The health of our planet would stand to benefit if even one-fifth of the world's demand for beef by 2050 is substituted with mycoprotein alternatives, according to a new estimate.
Among all other types of food, meat requires more resources of food, water, and land to produce, and generates a lot of greenhouse gas emissions. Beef, in particular, is one of the worst offenders. The process of bringing food up from the field and into our bellies accounts for a third of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, with ruminant meat -- such as beef -- responsible for the largest part of that.
Mycoprotein, a high-protein meat alternative produced by fungi in fermentation tanks -- can help cut down on the negative environmental impact of beef consumption. According to a new study, replacing just 20% of our beef intake with this alternative by 2050 could halve projected deforestation by that date.
"The substitution of ruminant meat with microbial protein in the future could considerably reduce the greenhouse gas footprint of the food system," says Florian Humpenöder, researcher at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) and lead author of the study. "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 in a different way."
Mycoprotein is a nutritious, protein-rich biomass that is produced by naturally-occurring microbes, most commonly fungi, inside fermentation tanks from water and sugars. It is very similar in taste and texture to meat, but requires significantly fewer resources, and results in much fewer greenhouse emissions, than the former.
The current research was spurred by the team's worry at the rapid rate of deforestation associated with the rearing of cattle. These animals require wide, open fields, either for direct grazing or to allow for their feed to be grown. For the study, the team, with members from Germany and Sweden, examined the role microbial protein could play in limiting environmental damage from agriculture in the future. The computer model used to examine this simulated the global food and agriculture system, the team explains, as opposed to previous research which focused on single products, to give us a more reliable view of what the future likely holds.
The team's scenarios ran up to 2050 considering different proportions of substitution of beef consumption with mycoprotein, taking into account projected population growth, food demand, dietary patterns, and dynamics in land use and agriculture.
They report that substituting as little as 20%, one-fifth, of the meat produced from cattle with microbial protein by 2050 could halve deforestation by the same time. This assumes that the world's population will keep growing as projected and that current, rising trends in the demand for beef continue relatively unchanged.
"We found that if we substituted 20 percent of ruminant meat per capita by 2050, annual deforestation and CO2 emissions from land-use change would be halved compared to a business-as-usual scenario. The reduced numbers of cattle do not only reduce the pressure on land but also reduce methane emissions from the rumen of cattle and nitrous oxide emissions from fertilizing feed or manure management," says Humpenöder."So replacing minced red meat with microbial protein would be a great start to reduce the detrimental impacts of present-day beef production."
Mycoprotein products are already being widely-commercialized today as meat substitutes in countries like the UK, Switzerland, and the US.
The team's analysis shows that mycoprotein products take much less farmland to produce, pound for pound, than an equivalent quantity of beef. This is especially important in the context of cattle farms often replacing forests, causing a one-two ecological punch. On the one hand, it frees the carbon already stored in the trees back in the atmosphere; on the other, it reduces the environment's ability to scrub carbon out of the atmosphere in the future.
The bacteria that produce this protein are specifically cultured -- like they would be when producing beer or bread, -- are kept at a steady temperature, and fed with sugar. This process is well-established, first being developed in the 1980s, and approved in the US by the Food and Drug Administration for human consumption back in 2002.
The team further adds that if the energy required by these tanks is supplied from renewable sources, the potential reductions in environmental damage that mycoprotein can bring (through a slashing of greenhouse gas emissions) would be even greater.
The paper "Projected environmental benefits of replacing beef with microbial protein" has been published in the journal Nature.