Replacing one in five steaks with mycoproteins can halve deforestation by 2050

The health of our planet would benefit if even a fifth of global beef demand by 2050 were replaced by mycoprotein alternatives, according to a new estimate.

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Among all other types of food, meat requires more food, water and land resources to produce and generates a lot of greenhouse gas emissions. Beef, in particular, is one of the worst offenders. The process of getting food from the fields to our bellies accounts for a third of global greenhouse gas emissions, with meat from ruminants, such as beef, being the largest share.

Mycoprotein, a protein-rich meat alternative produced by fungi in fermentation tanks, can help reduce the negative environmental impact of beef consumption. Replacing just 20% of our beef consumption with this alternative by 2050 could halve projected deforestation by that date, according to a new study.

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“Substituting ruminant meat with microbial protein in the future could significantly reduce the greenhouse gas footprint of the food system,” says Florian Humpenöder, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) researcher and author principal of the study. “The good news is that people don’t have to worry about being able to eat only green vegetables in the future. They can continue to eat burgers and such, it’s just that these burger patties will be produced from a different way.

Mycoprotein is a nutritious, protein-rich biomass that is produced by naturally occurring microbes, most commonly fungi, inside fermentation tanks from water and sugars. Its taste and texture are very similar to meat, but require far fewer resources and result in far fewer greenhouse gas emissions than the former.

The current research was spurred by the team’s concern over the rapid rate of deforestation associated with cattle ranching. These animals need large open fields, either for direct grazing or to grow their food. For the study, the team, made up of members from Germany and Sweden, looked at the role that microbial proteins could play in limiting the environmental damage caused by agriculture in the future. The computer model used to examine this simulated the global food and agricultural system, the team says, unlike previous research that focused on single products, to give us a more reliable view of what the future is likely to hold.

The team’s scenarios ran to 2050 considering different proportions of substitution of beef consumption by mycoproteins, taking into account projected population growth, food demand, dietary habits and food dynamics. land use and agriculture.

They report that replacing as little as 20%, or one-fifth, of the meat produced from cattle with microbial protein by 2050 could halve deforestation in the same time. This assumes that the world’s population will continue to grow as projected and that current trends of increasing beef demand remain relatively unchanged.

“We found that if we replaced 20% of ruminant meat per capita by 2050, annual deforestation and CO2 emissions from land use change would be halved compared to a business as usual scenario. . Reducing the number of cattle not only reduces pressure on the land, but also reduces methane emissions from cattle rumen and nitrous oxide emissions from feed fertilization or manure management,” says Humpenöder . “Thus, replacing ground red meat with microbial protein would be a good start to reduce the adverse effects of current beef production. »

Mycoprotein products are already widely marketed today as meat substitutes in countries such as the UK, Switzerland and the US.

The team’s analysis shows that mycoprotein products require significantly less farmland to produce, pound for pound, than an equivalent amount of beef. This is particularly important in the context where cattle ranches often replace forests, causing an ecological double blow. On the one hand, it releases the carbon already stored in the trees into the atmosphere; on the other hand, it reduces the ability of the environment to remove carbon from the atmosphere in the future.

The bacteria that produce this protein are specifically cultured – as they would be when producing beer or bread – are kept at a constant temperature and fed with sugar. This process is well established, first developed in the 1980s and approved in the United States by the Food and Drug Administration for human consumption in 2002.

The team further adds that if the energy required by these reservoirs is provided from renewable sources, the potential reductions in environmental damage that mycoprotein can provide (through reduced greenhouse gas emissions) would be even greater. important.

The article “Projected Environmental Benefits of Replacement Beef with Microbian Protein” was published in the journal Nature.

Dino S. Williams