The Potential Benefits and Pitfalls of Plant-based Foods

The positive potential of plant-based foods has been a popular topic of discussion over the past decade, strengthened by rising global consciousness of the need to confront looming environmental crises. Also important but less often discussed are ways that particular business development decisions by plant-based food companies could potentially maintain or deepen systemic injustices and environmental harms in today’s food system without appropriate alternative action.

In many ways, the plant-based foods industry stands at an ethical crossroads. Will this sweeping category of products uphold problematic aspects of the food system, reducing the potential positive impact of their environmental benefits? Or will this group of foods maximize their transformative potential by seeking alternative pathways to growth that incorporate broad awareness of the common good?

How Can Plant-Based Foods Power Positive Transformation in the Food System?

While there is no panacea that can remedy animal welfare, social injustices, and environmental health issues present in today’s food system, the growing popularity of plant-based foods represents a unique opportunity to address interconnected problems in the food system on a global scale. Holding the plant-based food industry to a higher standard will help maximize these potential benefits.  

Benefits to the Environment

Climate change has created a time-sensitive need for tools to transform the way humans impact the planet. Reducing animal farming—and consumption of animal-source foods—is a key strategy for addressing climate risk. The food system produces roughly one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), with cattle production for meat and milk as the highest emitting sector.[1],[2] It will be impossible for the world to meet climate change mitigation goals without drastically reducing industrial animal agriculture and consuming more plant-based foods.

Plant-based foods also offer the possibility of relief from pollution generated by industrial animal agriculture. Industrial animal agriculture contributes to eutrophication—water contamination from nitrogen runoff. Nitrogen from farmed animal manure and feed crop fertilizers leaches into groundwater, creating marine dead zones, harming biodiversity, and threatening water quality.[3],[4] A global transition to a plant-based food system could significantly reduce nutrient and chemical waste from food production.[5]

Benefits to Animal Welfare

A food system without animal agriculture would no longer treat animal suffering as an engine for corporate economic gain. With its focus on efficiency and profits-above-all, industrial animal agriculture benefits directly from harming animal welfare. Plant-based foods eliminate profit-driven justifications for the plethora of animal rights violations perpetrated by industrial animal agriculture.

Benefits to Human Health

A plant-based food transition has the potential to drastically improve public health. Long before the COVID-19 pandemic brought zoonotic diseases to the forefront of public consciousness, animal agriculture has contributed to the prevalence of human diseases. Animal farming places agricultural workers in direct physical contact with animals and their blood, providing opportunities for disease transmission. Furthermore, the production of commodity feed crops encourages land conversion for agriculture in sensitive biodiversity hotspots like the Amazon rainforest, putting people in contact with wild animals with the potential to transmit novel diseases. Reducing the need for close contact between humans and animals—especially animals kept in confinement, where disease can evolve and spread rapidly—would benefit the health of food chain workers and human society.

Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) also threaten the health of workers and nearby communities. CAFO workers and communities that border CAFOS experience decreased respiratory health, reproductive health, and overall quality of life.[6],[7] Due to structural racism in the food system, CAFOs are overwhelmingly situated near majority-BIPOC and low-income communities, concentrating impacts on historically disenfranchised communities.[8] Decreased property values and increased healthcare costs provide a double burden for low-income communities of color located in proximity to CAFOs.[9]

Even for those not living or working near CAFOs, a shift to a plant-based food system can improve health. Decreasing meat intake reduces the risk of a number of chronic diseases, including heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.[10] While not all plant-based foods are equally health-promoting, the health profile of plants grants plant-based food producers the opportunity to create food products that support broad improvements to public health.[11]

Connecting the Dots

The variety of ways in which plant-based foods could transform our food system can be thought of through a “One Health” lens. One Health is a concept based in Indigenous thought positing that humans, animals, and the environment have interdependent relationships and therefore interwoven challenges and points of intervention.[12] No unitary solution to the complex problems stemming from growing global meat consumption can be effective in isolation from interconnected issues. Plant-based food production, if leveraged for its full potential positive impacts, has the power to create far-reaching momentum for food system renewal. 

Potential Pitfalls Facing Plant-Based Foods

While plant-based foods hold immense potential to heal humans, animals, and the planet, they also—if implemented without consideration of animal welfare, environmental and social justice—risk maintaining mechanisms of harm present in today’s food system. If plant-based foods are to drive a sustainable paradigm shift in food production, they must respond to these pitfalls by establishing alternative supply chains and business practices rooted in serving the common good.

Pitfall of Entrenching Corporate Power

A few powerful multinational corporations increasingly control the production, processing, and distribution of the world’s meat supply.[13] These corporations have amassed immense power by buying up smaller competitors, increasing control of upstream and downstream markets, and capturing economies of scale. Control over centralized processing has allowed agribusiness corporations to solidify monopsonies—supply chains in which a large number of farmers sell to only one or two agribusiness firms who control local processing—that distort markets by leaving producers with little choice of who to sell to or what price they can receive. This supply chain bottleneck, in turn, results in the standardization of options and prices on store shelves, an increasing concern for consumer advocates.

As plant-based foods have grown in popularity, a few corporations focused specifically on plant-based foods have similarly emerged as primary distributors. While larger plant-based food manufacturers are not necessarily a problem, if plant-based food producers follow the industrial agriculture playbook of corporate mergers and vertical and horizontal integration within supply chains, the result could be a recapitulation of the problems of the meat industry. Once a few corporations control the majority of a market, unfair economic practices like collusion, price-fixing, worker exploitation, greenwashing, and humane washing can become more likely.

Prioritizing the economic and social vitality of farmers, food chain workers, and communities is crucial for ensuring the long-term success of the plant-based food movement. Collapsing animal agriculture markets in rural areas that depend on meat industry money could cause socio-political backlash[14] and hinder efforts to move away from animal agriculture. The plant-based food industry must proactively establish alternative supply chains that prioritize farmer wellbeing and help transition farmed animal producers and food chain workers to attractive economic opportunities in the plant-based industry.[15] 

Pitfall of the Profit-first Model

The entrenched industrial food system and pro-business regulations in many high-income nations reward large-scale industrial farming, incentivizing monopolies and monopsonies in supply chains. In an era of intense globalized competition, publicly-traded corporations are legally required to prioritize shareholder profits, encouraging a narrow view of profit-seeking.

This tipped playing field may tempt growing plant-based food companies to adopt the same damaging business practices as the meat industry. However, the get-big-or-get-out corporate food playbook could present plant-based food manufacturers with a Faustian bargain. If plant-based food reproduces the same structures and practices as the industry it supplants, the transformation will go no farther than the feedlot.

Additionally, some of the largest brands in industrial animal agriculture have recently embraced the plant-based food market, potentially bringing their externalities with them. Meat industry giants that have previously amassed great wealth by exploiting workers, harming animals, and polluting the environment will likely approach plant-based food production with the same profit-first motives and the same disregard for the common good.

Plant-based food companies could mitigate the harm of the profit-first model by following strong antitrust enforcement and maintaining a solid commitment to the common good. Plant-based foods have a unique opportunity to build a sustainable, equitable, just food supply chain from the ground up: a system that not only respects animals but also pays fair wages to farmers and food chain workers and keeps capital in communities.

Pitfall of Inaccessibility

Earth’s human population is growing, with the majority of people living on $10 a day or less. While plant-based staple foods such as grains and legumes are comparatively affordable, many of them require cooking or other home processing and may not be accessible for all people or all lifestyles. Plant-based meats are available in limited locations primarily accessible to wealthy, consumers in the high-income nations and remain financially inaccessible for many. Making plant-based foods more widely available and affordable is a crucial step toward achieving a global reduction in the consumption of farmed animals.

However, the goal of price parity must not be pursued at the exclusion of other elements of the common good. Lowering prices by sacrificing worker wellbeing or environmental sustainability offers a false solution, shifting the burden of exploitation from one externality to another. If plant-based foods are to effectively displace conventional animal products in industrialized consumer markets, they must address accessibility disparities across income, nationality, and race without further entrenching exploitative business models or environmental degradation.

Pitfalls of Environmental Expediency

By avoiding the GHG emissions and environmental pollution associated with largescale animal agriculture, plant-based foods show immense potential to provide environmental benefits.[16] Well-managed plant-based farming can improve soils and sequester carbon, providing powerful benefits in an age that faces challenges from both population growth and loss of arable land.[17] However, the same basic economic and supply chain constraints face manufacturers of plant-based foods and manufacturers of animal-source foods: All food producers seek to source high-quality, consistent ingredients at low prices. If plant-based foods prioritize cost and consistency and fail to recognize additional environmental externalities from the production of their source crops, they may fail at delivering lasting, sustainable environmental benefits.

Plant-based foods could contribute to environmental degradation if they are grown in industrial monocultures that contribute to soil erosion, deforestation, nutrient pollution, and GHG emissions. Monocultures are one of the hallmarks of industrial agriculture, made possible through the invention of synthetic fertilizers during the 20th century. Growing the same crop year after year degrades soil.[18] Chemical fertilizers and pesticides—the production of which releases GHGs—keep monocultures alive, but these chemicals wash into groundwater and pose additional environmental threats.[19]

Nutrient-rich topsoil forms at a rate of about one inch every 100 years and is being lost to erosion at the unsustainable rate of 36 billion tons per year,[20] threatening the long-term suitability of the complex agroecosystems that support plant-based foods. When topsoil is lost, nutrient-depleted soils harden, speeding up erosion. Water washes away instead of soaking into the ground, increasing the likelihood of both floods and droughts. As climate change advances and average global temperatures rise, severe storms and droughts will become more likely, further reinforcing negative feedback loops.

The plant-based foods industry would also do well to address problematic ingredients and supply chains that come with particular environmental risks.[21] For example, palm oil monocultures drive tropical deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia.[22],[23] Sourcing decisions by the plant-based food industry, paired with smart policy, could help the plant-based foods industry incentivize regenerative feedback loops instead of degenerative ones.

Global Trends Affecting Plant-based Foods

In an increasingly globalized society, trends that impact the success of plant-based foods often transcend national borders. For plant-based foods to succeed at replacing meat and animal products, they must grapple with global social and economic trends that could hamper systemic change.

Population Growth

The world’s population is growing and becoming more affluent. With growing populations and growing affluence, demand for meat is expected to increase.[24] Global supply chains are poised to meet new demand, and current research shows that even though the consumption of plant-based foods has continued to increase in recent years, the slaughter and consumption of farmed animals has also continued to rise globally.[25] Will growing populations and rising affluence lead to further growth in meat consumption? Or can plant-based foods capture an increasing share of growing markets and contribute to averting an increase in meat consumption on a global scale? Meat replacement is certainly happening on individual and community levels. Lessons learned from communities that have successfully decreased meat consumption, coupled with problem-solving that accounts for population growth and international economic growth, hold the potential to develop a lasting global trend that will reduce the world’s demand for meat.

Globalization

Transnational corporations have grown rapidly since the mid-twentieth century, especially in food and farming.[26] Fruits and vegetables grown in warm climates appear in produce markets around the world. Beef is being exported from the US as quickly as it’s being imported; and US restaurant chains are popping up across Asia in record numbers.[27] In the high-income nations where meat consumption is highest, food consumption has become geographically decoupled from food production. Unless meat alternatives can replace—rather than add to—the demand for farmed animals, many of the potential environmental, human health, and animal welfare benefits of plant-based foods will be unattainable.

Creating a Values-Aligned Plant-Based Food System

With the assistance of policymakers and food system advocates, the plant-based food industry is uniquely positioned to establish a new agricultural paradigm through a just, sustainable, plant-based food system.

Yet, the plant-based food industry faces a choice: Will it grow—much as the meat industry grew—at any cost, or will it grow based on a new paradigm anchored by the common good? A lasting, multi-sectoral transformation for the food system will not be achieved through the introduction of plant-based foods alone. Serving the public good would require that plant-based food companies create positive impacts across a mosaic of distinct, interconnected issues that underpin a better food system.

Plant-based food production aligned with the common good would further human, animal, and environmental benefit by:

  • Minimizing the farming of animals for food
  • Increasing global affordability and accessibility of healthy, nutritionally rich plant-based foods
  • Ensuring sustainable food production that does not negatively impact water quality, air quality, soil health, and biodiversity
  • Delivering anti-racist reform of food and farming that achieves equity for farmers of color and justice for BIPOC[i] and low-income communities disproportionately impacted by animal agriculture
  • Creating robust and equitable economic opportunity for farming communities and food chain workers
  • Maintaining fair and safe working conditions for farmers and food chain workers
  • Investing in local and regional food systems
  • Supporting strong antitrust enforcement to protect the economic future of farmers

If this intersectional approach is employed by companies and investors, plant-based foods will have the best chance of success and longevity. Ensuring a different foundational business model will allow the plant-based food industry to establish a new, more sustainable norm in the food system and beyond.

Private sector and civil society actors working at the nexus of food system transformation and animal protection can also play a significant role in supporting a plant-based food transition that addresses the full range of social, economic, and environmental issues present in today’s food system. Funders can support food system transformation efforts that prioritize food justice, racial equity, and the rights of farmworkers and food chain workers. The farm transformation movement and its funders can strengthen the power of farmers to create alternative farming supply chains that ensure their prosperity and autonomy. Funders, plant-based food companies, and policymakers can work together to make it possible to transition to sustainable plant-based farming and profitable to regenerate degraded soil by transitioning away from industrial agriculture.

In its position as a disruptive newcomer, the growing plant-based food industry has the opportunity—and the imperative—to consider a wide view of the common good during its development. This period of rapid early growth is the ideal time to create new structures, new norms and new expectations that will maximize the positive benefits of plant-based food. With appropriate action, the plant-based food industry and its backers can bake all of the necessary ingredients for a better food system into a burgeoning industry from the start, rather than setting it up for limited success. The health of the environment, animals, and humans hang in the balance: will plant-based foods forge lasting, innovative solutions or choose shortcuts to growth?


[i] BIPOC stands for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. This term is not universally embraced, particularly because it can erase the experiences of individual groups by lumping them together. We recognize this serious drawback and use the term only when a statement is truly applicable to Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and Asian communities. When an experience or condition is applicable only to a specific group, we use specific rather than general language.


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About the author

Stray Dog Institute

To cultivate dignity, justice, and sustainability in the food system, Stray Dog Institute provides nonprofit allies with funding, strategic research, and opportunities for collaboration. Together, we hope to build a more compassionate world for people, animals, and the environment.

By Stray Dog Institute

About the Author

To cultivate dignity, justice, and sustainability in the food system, Stray Dog Institute provides nonprofit allies with funding, strategic research, and opportunities for collaboration. Together, we hope to build a more compassionate world for people, animals, and the environment.

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