Good news for cows, but not so much for the soil (Photo by Amal KS/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

February 6, 2020   6 mins

Go meatless to save the earth! After all, the meat industry contributes 14.5% of the planet’s entire carbon emissions, gobbles up 26% of the globe’s ice-free surface for grazing and a further 33% for feed production, pollutes water, impacts biodiversity, and of course — in its industrialised form — is shockingly cruel to animals.

With all these arguments, the pendulum appears to be swinging inexorably toward plant-based diets. A 2018 survey suggested that two-thirds of millennials and Gen Z believe veganism will continue to grow, and a fifth of the latter believe the planet could go meatless by 2030. The food industry is rushing to respond: we have barely escaped Veganuary, while a search for “vegan ready meal” returns 64 results at Sainsbury’s online grocery page (and 229 at Ocado), and all the fast-food outlets are scrambling to offer a vegan alternative. Even Greggs is on board.

The biggest boost to the new veganism is science. In the bad old days the main alternative to meat was something called “textured soya protein”, which was available in sacks from odd-smelling health food shops and tasted like something that belonged in the construction industry, rather than a bolognaise. But times have changed, and today food tech is all over the vegan question.

The notorious Greggs sausage roll is made using “fungal mycoprotein”, or — to the non-scientist — mould grown in vats of sugar and ammonia. Quorn, the British company that produces mycoprotein for Greggs, has seen steady growth since its foundation in the 1980s and in 2015 sold to a Filipino food conglomerate for £550 million.

Other players are rushing to innovate. In 2019, a new EU-supported “biorefinery” was launched, combining the expertise of five companies in the “nutraceuticals” sector, seeking to produce mycoprotein using a zero-waste process from renewable plant-based feedstocks. In Israel, burger restaurant chain Burgus Burger Bar has partnered with food tech company SavourEat Ltd to develop a machine that can “print” a plant-based patty from a cartridge filled with flavoured proteins, cellulose and fat, cooking it on the spot using infrared.

Meanwhile, in the USA, the alt-meat company Impossible Foods caused a stir with their Impossible Burger, a plant-based patty that has been reviewed as almost indistinguishable from a regular beef burger. Its protein is based on soy and potatoes, flavoured with dextrose and yeast, and, when cooked, even appears to bleed. As of late 2019 the company was in talks with venture capitalists about a new round of funding that could more than double its $2bn valuation and set the stage for an IPO. Another US alt-meat upstart, Beyond Meat Inc, astonished market commentators when its $1.5 billion 2019 IPO valuation jumped within months of floating to more than $13 billion.

In its IPO documents, Beyond Meat spelled out the ambition of the alt-meat insurgents. Unlike the manufacturers of textured soya protein (so 20th century!), these companies are targeting not the existing community of vegetarians and vegans but the trillion-dollar market opportunity represented by carnivores.

Alt-meat is increasingly difficult to distinguish from the cow-based variety, and carnivores are increasingly making the switch. If we can do so without compromising on flavour, the argument goes, why not skip the miserable bullocks in feedlots and animal abuse in slaughterhouses and save the earth for carbon-capture rewilding by going alt-meat?

In terms of animal cruelty, alt-meat is clearly a winner. But its overall “green” credentials bear closer examination. To understand why, we need to talk about nitrogen.

Plants draw nitrogen from the ground as they grow, and, in the wild, when the plants die, then back this nitrogen is returned to the ground. Without enough nitrogen, a crop will be weak and the harvest poor. This poses a challenge for farmers: how do we replenish the soil to keep crops healthy year after year?

In the medieval system of farming, fields were left “fallow” — that is, left to rest — every third year. This mimicked the natural process of plant matter rotting back into the soil, which thus recovered enough nitrogen to support crops in subsequent years. Then, some centuries ago, European farmers discovered that digging in animal manure and planting nitrogen-fixing “cover crops” such as clover over the winter had the same effect as leaving land fallow. Farming productivity boomed: over the century to 1770 agricultural output grew faster than the population.

Then, after the Second World War, an even swifter way of adding nitrogen to soil was discovered. In an invention that revolutionised farming worldwide, Fritz Haber found a way to synthesise nitrogen fertiliser by using heat and pressure to create ammonia from air. Without the need to keep livestock for manure, or to mix crops in order to refresh the soil, farms increasingly specialised and consolidated — with steadily climbing yields — over much of the twentieth century.

Fritz Haber described his method as a way of creating “bread from air” — but the move to inorganic fertiliser has not been cost-free. The consolidation of farms into single-crop production has had a catastrophic effect on biodiversity both large and small, while nitrogen fertiliser has also degraded the soil. Without the annual addition of nitrogen-fixing cover crop roots and soil-nourishing animal manure, topsoil fertilised with inorganic compounds gradually loses structure, health and microbial diversity and begins to erode.

An inch of topsoil takes 500 years to accrue by natural processes. But since the advent of nitrogen fertiliser, according to the University of Sheffield, a third of the world’s arable land has been lost to pollution or erosion. All that nitrogen-heavy topsoil, running out to sea via the rivers, in turn affects the oceans: there is now a 6,000 square mile “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, created by runoff from industrial farming practices.

Returning to the green credentials of alt-meat, then: if we are to replace meat with a plant-based alt-meat, we still need to grow those plants. Whether to make the sugar syrup used to grow Quorn mushrooms in vats or the soy and potato proteins that form the basis of an Impossible Burger, those plants need to grow in fields somewhere.

If we abolish livestock farming altogether and rewild the hillsides, we remove livestock from the farming equation. That means no manure for the fields. How are we to fertilise all the soya, pea, grain and potato crops that form the raw inputs for alt-meat? It is not at all clear that swapping industrial beef feedlots for nitrogen-fertilised plant monocultures will do much to ensure long-term soil and ocean health and biodiversity.

The champions of alt-meat have no conclusive answer to this, suggesting only that governments should fund research into less destructive animal-free fertilisers than inorganic nitrogen compounds. Could human “manure” fill the gap? It might not be enough: the Sustainable Food Trust indicates that some 75% of sewage sludge is already recycled in this way in Britain, but nitrogen fertiliser use is still rising.

It is all very well promising a forest paradise on the English hillsides via mass veganism and the abolition of livestock grazing. But if as a result we just end up with a new set of farming monocultures that pollute the water table across the British Isles or replicate the Gulf of Mexico’s “dead zone” while setting our grandchildren up for famine when the topsoil is all gone, then will we really have saved the planet or just kicked the can down the road (and into the fields)?

Farms such as Tolhurst Organic in Oxfordshire are pioneering animal-free agriculture. But it is doubtful that such methods would produce the volume of plant protein required for the alt-meat factories of the future, at a price that suits the vegan-industrial complex. Do we really believe a food industry strongly motivated to improve its profit margins by hammering down the cost per ton of soya and potatoes, and genetically modifying crops to optimise their structure for processing, will be beating down the door of Tolhurst Organic any time soon?

It is easy to see the appeal of alt-meat to the food industry. Of course a sausage roll manufacturer will replace animal protein with a cheaper plant-based version if consumers will buy it — especially if they can repackage their products as greener and more ethical in the process. Alt-meat also allows us, as consumers, to cling to the convenience of our centralised food supply, eating protein created by energy-intensive processing that strips food of nutritional value, delivered via complex supply chains to consumers in most cases several generations removed from the land.

It is a blind alley. Animal-free farming will not save the earth. If soil health is included in the picture, animals and their manure are not a barrier to sustainable farming but rather an integral part of food security. But fixating on carbon emissions and alt-meat is an appealing distraction from intractable questions around species loss, topsoil degradation and nitrate pollution in monoculture farming.

It also asks less of us. Moving from convenience foods to raw ingredients produced locally on sustainable mixed farms implies a far more profound transformation of society than tweaking one input in a takeaway sausage roll. The queue to transform the British Isles into a patchwork of smallholding-based locavore utopias is considerably shorter than the queues for a late-night Greggs vegan steak bake. The environmental promises of alt-meat may be flimsy, but it is no wonder we want to believe them.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.