Mary Allen • November 14 2019

How plant-based meat can help heal our soil while feeding more people than ever

There is no such thing as a sustainable food system without healthy soil. The alternative protein economy can help us get there.

More than 75 percent of the earth’s ice-free land is degraded, according to the European Commission’s World Atlas of Desertification. Agriculture is one of the leading causes of soil erosion. In the United States, our agricultural soils have lost as much as 60 percent of their original organic carbon content over the past century.

There is no such thing as a sustainable food system without healthy soil. The alternative protein economy can help us get there.

Making meat, eggs, and dairy differently

Modern industrial agriculture is a volume game—especially for commodity crops, like corn, soy, and wheat. This abundance of inexpensive grain and other feed crops has helped power record levels of animal product production at historically low costs.

The problem is that meat, eggs, and dairy are not, in fact, cheap. We’ve just been externalizing the costs, burdening our agricultural communities, our water, our climate, and our ecosystems. And nowhere is the price of modern agriculture more apparent than in the deficit we’re running in soil fertility.

Despite ongoing calls from climate scientists, environmentalists, and public health officials, FAO estimates global meat demand will increase by more than 50 percent by 2050. We’re already at our planetary limits. To avoid further intensifying feed production and expanding conventional animal agriculture—and the consequent impact on our climate, water, soil, and farming communities—we need to make meat differently.

Given the relentlessly increasing global demand for animal products, plant-based meat, eggs, and dairy offer an opportunity to rebuild soil health and use our finite natural resources judiciously. By sourcing these foods directly from plants, we can reconcile the growing demand with the imperative to reduce the amount of land used for food production. Further, we have an opportunity to support regenerative, soil-building agricultural practices.

Where alternative proteins and soil health intersect

As the market moves from conventional to plant-based, the ecological footprint of our food supply could shrink by an order of magnitude. In this transition, we have a chance not only to massively reduce land use but to free up labor, research funding, and resources to dedicate to cultivating a regenerative, soil-building farming economy.

Producing meat, eggs, and dairy directly from plants offers multiple vectors for reducing soil erosion and restoring soil fertility:

  • Spared land to reforest and rewild.
  • Market demand for diverse, beneficial crop systems.
  • Minimized dependence on chemical inputs.
  • Support for farmers transitioning to higher-margin crops with soil-friendly practices.

Discussing the potential synergy between alternative proteins and restoring soil health, Dr. Bronner’s regenerative projects manager, Ryan Zinn, told us: “My hope is that this trend toward plant-based protein could be a great opportunity to help stabilize rural communities. If we get it right, we have an opportunity to make healthier food, healthier soil, and a healthier rural economy.”

Create opportunity to reforest

Supporting even comparatively “highly-efficient” meat production takes a huge amount of pasture land and feed. This is because every step up the food chain comes with energy loss. For instance, according to the World Resources Institute, one calorie of edible chicken meat still takes nine calories of feed to produce.

This why 77 percent of the earth’s agricultural land is used for raising animals, even though this supplies just 18 percent of our food from agricultural land.

The opportunity cost of losing natural ecosystems for grazing and pasture land is immense. Yale’s Global Forest Atlas attributes 80 percent of current deforestation in the Amazon to clearing land to graze cattle or grow crops to feed animals raised for meat. Paul Hawken, author of Drawdown—a comprehensive accounting of the 50 most effective ways to reverse climate change—estimates that even if just half the world’s population reduced meat consumption, we could avoid 26.7 gigatons of emissions “from dietary change alone.”

He continues, “If avoided deforestation from land use change is included, an additional 39.3 gigatons of emissions could be avoided, making healthy, plant-rich diets one of the most impactful solutions at a total of 66 gigatons reduced.”

The soil story is about much more than greenhouse gas emissions. However, the climate change caused by deforestation and subsequent soil erosion is a canary in the coal mine for larger ecological destabilization. We can improve soil health on and off the farm, simply by making less of the earth “farm.”

If we could make the same foods with 47 to 99 percent less land, why wouldn’t we?

Support diverse, nutrient-building crop systems

On the arable land that we do need to use for food production, farming practices that increase soil fertility, water retention, and carbon sequestration are essential. Plant-based products offer a prime opportunity to stoke market demand for a diversity of crop systems and a wider range of nitrogen-fixing legumes.

Legumes represent a perfect intersection of optimization for plant-based products and for soil health. Peas, beans, and other pulses are very high in protein content, making them perfect candidates for developing new protein-rich plant-based meat, egg, or dairy products. Legumes are also nitrogen-fixing plants (meaning they convert nitrogen from the air into compounds that help create rich, healthy soils) and typically require minimal or no additional fertilizer themselves.

GFI senior scientist Lindsay Springer points out: “Adding fertilizer to crops isn’t cheap. Planting legumes not only decreases or eliminates the need for nitrogen for that harvest but reduces the need for nitrogen for the next rotation, which saves farmers money.” Additionally, by improving soil health, legumes boost water holding capacity. Together, these effects reduce the risk of nitrogen runoff into groundwater and streams, which can contribute to toxic algae blooms.

We rely on a scant 15 plants to produce about 70 percent of the calories from agricultural land that humans eat. The development of plant-based alternatives has been constrained by the availability and affordability of ingredients. For instance, soy is an integral part of the infrastructure supporting conventional animal agriculture: More than 70 percent of U.S. soy becomes animal feed. It’s no coincidence that many plant-based products rely on this well-developed supply chain.

Yet a major opportunity exists to develop markets for a much wider range of plants, especially legumes, that are optimal for plant-based alternatives and that facilitate regenerative practices. (See GFI’s Plant Protein Database for inspiration.) This idea is in motion with a company called Wonderlab’s Doozy Pots. The no-cow startup makes plant-based ice cream from oats and hemp—a rotational team!

Further, the potential of entirely new crops is untapped. Much more research and development is needed in this area. This is what initiatives like SmartProtein are designed to provide. The European Commission, GFI, ProVeg, and 31 organizations across Europe are partnering to explore which crops could be optimal for making animal-free meat, eggs, and dairy as well as for building soil health. (Check it out!)

Reduce dependence on chemical inputs

Herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides have helped intensify American agricultural output to unprecedented levels. However, a continuous stream of inputs eventually depletes soil’s inherent biological, chemical, and structural fertility by destabilizing the soil microbial ecosystem, disrupting the nutrient cycle, and decreasing water holding capacity. Additionally, these inputs sicken farmworkers and agricultural communities, poison native pollinators, and perpetuate an economy of monocropping. The result is near-term scale at the cost of long-term resilience.

In a very immediate sense, making meat, eggs, and dairy directly from plants enables us to dramatically reduce the quantity of inputs used overall because so much less agricultural production is needed. According to researchers from the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, in the United States, a whopping 67 percent of crop calories become animal feed. People directly eat just 27 percent. Other uses, such as biofuels, account for the remaining 6 percent. (This is why even a soy-based nugget uses far less soy than a conventional chicken nugget.)

In the longer term, by freeing up agricultural resources and creating more market opportunity for diverse, resilient crop systems, we have an opportunity to decrease the pest and disease pressure inherent in monocropping. Increased biodiversity and healthier soil make fields less susceptible to pests and fungi. They make the soil more resilient in the face of droughts and climate change, facilitate carbon sequestration, and ultimately boost productivity. Achieving food system sustainability is dependent on optimizing for long-term soil health—and by extension the health of our farming communities.

Create infrastructure to enable farmers to transition

Finally, new supply chains and new mid-level infrastructure are needed to scale plant-based meat production, which currently accounts for approximately 1 percent of the U.S. retail meat market. In building these, it is essential to account for and support the farmers upstream.

Zinn emphasized a need for reskilling farmers for new crop rotations and capacity-building for those who are willing to take the leap. He noted that it is especially important to ensure farmers are not left in the lurch if they invest in a certain crop to meet the demands of a burgeoning market and that market suddenly shifts. Establishing institutional support through public procurement programs, such as school lunch, and new infrastructure for post-harvest processing is essential.

The seeds of this farmer support are being planted. For instance, Sweden-based oat milk purveyor Oatly has launched a pilot program in the United States to encourage and support farmers in growing oats.

Dairy-free cheesemaker Miyoko’s Creamery just announced an initiative to help struggling dairy farmers transition to growing plants. As Miyoko’s commercializes potato- and legume-based products, this farmer partnership model will bolster their supply chain and support their research and development efforts. According to DairyReporter, founder and CEO Miyoko Schinner said: “We think it’s the responsibility of industry to provide solutions for hardworking people. So yes, there are farms that are doing it on their own. But we need them, and hopefully they need us.”

Organizations like Farm Transformers, the Farm Transformation Institute, and Plant-Based Protein Exchange (A2PX) are also helping farmers transition from animal agriculture to the plant-based economy.

A2PX founder Jennifer Betit Yen explains:

The market opportunity here cannot be understated. As one example, the average annual cost per acre for pea farming in North Dakota in 2015 was $235.40. The expected income after debt service per acre was $312.00, creating a profit of $76.13 per acre. In contrast, for smaller herd dairy farming (an average of 77 cows per farm), the average profit per acre is $62.10. This example estimates a $14.03 per acre increase in profitability upon transition to pea farming.

A new market for higher-margin alternative proteins could create new opportunities in the farming economy in the short term—and pay dividends in the long run, if soil-building crop systems and nitrogen-fixing legumes are prioritized on our plates and in our fields.

Scaling back to level up

There’s a lot to do. We need social and political will to reforest the land that we’ve lost to grazing cattle and growing feed crops. We need infrastructure to make it economically viable for farmers to transition from growing commodity crops or raising animals to diversifying into higher-margin crops for plant-based meat. We need governments and universities to support public research for developing this market sector.

But in the face of rising meat consumption per capita—compounded by a growing population—developing production methods that take pressure off the land and our agricultural economy is absolutely critical. We need to take our foot off the accelerator in order to change gears.

The future is ours to create. If we’re going to transition the food system to one that is healthy, sustainable, and just, then we need a holistic vision of that food system—from farm to table. We envision good soil stewardship on the farm and plant-based meat on the table.

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