Plant-based ‘beef’ will help to reduce CO2 but could cost 440,000 jobs in UK

Closeup of two raw uncooked red vegan meat burger patties in plastic packaging
There are strong environmental arguments for switching to synthetic beef substitutes (Getty)

Plant-based alternatives to beef are much hyped as a potential way to reduce global carbon dioxide emissions - but a new study has shown the devastating impact on jobs.

Embracing meat protein alternatives could reduce the carbon footprint of agriculture by 2.5% to 13.5%, but the shift would disrupt jobs in the beef production sector.

In Britain, 440,000 people work in the beef supply chain, which generates £2.8 billion for the British economy, according to statistics from the National Farmers Union (NFU)

Lead author Daniel Mason-D'Croz, a senior research associate at Cornell University said, "A reduced carbon footprint and increased food system resource-use efficiency are reasons alternative proteins could be in a portfolio of technologies and policies to promote more-sustainable food systems.”

"Still, plant-based alternatives to beef are not silver bullets, with their impact on other environmental dimensions of the food system - such as total water use - ambiguous."

"In the aggregate, food system changes would have a small, but potentially positive impact on national gross domestic product.”

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"But these changes would not be felt equally across the economy, with substantial disruptions observed across the food system, particularly in the beef-value chain, which could contract substantially by as much as 45%.”

The researchers say that embracing meat alternatives could reduce the number of cows in the US by two to 12 million.

The researchers modelled several scenarios where plant-based beef alternatives replaced 10%, 30% or 60% of current U.S. beef demand.

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Senior author Mario Herrero, professor of sustainable food systems and global change said, "There are good reasons for regulators and policymakers to encourage these up-and-coming technologies.

“Politicians must remain aware of unintended negative consequences and commit to mitigating changes that are ethically concerning, including harms to disadvantaged workers and hard-hit local communities and small producers."

A report last year suggested that Britain should embrace ‘synthetic meat’ in order to hit its climate targets.

The Social Market Foundation report urged policymakers to invest in the ‘alternative protein’ sector (where meat is produced using technologies such as ‘growing’ muscle fibre from tissue samples).

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Other alternative proteins in the report include those derived from plants or from fermentation processes.

The report points out that consumers in the UK only eat 6% less meat per capita than in 1974 - despite the growing popularity of vegetable products and diets such as veganism.

The researchers write, “If the UK is to reach its Net Zero commitments, meat consumption will need to fall more rapidly over the coming decades.

“However, there has been a conspicuous lack of policy designed to achieve this.

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