Potential to curb the environmental burdens of American beef consumption using a novel plant-based beef substitute

Benjamin Paul Goldstein*, Rebekah Moses, Norman Sammons, Morten Birkved

*Corresponding author for this work

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    The food demands of the United States (US) impart significant environmental pressures. The high rate of consumption of beef has been shown to be the largest driver of food-borne greenhouse gas emissions, water use and land occupation in the US diet. The environmental benefits of substituting animal products with vegetal foods are well documented, but significant psychological barriers persist in reducing meat consumption. Here we use life cycle assessment to appraise the environmental performance of a novel vegetal protein source in the mean US diet where it replaces ground beef, and in vegetarian and vegan diets where it substitutes for legumes, tofu and other protein sources. We find that relative to the mean US diet, vegetarian and vegan diets significantly reduce per-capita food-borne greenhouse gas emission (32% and 67%, respectively), blue water use (70% and 75%, respectively) and land occupation (70% and 79%, respectively), primarily in the form of rangeland. The substitution of 10%, 25% and 50% of ground beef with plant-based burger (PBB) at the national scale results in substantial reductions in annual US dietary greenhouse gas emissions (4.55–45.42 Mt CO2 equivalents), water consumption (1.30–12.00 km3) and land occupation (22300–190100 km2). Despite PBB’s elevated environmental pressures compared to other vegetal protein sources, we demonstrate that minimal risk exists for the disservices of PBB substitution in non-meat diets to outweigh the benefits of ground-beef substitution in the omnivorous American diet. Demand for plant-based oils in PBB production has the potential to increase land use pressures in biodiversity hotspots, though these could be obviated through responsible land stewardship. Although the apparent environmental benefits of the PBB are contingent on actual uptake of the product, this study demonstrates the potential for non-traditional protein substitutes to play a role in a transition towards more sustainable consumption regimes in the US and potentially abroad.

    Original languageEnglish
    Article numbere0189029
    JournalPLOS ONE
    Issue number12
    Number of pages17
    Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2017


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