I would never argue that a person can’t eat meat sustainably, though I’ll certainly argue that most people don’t. Which makes sense, because for a lot of folks, organically farmed meat and humanely raised meat are cost prohibitive. So sometimes the easiest way not to be a part of the abuses and pollution that are the hallmarks of the modern factory farm is to eat less meat or even no meat at all.
The only problem is that meat is totally tasty, and it’s familiar, too. Which means that a lot of us vegetarians and sometimes vegetarians gravitate toward faux meats or fake meats or meat analogs or veggie meats. But is switching to meat analogs better from a green standpoint?
Obviously the greenest way to be a vegetarian or ‘flexitarian’ is to eat fewer processed foods and more whole foods, not to replace meat with meat analogs. According to a 2008 study:
In conventional production, a kilogram of raw [soy] beans generates about 150 grams to 300 grams of carbon-dioxide equivalent, as opposed to 2,500 grams for the equivalent quantity of edible chicken meat.
But since faux meat can also be totally tasty, people are going to eat it. And let’s not forget tofu, which some people use in place of meat and even eggs or cheese in their cooking. Speaking of, back in 2009, Slate’s Green Lantern looked into how green tofu et al. is compared to various meats. While tofu naturally beat out factory farmed beef by a mile, it performed only slightly better than chicken and fish.
Last year, the Dutch government commissioned a study of the environmental effects of vegetarian “meat substitutes,” including veggie burgers, Quorn and tofu. According to the analysis, a kilogram of tofu sold in the Netherlands produces about two kilograms of carbon-dioxide equivalent from the farm to the supermarket. That’s only a little less than Dutch chicken, at 3 kilograms of CO2-equivalent per kilogram of meat. Mackerel, herring, pollock and mussels — some of which the Lantern has already championed as low-carbon options for seafood lovers — scored about the same or better than tofu. That’s a much smaller difference than the Lantern would have expected.
Full disclosure: I love Grillers Prime veggie burgers. I loved them before I became a vegetarian. Meat analogs have always been on my menu. But green they are not. My veggie burgers come wrapped in plastic in packages of two inside a cardboard box. My veggie meatballs are sealed inside a non-recyclable plastic package wrapped in a cardboard sleeve. Some of my favorite mock meats come individually wrapped inside even more packaging.
Plus various sometimes-not-so-nice chemicals are used in the processing of all these delightful treats, they are chock-full of sodium and additives, and they’re often manufactured in Asia or some other faraway locale. Consequently, I don’t kid myself about how Earth-friendly they are and, because of that, they ARE treats, not food for every meal. *sigh*
BUT I should add that the fake meats you make at home from scratch are an entirely different… ahem, animal. We’ll occasionally make homemade seitan (from the recipe in this book and there are tons of great burger recipes out there. Do you have a favorite veggie burger recipe? How heavily do meat analogs feature in your diet?