The sustainability and environmental impacts of animal farming has recently taken harsh criticism.

By Dr. Jeanne Haggerty-Arcay

Dr. Jeanne Haggerty-Arcay

In recent years the food industry has spent billions developing alternatives to animal proteins that can provide equivalent protein levels without compromising on taste. There was a time when milk alternatives were only for those who suffered from lactose intolerance and other medical conditions. Now it is commonplace for people to consume almond, oat or soy alternatives to cow milk. Veggie burgers can take on many forms as alternatives to the traditional beef patty. More recently, the Impossible Burger has made a rise, being served in restaurants as the first major manufactured protein burgers. The production of these manufactured proteins have been driven by numerous factors, in particular concerns with human health and environmental sustainability.

Antibiotic residues have continued to be of concern with the use of all animal products. Despite strict regulations in place with regards to antibiotic use in food animals, the debate over antibiotic use in food animals continues as their use improves production efficiency. Concerns with any amount of antibiotic residue in animal products have officials concerned as it can lead to bacterial resistance, an issue that human medical professionals are constantly battling. Another major health concern has been the fat content of meat compared to that of manufactured protein products. It is no surprise that meat-based diets contain more fat than is recommended. Manufactured protein diets offer the potential to lower the fat content while still offering a high protein product. Food-borne illnesses from meat products and undercooked meats have long been a source of human illness which the manufactured protein industry strives to resolve with its manufacturing process.

Animal welfare practices have also driven the use of protein alternatives. Awareness of existing farming and housing practices in recent years has led to the search for alternatives to animal protein. Legislation with a focus on animal welfare strives to improve the lives of production animals with the side effect of decreasing production efficiency and increasing prices. These elevated prices will drive some away from animal protein and toward manufactured and plant-based protein sources.

The sustainability and environmental impacts of animal farming has recently taken harsh criticism. Water usage by animal producers is being more closely examined — not only water used on the farm but also what is used to grow crops needed to feed livestock. Producers of manufactured protein promise to use a fraction of water. Land usage remains another large sustainability issue. Forty-one percent of the U.S. continental land is used for livestock (this includes both pasture & cropland). Additionally, water runoff from that land then becomes contaminated and there is yet to be a good solution (at least in many cases) to prevent this runoff from downstream contamination and health hazards.

So what is the future of the animal agriculture industry? Well, there are a lot of unresolved issues that need to be addressed in order to survive and compete with the upcoming manufactured protein industry. Although animal farming has evolved, it has not kept up with viable solutions to the issues we face. Human health, environmental sustainability and animal welfare present some of the biggest hurdles the industry confronts. Continuing to produce an affordable product while addressing these issues will remain challenging. To many, the Impossible Burger did pass the initial taste test. But for some there are still questions about the health of a product produced in a lab versus consuming something more natural. Many still question the long term implications of “lab food” and it may be years before we have those answers.

Dr. Jeanne Haggerty-Arcay received her undergraduate degrees in biology, biochemistry and Spanish from the College of Notre Dame, Belmont. She graduated from U.C. Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. She enjoys spending time with her husband and three children.

Jeanne Haggerty-Arcay