When it comes to the environment, more and more people are aware of their current dietary habits. Some are even willing to switch to a more sustainable meal. One of the first steps is to replace meat with meat substitutes. But which meat substitute has the least impact on the environment? And how do they compare to actual meat?
This article conducts a life cycle assessment (LCA) to assess the environmental impact of different meat substitutes. In this case study, we compare the environmental impact of five meat substitutes, namely Vivera's ‘kruim gehakt’, Vegetarische Slagers’ vegan chicken, Garden Gourmet's vegetarian burger, SoFine's kale burger, and Prolaterre's seaweed burger. In addition, the meat substitutes are compared to meat products, such as chicken and beef.
The environmental impact of five meat substitutes
To compare the environmental impact, we compared the full product life cycle of 1 kg of meat substitute. This analysis includes the following processes: harvesting the ingredients, processing the ingredients into the meat substitutes, packaging, transportation to the distribution center and transport to the supermarket, and finally the use phase, or preparation of the meat substitutes.
This study calculates the impact categories of the EF Impact Assessment Method. This method is the result of the Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) Initiative and provides a standard for impact assessment, making it easier and more meaningful to compare products.
The LCA shows that the climate change impact is highest for the product ‘kruim gehakt’, with 18.1 kg CO2 eq., respectively, vegetarian burger (15.5 kg CO2 eq), ‘kipstuckjes’ (15 kg CO2 eq), seaweed burger (14.5 kg CO2 eq), and with the smallest impact the kale burger, with 9.02 kg CO2 eq. The high impact of ‘kruim gehakt’ on climate change is due to the processing of soy protein isolate. That process within the production of ‘kruim gehakt’ contributes 75.7% of the climate change impact.
The seaweed burger has the highest impact on almost all other impact categories compared to the other products, except climate change. The seaweed burger has a very high impact on the impact category of water use compared to the other meat substitutes. This difference can be explained by the rice used in the seaweed burger. The production of rice requires a lot of water use. The seaweed burger also scores high on the impact category eutrophication compared to the other meat substitutes. This is largely due to the ingredient tofu. The seaweed burger consists of 27% tofu. The production of tofu produces wastewater with a high protein content and thus a high concentration of nitrogen and phosphate, which contribute to eutrophication. The ingredient tofu is also used in the kale burger, it therefore scores higher on eutrophication. However, this is less compared to the seaweed burger, but the kale burger consists of only 19% tofu. Furthermore, the ingredient seaweed in the seaweed burger also contributes to the impact on eutrophication.
A contribution analysis was performed, to show which component has the greatest impact on the following impact categories; climate change, and water use. For all five meat substitutes, the production of the ingredients contribute the most to climate change impact. The impact of the use phase could be reduced by switching to the induction stove instead of a gas stove.
The impact of the different stages differs by product when considering water use. For the meat substitutes ‘kipstuckjes’ and ‘kruimgehakt’, the packaging stage has the largest relative impact on water use. This impact is largely caused by the production of polyethylene. Making the packaging more sustainable could lead to a smaller impact on water use.
For the remaining three meat substitutes, the impact of harvesting the ingredients remains the largest for water use. The contribution from the production of the ingredients of the kale and seaweed burgers is a lot larger than that of the other meat substitutes. Both products contain tofu, which explains the larger impact on water use. The seaweed burger ingredients have the largest relative impact of all. Besides tofu, this burger also contains rice and seaweed, and their production requires a lot of water. Rice production accounts for 65.2% of the impact on water use.
The production of ingredients is generally a major contributor to environmental impact. Hence, the impact of different ingredients on land use is examined here. To better understand which ingredient contributes most to the environmental impact on land use, some subcategories have been created (Fig. 4).
In the land use category, the kale burger is the least intensive and the seaweed burger is the most intensive. The impact of the seaweed burger is mainly caused by the tofu, soy products and sunflower oil. In the case of the ‘kipstuckjes’, ‘kruimgehakt’ and vegetarian burger, the production of the soy product is the largest contributor to the impact. Reducing soy products in meat substitutes could lead to a smaller land use impact.
Furthermore, the seaweed burger shows a negative impact caused by vegetables, or even more specifically spinach. This can be explained by the fact that sometimes the transformation of land - to for example agricultural ground - could lead to beneficial soil quality or increased uptake of carbon.
Overall, the seaweed burger has the highest impact on the analysed impact categories except for climate change compared to the other four meat substitutes. Hence, one of the other meat substitutes is a more sustainable choice. Furthermore, the soy products in the meat substitutes contribute a lot to the impact. Therefore, meat substitutes without soy products are more likely to be more sustainable because the impact on several impact categories is smaller, such as the kale burger.
Comparison of meat substitutes with actual meat products
When comparing the meat substitutes to actual meat products, the meat products score a lot higher. Beef has the highest environmental impact on every category, except for water use. Chicken scores second highest on every impact category and highest for water use.
This analysis shows that meat products have a greater environmental impact on the shown impact categories compared to the meat substitutes. Therefore, the consumption of meat substitutes instead of meat products can have a positive influence on the environment.