Plant-based alternatives to beef have the potential to help reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, but their growth in popularity could disrupt the agricultural workforce, threatening more than 1.5 million industry jobs, new economic models show.
By embracing meat protein alternatives, the US food production could reduce its agricultural carbon footprint by between 2.5 per cent and 13.5 per cent, according to the paper published in The Lancet Planetary Health.
But the change may challenge the livelihoods of the more than 1.5 million people employed in beef-value chain sector, said researchers from the universities of Cornell, Johns Hopkins calling out policymakers to be vigilant and ready to mitigate negative consequences of technological disruption.
Acting to reduce climate change is important, the researchers said, but technological disruption can have many consequences — both positive and negative — across the economy, such as the issue of livelihoods, working conditions, human rights, fair wages and health equity.
“Plant-based alternatives to beef are not silver bullets, with their impact on other environmental dimensions of the food system — such as total water use — ambiguous,” said lead author Daniel Mason-D’Croz, senior research associate, at Cornell.
The team explored the potential disruption of plant-based beef alternatives by comparing the economic consequences under a range of scenarios, where plant-based beef alternatives replaced 10 per cent, 30 per cent or 60 per cent of current US beef demand.
While the changes would have a small, but potentially positive impact, it “would not be felt equally across the economy”, said Mason-D’Croz.
It would result in “substantial disruptions observed across the food system, particularly in the beef-value chain, which could contract substantially by as much as 45 per cent under the 60 per cent-replacement scenario — challenging the livelihoods of the more than 1.5 million people employed in these sectors.”
The adoption of plant-based beef alternatives could also lead to other unintended consequences. For example, resources freed from contracting beef sectors — such as livestock feed — could allow the pork and poultry sectors to expand.
Models suggest that this could mean swapping two to 12 million cattle for 16 to 94 million more chickens or up to 1.4 million pigs, which raises animal welfare concerns, said Mason-D’Croz.
The sheer numbers of animals affected could increase and the welfare conditions of many pigs and chicken in agricultural production are arguably worse than those of cattle, Mason-D’Croz said, given that the pork and poultry sector frequently use confined feeding operations.
“Nevertheless, a range of plant-based alternatives to animal products are under development,” Mason-D’Croz said. “If these are adopted widely, then increase in animal numbers would be less likely, even as economic disruption and negative impacts on the livelihoods of those employed in animal-sourced food value chains would be much larger.”