Investing in plant-based proteins is the most cost-effective way to cut emissions, report says

Dive Brief:

  • Investing in plant-based food can prevent more than three times the carbon dioxide emissions than putting the same amount of money into other industrial climate mitigations, including decarbonization at power plants and carbon capture at facilities that make cement, iron and steel or chemicals, according to a study from Blue Horizon and Boston Consulting Group.
  • Animal-derived food is responsible for about 15% of global emissions, the study found. If plant-based products were to make up 8% of the global market share for meat by 2030, it could eliminate 1.5% of the global emissions expected for that year.
  • Advocates for the plant-based segment, as well as those promoting greater sustainability, have long pushed to quantify the impact their products could have on the environment. Most other reports present only levels of emissions, land and water saved, but do not make comparisons to other industrial environmental mitigation efforts.

Dive Insight:

Plant-based food isn’t often compared to environmentally friendly shipping, but both are ways to mitigate climate change — and both take large investments from companies, shareholders, venture firms and individuals. 

Blue Horizon is a venture firm that funds companies in the food industry with the potential of making an impact on sustainability, animal welfare and human health standards. For the study, the firm and Boston Consulting Group looked how many gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions would be prevented with investment in an array of industrial technologies, as well as the realistic economic viability of making the changes.

Plant-based proteins was the clear leader in both aspects. If more plant-based food replaces existing animal-derived items, it immediately cuts back on emissions from livestock and open land dedicated to raising and slaughtering animals. The financial impact from the reduction of these emissions could be up to $354 billion per trillion dollars invested in this technology, the report found. The investment with the second-largest financial impact would be carbon capture at cement plants, which could be up to $123 billion per trillion dollars invested in the technology, the study found.

But more importantly, producing plant-based proteins is a relatively easy lift, as the technology already exists and there is a fairly direct route to a return on investment. But some other sustainability projects — like carbon capture measures at cement plants or converting older buildings on traditional HVAC systems to heat pumps — are expensive and don’t have the same payoff, according to the study.

Blue Horizon and Boston Consulting’s report aims to make the case to investors and policymakers that funding the plant-based sector will pay off. While sales of plant-based products appear to be growing at a slower pace than in previous years, there is still growth and, analysts say, potential for more.

Last year was record-breaking in terms of investments in alternative proteins. According to the Good Food Institute, about $5 billion was invested into companies creating alternatives from plants, cells and through fermentation in 2021. But this is just a drop in the bucket of what’s needed to meet future demand. A GFI analysis earlier this year estimated that about $27 billion worth of infrastructure has to be built by 2030.

But there’s one other group that needs to be convinced: consumers. Blue Horizon’s report found that six in 10 consumers have tried alternative proteins, with 35% saying they eat them frequently. More than half of all consumers said environmental impact is one of their top three reasons to eat alternative proteins. As products are on their way to reaching price parity with traditional animal-based forms of eating, lower costs coupled with a message of sustainability could help more consumers choose alternatives.