Making veggie burgers requires more soy than beef
A recent study reveals the unthinkable: plant-based, synthetic and artificial meat alternatives require two to six times the amount of soy used to produce beef.
Meat production and consumption today face major challenges in reducing the environmental impact of this food while ensuring food safety, health and animal welfare. And so, some are trying to get into the meat replacement business, both plant-based and derived from cell cultures in the laboratory. However, a growing body of research shows that the production of these artefacts is no more efficient than conventional meat, with even higher resource consumption and greenhouse gas emissions per unit of product. Further confirmation comes from another study, which shows that these ‘alternatives’ require much more soy than farmed meat, with intensive land use and a very worrying environmental impact, if they are ever to replace traditional meat.
Soy is a protein-rich crop that is commonly used as animal feed, but it is also the main ingredient in plant-based fake meat products. What is less well known is that it is also used to feed the cells of lab-grown artificial meat. Given the environmental problems associated with soybean production, such as deforestation, scientists have decided to assess, as never before, how many soybeans are needed to produce one unit of beef and each of its ‘substitutes’.
The data showed that, contrary to popular belief, soy is not widely used in livestock rations for many reasons related to its negative impact on meat quality. Grass-fed or grazing cattle do not eat soybeans, and those fed on grass and cereals eat very little, mainly hides in the form of pellets. Soy represents only 4% of their ration, compared with 57% for maise: the large quantity of soy has now been replaced by Dried Distillers Grains with Solubles (DDGS), a concentrated source of protein, fibre, fats and essential nutrients for the growth, development and health of animals, able to meet all their nutritional needs.
Plant-based meat imitation, also known as ‘vegan meat’, is made mainly from soy, peas, or wheat and is highly processed and fortified to taste similar to real meat. However, the nutritional content and metabolic effects in the body of these hyper-processed foods are very different and unhealthy and cannot replace meat from farm animals.
The study then analysed the amount of soy needed to produce these artefacts and found that, on average, 45.55 grams of soy are needed to provide 16 grams of protein in a veggie burger, with a less efficient conversion of traditional meat.
The same applies to lab-grown artificial meat, also known as synthetic meat: to grow, animal cells need a culture medium rich in amino acids and nutrients to multiply in bioreactors. Soy is one of the most widely used vegetable protein sources in the form of soy protein hydrolysate in the culture medium. Scientists have calculated that even lab-grown meat requires much more soy to produce than beef, showing that one unit of conventional beef, plant-based imitation meat and artificial meat requires 0.24, 0.54 and 1.44 units of soy, respectively. In practice, if traditional meat were completely replaced by its alternatives, which require two to six times as much soy as beef, the demand for soy would increase disproportionately, with devastating consequences for the environment.
We also recall that cattle can exploit marginal soils and inedible by-products with a very efficient conversion rate, converting indigestible cellulose into food of high nutritional value for humans. When considering feed conversion ratios, a distinction should be made between edible and inedible forms for humans. Still, this distinction is often not made, resulting in highly distorted statistics.
Given the enormous amount of soy needed to produce alternative proteins, it is not surprising that the largest soy producers and processors are also the main investors in the sectors of ultra-processed vegetable meat substitutes and artificial meat grown in test tubes. Those who believe that the production of these artefacts will solve all environmental and ethical problems need to face reality: alternative proteins will not reduce the rate of deforestation, nor are they more sustainable than livestock farming; they can cause pollution and the collapse of entire ecosystems, increased use of herbicides and fertilisers, and the death of many animals in the habitats affected by their production.
Rather than labelling food as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, it matters ‘how’ it is produced. Today, there are better practices and more sustainable ways of raising livestock than in the past, based on agroecological principles, carbon farming and integrated regenerative systems that maintain soil health, biodiversity and the environment.