The gateway drug for carnivores

Plant-based meat alternatives cause less damage to the environment and climate. Substitute products can also help convert people who are sceptical of vegetarian food. By Lena Domröse and Ulrike Knörzer

The industry has discovered meatless food products. There are now frozen pizzas with vegan salami, for example, and the large fast-food chains all offer burgers with meatless alternatives. In Vienna, one branch of a well-known burger chain sells only plant-based meat substitutes. The alternatives have at least as much to offer in terms of taste, appearance and nutritional value as the meat-based classics. When it comes to the effects on the environment, they are vastly superior.

For these reasons, we should not underestimate the effect of our decision to buy a burger – especially when it opens the door for us and our meat-loving friends to experiment with vegan or vegetarian food. After all, a beef burger is responsible for ten to 30 times more CO2 than a soy patty. Water consumption is eight times higher for beef, and the land requirement is up to 60 times higher, depending on the type of agriculture and animal feed. Plant-based meat substitutes require much less land to grow the same amount of nutrients.

This means it is always better to eat plants instead of meat. Particularly as we indirectly consume plants with the meat anyway, since cattle are herbivores. Nowadays, livestock are often fed soy. In some cases, one litre of cow’s milk uses more soya than one litre of soy milk.

Besides that: the soy in meat substitutes usually comes from Europe or Canada. Soy from Brazil is used almost exclusively as animal feed. Because it’s mostly genetically modified, and that has to be clearly labelled on meat substitutes. This makes these products practically unsaleable in Germany. The vast majority of Germans would not buy food marked as genetically modified. However, we consume a lot of meat from animals that – in conventional agriculture – have been fed with genetically modified soy. Most consumers are unaware of this, however. Because there are no relevant labelling requirements.

Unhealthy for people and the planet

Naturally, the fast-food chains also have their bottom line in mind when it comes to these new products. The number of vegans and vegetarians as well as flexitarians who eat meat only occasionally is increasing steadily. There are now 15 times as many vegetarians in Germany as there were in 1983. At that time, it was 0.6 percent of the population; today that number is eight to nine percent, according to Growth from Knowledge (GfK), a consumer research organisation. The trend is growing, and the big chains don’t want to miss out.

This is a good thing, as vegetarian food is reaching people who might otherwise remain sceptical. Hardened carnivores now have a direct taste comparison and may come to like the plant-based alternatives. This makes many more people open to a meatless diet in general. The veggie burgers are, in this way, a gateway drug.

There is no question that we must reduce our meat consumption: on average, Germans eat 60 kilograms of meat per year. This is unhealthy for the body and the planet. Doctors recommend half as much: according to the German Nutritional Society (DGE), a maximum of 30 kilos a year is healthy. If we want to live in harmony with the climate and nature, it should be half that again, i.e. 15 kilos per capita and year. 

In this way, we consume four times more meat than the earth can handle and twice as much as is good for our health. From a global perspective, meat consumption continues to rise.

So, the next time we reach for a quick meal, let’s choose the alternatives. And enjoy!

This article first appeared in the German online magazine "klimareporter°" on 1 October 2022.

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