But no matter what you think of the fast food chain’s marketing department, the McPlant actually represents a meaningful milestone for plant-based protein products. This is a real step toward a greener world. While other chains, such as Burger King and Dunkin’, have already launched plant-based meat items, the impact of the planet’s most popular fast food chain – which sells a dizzying 75 burgers every second – could be decisive in allowing plant-based meat alternatives to catch on in the mainstream.
Simply put, the more accessible meat alternatives are, the better, given the need for humans to change the ways we consume and produce food to ensure a sustainable future.
As of now, the global population is growing towards an estimated 9.7 billion people by 2050, and worldwide meat consumption is on the rise. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that livestock farming accounts for 14.5% of humanity’s annual worldwide greenhouse gas emissions, but other experts have calculated that the industry’s impact may be even higher.
Earlier this month, an academic study found that food production – including the effects of land clearing, deforestation, fertilizer use and livestock – accounts for a third of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions. “Even if fossil fuel emissions were immediately halted,” the authors concluded, current trends in global food systems would prevent the achievement of the Paris Agreement’s target to keep global temperature rise below 1.5C compared to pre-industrial figures by the end of the century (which other studies have found we have about a decade left to do). “Meeting the 1.5C target requires rapid and ambitious changes to food systems as well as to all nonfood sectors,” they write.
Beef is a particular climate offender, requiring 28 times more land, six times more fertilizer, and 11 times more water to produce than other animal proteins like chicken or pork.
Plant-based meat alternatives are a relatively new product category. Most of what we know about their sustainability comes from studies funded by their producers, such as this 2018 research that found that manufacturing pea protein-based Beyond Meat burgers creates 90% less greenhouse gas emissions and requires much less water and land than traditional beef burger patties. (McDonald’s McPlant was developed with Beyond Meat.) This is not to suggest they’re the be-all-end-all of eco-friendly eating: as Oxford researcher Marco Springmann told CNBC, such patties still have fives times the carbon footprint of a bean burger, putting them about on par with chicken. More independent research into their sustainability is needed. Nonetheless, plant-based burgers are certainly greener – and more humane – than industrially farmed beef.
Even without committing fully to a plant-based diet, simply choosing to eat less meat in our day-to-day lives can make an appreciable impact on the environment. A study published this August determined that if everyone in the US on average reduced their consumption of beef, pork and poultry by a quarter in favor of plant proteins, the country would emit 82m metric tons fewer greenhouse gases annually.
As Fast Company’s Adele Peters points out, McDonald’s has historically been terrible from a sustainability point of view: precious forests have been destroyed for its livestock crops, cattle ranches and palm oil suppliers; its suppliers are a major polluter of US waterways; and to date it has created unfathomable waste. In 2018, however, McDonald’s set science-based targets to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 36% by 2030 – hardly an insignificant goal.
And while it may seem somewhat paradoxical that America’s single biggest buyer of beef may play an encouraging role in reducing meat consumption, even animal rights activists are optimistic about the McPlant. In a statement to the organization Plant Based News, animal protection organizer Joe Loria said that “by making humane and sustainable proteins affordable and accessible”, initiatives like the McPlant could contribute to a reduced market for factory-farmed meat.
So far, even with demand for plant-based protein growing, and that of meat decreasing in the US, the plant-based protein market is still relatively niche. Perhaps McDonald’s will be the one to finally supersize it.