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As more people eschew meat for a plant-based diet, the market for meat alternatives has exploded, with an ever-expanding number of offerings that proclaim to taste like meat and even “bleed” like meat. Many people are choosing to go veggie for environmental reasons, and if you are eating a healthy vegetarian or vegan diet built on a foundation of organic vegetables and other organic, non-animal foods, kudos! You are supporting your own health and the health of the environment. But if you think replacing a grass-fed beef burger with a “burger” made with genetically-modified (GM) ingredients is an environmentally friendly choice, think again.
One of the newest meat replacements that is showing up in thousands of restaurants, fast-food chains, and grocery stores around the country claims to be “good for people, and the planet.” Problem is, it relies on GM ingredients to make its burger and other meat replacements like meatballs and ground “beef.” These products are made with GM soy and GM yeast-produced soy leghemoglobin, or “heme;” it is this GM soy leghemoglobin that gives these meat replacements their meaty flavor and makes them bleed (Soylent Green, anyone?). While the FDA finally gave its “generally recognized as safe (GRAS)” approval to the GM soy leghemoglobin as a food color additive, the agency had originally denied it GRAS status, citing concerns that GM soy leghemoglobin may cause allergies and other unknown adverse side effects. The company that makes these meat replacements argues that GM soy is a sustainable and environmentally friendly choice, but this is simply not true. Huge swaths of farmland are dedicated to growing monocultures of GM soy and this type of pesticide and fertilizer dependent agriculture is damaging to the soil, water, air, insect populations, and biodiversity. It also contributes to climate change by degrading soil to the point where it can no longer capture and hold carbon (healthy soil is one of the largest carbon stores on the planet).1
Ninety-three percent of the soybeans grown in the U.S. are genetically modified to be herbicide resistant, that is, they can be sprayed with glyphosate-based herbicides like Roundup without dying. This has contributed to the development of herbicide resistant weeds, leading farmers to use increasing amounts of herbicides; it has also led to the development of a new generation of GM crops tolerant to the toxic herbicides dicamba and 2,4- D.2 Glyphosate destroys beneficial soil bacteria, increases plants’ susceptibility to diseases, harms honeybees, and is harmful to human health as well.3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Contrary to marketing claims, this type of agriculture is neither sustainable nor environmentally friendly. These meat-replacement products that rely on industrial GM farming are not the solution.
On its website, the company that makes these plant-based meat replacements says it “was founded to address climate change by eliminating the need for animal agriculture…” But animal agriculture is intricately tied to soil health, and soil health is intricately tied to the planet’s health. We know that the current model of industrial animal agriculture is not the answer; but it’s not the cow, it’s the “how.” Regenerative, well-managed grazing practices build healthy soil that is capable of capturing large amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere—a real solution to mitigating, and even reversing, climate change.
Research has shown that well-managed grazing practices regenerate ecosystem function, productivity, soil carbon and fertility, and water holding capacity.10 And a recent third-party analysis conducted at White Oak Pastures, a 3,000 acre holistically managed cattle ranch in Georgia, found that the operation has a lower carbon footprint than an average conventional soybean farm. It also found that the ranch completely off set its emissions related to beef production by capturing and holding carbon in the soil, creating a carbon sink (i.e., a reservoir that stores carbon). Other potential environmental benefits from well-managed grazing include reduced water use, reduced runoff from fertilizers, reduced pesticide use, and an increase in natural habitats.11 Animals belong on the land, but in a way that honors the symbiotic relationship between animals, plants, and soil. Regenerative, holistically managed grazing systems do just that. It is a form of agriculture that is a truly sustainable system for a healthy planet.
If you choose to adopt a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, consider the environmental impact of certain meat alternatives before you buy, and build your diet around an abundance of organic vegetables and other real foods. And if you choose to eat meat, avoid meat produced by the industrial CAFO model and support those regenerative ranchers and farmers who are managing their herds in a way that promotes environmental stewardship. Do it for a healthy, livable planet.