiversity loss, and is responsible for air and water pollution, disproportionately seen in low-wealth, communities of color, which not only represents environmental justice violations but also contributes to major public health concerns and growing antibiotic resistance. Understanding the far-reaching impacts of the industrial animal agriculture system, it is more important than ever to identify and act on solutions that enable us to feed the growing global population in a sustainable and regenerative way.
Plant-Based Food Companies Leading Food System Transformation
The good news is, the plant-based foods industry is rapidly growing and creating foods that not only taste great but help transform our food landscape is at the forefront for many companies.
“The release of this report is an exciting acknowledgment of the critical need for plant-based foods to take center stage in our discussions and action plans in the fight against climate change,” said Sadrah Schadel, Co-Chair of PBFA’s Sustainability Committee and CEO and Co-Founder of PBFA member company No Evil Foods. “The results of the report align with numerous studies previously published and quantify the dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that a shift to plant-based diets could have compared to the standard diets in most industrialized countries. As an industry, we are positioning dietary change as a leading action we can take in the fight against the climate crisis. ”
The potential difference between the production of plant-based foods versus animal-based is significant. As Joe Loria, PBFA Sustainability Committee Member and Director of Marketing & Communications at Zero Egg explains, “Producing plant-based alternatives requires radically less resources than their animal-based counterparts. Take eggs, for example, a protein source that people often think of as sustainable. It takes a whopping 636 gallons of water to produce a dozen ordinary eggs, not to mention that industrial egg production results in fertilizer runoff into nearby waterways creating massive algae blooms and dead zones, killing marine life.”
When it comes to crafting plant-based eggs, Loria expands that Zero Egg–which has the same taste, texture, and versatility as animal-based eggs–uses 93% less water, 92% less land, 93% less energy, and 59% fewer greenhouse gas emissions. Considering 77% of global farming land is used for growing livestock, either for grazing or feed production, but only provides 18% of the global caloric supply – the potential to get much more food from plant-based sources with much less impact is significant.
The Power of Business for Positive Change
As we consider strategies to feed the world without destroying the planet, plant-based food companies can set an example for what the future of regenerative, sustainable agriculture can look like.
As Julie Kunen, Director of Sustainability, at PBFA member Oatly explains, “What really moves change in the world is business – companies that speak to people’s consumption habits, people’s taste, the things people buy. It’s here that the most agility and system level power lives in ultimately addressing all the planetary crises we face in regard to climate change.”
She continues, “Food is delicious, it’s personal and it’s something tangible that people make choices about every single day. We want to set an example for how food companies (and all companies) should act to benefit the planet and people. We’re working to prove that change is possible and that it’s good business to center around what’s best for the planet and humans.”
Building a Sustainable Food Future
The BCG report underlines the importance of protein transformation as one part of a broader “remodeling of the food system.” As the report states: “As value pools form around new technologies and processes that help address such critical issues as taste, health, and cost, the need for some long-standing processes, such as animal slaughtering and meat packing, will decline. Every stakeholder along the value chain is likely to feel the impact of the transformation, and many will find big opportunities in contributing to building a sustainable food system.”
Stakeholders, from companies making consumer packaged goods to those sourcing ingredients, have an important role to play. “Boston Consulting Group’s acknowledgment that plant-based proteins have a critical impact on slowing climate change is a monumental moment for our industry,” said Prashant Jairaj, PBFA Sustainability Committee Member and vice president of plant-based consumer products at Global Food and Ingredients (GFI). “GFI is proud to be a provider of plant-based ingredients and consumer products that contribute to this shared vision for our future. One where plant-based foods are more accessible to consumers and our food systems are regenerative, rather than destructive. It is our hope that more people will see utilizing alternative proteins as an investment in our collective ambition for a sustainable future.”
There is a great need to also provide an agricultural landscape that can produce plant-based ingredients and whole foods that can meet the needs of a growing population. Currently, 89% of U.S. farmland is dedicated to growing corn, soy, or wheat – a majority of which are grown for livestock feed over direct human consumption. Clearing biodiverse wild lands to make way for monoculture crops not only harms pollinator species and native wildlife but also reduces soil health and increases potential for crop disease and pests – making the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides essential.
Understanding this need, PBFA launched our sister non-profit organization, The Plant Based Foods Institute (The Institute), to address broader food systems needs.
The Institute takes a holistic, values-based approach to food system change with a mission to drive a transition to a plant-based food system that benefits people, the planet, and animals. We do this by identifying and creating impactful solutions for businesses and food system participants and advocating for systems-based change that is resilient, regenerative, and sustainable. One example of this is our Domestic Sourcing Initiative which seeks to facilitate partnerships between American farmers and plant-based food companies. By sourcing key ingredients sourced in the U.S., companies can build more resilient networks to support long-term growth and represents an opportunity for companies to reduce their carbon footprints through shorter supply chains, and also encourage climate-smart farming practices that promote biodiversity and soil health.
At a time when global supply networks are vulnerable to political, economic, pandemic, and armed conflict disruptions, domestic sourcing offers a way to build a resilient, reliable, and sustainable food supply network that, in turn, can increase consumer access to plant-based foods.
The BCG report represents an important acknowledgment of the impact of our food system and provides clear guidance on how investors can act to maximize their return – in terms of climate savings. Now more than ever, it is imperative that we support and uplift plant-based food companies and members of the agricultural community who are working to build a more sustainable food system for us all. This is not only a call to investors to make change with their dollars but also illustrates the positive role consumers can play in choosing plant-based foods.
Crafting a food system that truly benefits people, planet, and animals is no small task but we are heartened by the growing movement in support of championing plant-based foods as a sustainable – and delicious – solution for all.