Veggie burgers aren’t new, but it’s only relatively recently that marketing of plant-based alternatives (PBAs) has shifted from targeting vegetarian consumers to targeting environmentally conscious meat eaters.
Firstly, claims are often vague. If a product is compared to “meat” what meat is being referred to? While some manufacturers have directly compared to beef (ie Impossible Burger) we found no studies that compared to Australian chicken. There is a wide range of differences in the environmental impacts of the different meat types. In fact, chicken meat has a lower greenhouse gas impact than most other meats (see references below), so any comparison needs to take this into account before making a claim. To be meaningful, comparisons must compare like with like; if they’re not, they’re potentially misleading.
Secondly, the comparisons are done in overseas markets, where impacts from chicken are typically higher than for Australian chicken, and where the impacts from PBAs are potentially underestimated if the emissions generated while transporting these products to Australia from the country of manufacture hasn’t been taken into account (see references below). While transport isn’t necessarily a large contribution, it all adds up. Alternatively, if PBAs are produced in Australia, then the specifics of Australian manufacturing and greenhouse gas from Australian energy sources needs to be taken into account. These factors need to be considered to make a fair comparison for products on the Australian retail shelf.
Lastly, for a typical portion size, the difference between chicken and a PBA is modest. Using information from the scientific literature, impacts from a pea-based product compared to Australian chicken meat were less than the emissions from driving a car about 1km. In the full gamut of available measures to reduce a person’s carbon footprint, there are many other factors far more significant than this issue. This year’s Australia Talks research found that 79% of people believe it’s becoming more difficult to know which sources of information to trust. Perhaps it’s time to challenge misinformation which could mislead consumers, unfairly disadvantages Australian farmers and which are a distraction to making real change in sustainability.
Words: Dr Stephen Wiedemann