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Plant-Based Meat Alternatives: Martin Heller

Martin Heller explains how small changes in your dietary decisions can have a large impact on your food-related environmental impact.
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Welcome back to this teach out on food sustainability. I’m here with Dr. Martin Heller, who’s a researcher in the center for sustainable systems in a school for environmental sustainability. In today’s conversation we’re going to explore, 100 percent plant-based meat alternatives and how they compare to conventional may be beef or chicken or other forms of meat. So welcome to the teach, Martin. Thanks Benjamin. Many of us I think have heard that reducing the amount of meat particularly red meat, in our diet can have positive impacts on the environment. Can you tell us a little bit more about your research and what you think about that? Sure.
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Well, we’ve spent a lot of time looking at through this lens of life-cycle assessment, at the environmental impact of food production of different foods. One thing that really stands out, is just the variability in environmental impact especially greenhouse gas emissions between types of foods. Generally that divides out between plant-based foods and animal-based foods. But we also see pretty big differences across different animal-based foods as well. Sure. So, you recently coauthored study which compared a 100 percent plant-based burger known as the beyond burger, with a conventional beef hamburger. Can you tell us a little bit more about that specific study, and what you found, what you learned? Yeah.
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That was a pretty unique opportunity to work directly with Beyond Meat, with the producer of the beyond burger, and get a better sense of what’s going on in that production system. We know that there are big differences between plant-based foods, plant-based commodity products like soy beans, or peas, and meat products. But, we haven’t seen a lot of good examples of studies looking at some of these plant-based meat alternatives that are showing up in the market.
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So this was a good opportunity to really dig in on one of those, looking at both the ingredients that go into producing that, but also their processing methods to make a patty from plant-based materials, that has the textured mouthfeel and cook and everything else that’s very similar to beef. But we also looked at the packaging choices they’re using, and included all of that in our comparison, and found some pretty striking differences between the the beyond Berger and beef, on the order of 90 percent less greenhouse gas emissions for the beyond burger than typical meat production in the US. We also looked at water use, and land use, and energy consumption, and they follow similar patterns. That’s really interesting.
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So, can you tell us a little bit more about the process that goes into a life-cycle assessment like that? Yeah. So, I mean, in general, life-cycle assessment is an accounting method, just like we would do economic accounting. There’s certain rules and ways you need to approach that in order to make sure you’re putting things in the right buckets, in the right box. We tend to look at a product, like producing this beyond burger, and think of the processes that go along with that. Look not just at the actual manufacturing of that product, but looking upstream, and thinking about the resources that are required to produce that.
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So, both the material resources, in this case producing the peas that are the protein source for that particular product. Producing the coconut oil and the canola oil, where does that come from, including transportation to get it from where it’s produced to where it’s being manufactured into this burger. Then looking at the the packaging materials, and all of that side as well. So, life-cycle assessment is just a way of gathering all that information in a systematic way, and putting those resource inputs and the emissions that are associated with them.
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So, greenhouse gas emissions, or in some LCAs we may be looking at other air emissions or water, soil emissions that are important, and aggregating those across this whole life cycle of a product. Then associating them with the respect environmental impacts, such as greenhouse gas emissions, or could be something like eutrophication or acidification or other environmental impacts. Sure. Thank you for that. It’s really amazing. That’s super-helpful to think through what actually goes into those calculations. They can be pretty extensive, and data intensive for sure, and often that means time and cost. So, when you see a life-cycle assessment that’s done right, there’s a lot of resources that have gone into putting that together. Sure.
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So, thinking about some of the learners that are watching here today and I know we talked about the beyond burger, but we also know there are other meat alternatives on the market. So, there’s soy-based meat alternatives like tempeh and tofu. There is vital wheat gluten which is in the form of seitan. Do you know how some of these other plant-based meat alternatives stack up to a conventional beef hamburger for example? Sure. Again, the actual crops that provide those products; soybean, wheat in the case of wheat gluten, have relatively low emissions compared to beef.
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So, just to put that in perspective a little bit per kilogram of edible beef, greenhouse gas emissions are on the order of 30 kilograms of CO-2 equivalents per kilogram of beef. Most of the other plant commodities are going to be more in the like, half to one kilogram of CO-2 equivalence. My understanding, most of those sort of traditional processing tofu and tempeh, these are all really old processes. Even seitan to make wheat gluten. They’re pretty simple from a processing standpoint, ways of modifying those crops into something that we like to eat. It doesn’t add a whole lot. Again, we’re probably in there like two, three, four kilograms of CO-2 per kilogram of those products. So, yeah.
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Big differences with beef for sure. Yeah. That’s really interesting. Thinking about a lot of folks coming into this teach out, are considering different ways that they can reduce their environmental impact. These are the food that they eat. So, what is one kind of action that you’d recommend people take if they want to make that next step. Yeah I mean, the easy comparison is with alternatives. I think that for some people that’s a little bit scary. Because it’s talking about really big changes in how you eat, right? I think it’s important to step back from that and recognize that this conversation doesn’t have to be about going vegetarian or vegan. You can make significant impacts, just by reducing portion size.
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When chefs and food service folks talk about some of these issues, and how they can help move this transition, it’s often thinking about using animal-based proteins, more as a caneman, as a flavor enhancer. If we look to a lot of ethnic dishes that maybe just have very small amounts of animal-based proteins, and then compared to what we’re used to thinking of a steak or a burger, there where the meat is really center of a plate. So, sometimes it can be just those cultural shift and how we think about those foods. So, yeah. Shifting the types of foods that we eat can make big differences.
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But even thinking about changing how we prepare those being exploratory and open to new alternatives, new cuisines, perhaps from other cultures, that have a different cultural history of how to use those animal-based foods than we do in the US, I think has huge potential to lead us toward a path of reducing our overall meat consumption. Great. So it sounds like, some marginal changes, things that are bite-sized, that are small enough for people to make those shifts. This is something you’d recommend, and thinking about expanding our pallets. So going out and experimenting with cuisines we might not be super familiar with. Yeah. I mean there’s lots of great ways of making plant-based foods tasty.
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It’s probably more helpful to think about this less from the perspective of what to avoid. I mean, that’s a hard way to approach a problem, and it’s like I have to avoid meat. That’s no fun, right? You don’t like to hear about what you can’t do. But what you can do is learn about a whole new way of eating, and a whole new way of cooking, and find ways to make vegetables, to make plant-based foods tasty, and exciting, colorful. The bone is with all of that is, we know that that health impacts of those plant-based diets are also very positive. So, doing yourself a double favor, helping the health of the planet as well as your own personal health. Wonderful.
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So, well we’ll leave it at that. It’s not about what you give up, but it’s about what you gain. Absolutely. All right. Well thank you so much Martin for joining us today. Thank you for joining us in this segment. We’ll, look forward to continue the conversation and discussion forums.

In this video, Martin Heller speaks with Benjamin about how small changes in your dietary decisions can have a large impact on your food-related environmental impact (GHG emissions, land use, water use, etc). Specifically, we will talk about the environmental footprint of plant-based meat alternatives when compared to eating conventionally grown beef.

Martin Heller is a Research Specialist in the Center for Sustainable Systems in the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan. Martin’s bio here.

Discussion. How did the video impact the way that you consider your food purchasing decisions? Did they change or remain the same and why?

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