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Cutting back on beef is necessary for human health and the planet, study says

The world’s growing demand for beef is unhealthy and unsustainable, the World Economic Forum says

Photo (c) Milkos - Getty Images
Fungus, peas, and a plate of beans. It’s what's for dinner. It doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, but replacing beef with those plant-based alternatives could extend the average person’s lifespan by as much as 7 percent, according to a new study by European thinktank the World Economic Forum (WEF).  

The fungus Mycoprotein is the healthiest and most sustainable dietary beef alternative, according to the WEF study, though most people likely haven’t heard of it. Mycoprotein is found in soil and used by some fake-meat frozen food brands.

Luckily, there are plenty of other options that might sound a little less depressing to people who aren’t keen on imitation meat.

Replacing beef with nuts, pork, chiken, tofu, or jackfruit would also be superior to current trends, which show that beef consumption is growing at an unhealthy pace.

“It would be impossible for a global population of 10 billion people to eat the amount of meat typical of diets in North America and Europe” without breaking sustainability goals, the WEF report says. “It would require too much land and water, and lead to unacceptable greenhouse‑gas and other pollutant emissions.”

Demand for meat continues to grow

Despite climate concerns, a meat-intensive diet is where much of the world is heading. The Texas Cattle Feeders Association visited Mongolia last August and reported back that even threats of tariffs or a trade war weren’t tampering Chinese demands for American beef.

“The poorest countries, their primary protein sources are plant-based,” the group’s chairman Levi Barry told a local newspaper shortly after his visit. “As they increase their fortune, they typically move into some sort of meat in their diet. We see that in a lot of the developing markets.”

Demand for American beef “continues to climb in nearly every region of the world,” according to the US Meat Export Federation, which says that the value of exported American beef reached record levels in 2018.

But that good news for the cattle export industry may be coming at the expense of the planet. Researchers and environmentalists, not to mention vegan groups, are quick to point out that meat and dairy are especially intensive to produce, requiring huge amounts of land and water. The environmental and health concerns have led to growing interest in alternative sources of proteins.

Ranking the best alternatives

Teaming with researchers from Oxford University, the WEF set out to compare the planetary and human health benefits of different beef alternatives and analyze which alternative is best for human diets and the planet.

Though investors and start-ups are touting lab-grown meat made from tissues as a promising choice, the WEF says that old-fashioned plant-based food is better. Lab-grown meat may not be environmentally sustainable to produce, and “its health benefits compared with traditional beef are marginal,” the WEF says.

Overall, cultured beef ranked at the bottom of WEF’s suggested beef alternatives.

Microproteins, peas, and beans ranked at the top. They were followed respectively by wheat, jackfruit, insects, nuts, alga, chicken and pork.

The report is careful to say that people don’t need to cut beef out of their diet entirely, and it notes that millions of people around the world make their living raising cattle. Many people may not have access to meat alternatives, and following the WEF’s guidelines would require a massive change not just in consumer behavior, but in how food is subsidized and produced.  

“For many people living in the poorest countries, there are no alternatives to meat and restricting access would be detrimental to their health,” the report notes.

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