Replacing 20 percent of meat with microbial protein could cut annual deforestation in half by 2050, a new study finds.

We have known for some time that our contemporary meat consumption is unsustainable. But leaving that meatball behind is a big challenge for many. Scientists are therefore happily experimenting with vegetable meat substitutes that taste ‘just like the real thing’ and cultured meat, in which meat is grown in a laboratory using cells from a living animal. Another promising alternative is microbial protein. Although less well-known, this is a meat substitute that makes the environment quite happy, researchers prove.

Meat industry

Global animal husbandry is not doing much good for our planet. Acid rain, deforestation, land degradation and the loss of biodiversity are all consequences of our intensive livestock farming. The current meat industry also generates a lot of greenhouse gases and thus contributes to global warming. Just to throw in numbers, Meat production roughly accounts for 15-24 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, making it the largest food source that contributes to polluting emissions.


The meat industry has such a large climate impact because cows, pigs and sheep emit quite a lot of greenhouse gases. At the same time, many forests – which store a lot of carbon – are being cut down for the meat industry. For example, forests have to make way for livestock. In addition, forests are also cut down so that feed for livestock can be grown here. Annually, approximately 13 billion football fields of forest are lost because land is converted into meadows or arable land.

Microbial protein

According to many scientists, this is no longer possible. And so they are diligently looking for sustainable meat substitutes. One of these is microbial protein. “Microbial protein is a nutritious, protein-rich biomass with a meat-like structure,” researcher Florian Humpenöder explains. from. “It is produced by microbes such as fungi through fermentation in bioreactors.” Microbial protein is made in specific cultures, just like beer and bread. The microbes live on sugar and thrive in a constant temperature. The end product is a highly protein-rich product that tastes, feels and is just as nutritious as real meat. “The good news is that people don’t have to worry about eating only vegetables in the future,” says Humpenöder. “They can just keep eating burgers, but those burgers are produced in a different way.”

“People don’t have to worry that they will only have to eat vegetables in the future”


According to Humpenöder, replacing meat with microbial protein could significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the future and even save forests. In their study, the researchers incorporated microbial protein into an advanced computer model to place environmental impacts in the context of the entire food and agricultural system. The researchers took into account future population growth, food demand, dietary patterns and dynamics in land use and agriculture in their model.

Deforestation cut in half

The study leads to an interesting conclusion. “We found that by replacing 20 percent of meat with microbial protein, annual deforestation and associated CO2 emissions could be halved by 2050,” concludes Humpenöder. “The smaller number of ruminants not only reduces the pressure on the land, but also reduces methane and nitrogen emissions. In short, replacing meat with microbial protein would be a good start to reduce the harmful effects of current meat production. Moreover, it can make an important contribution to achieving the goals of the Paris climate agreement.”

Which of the three?

Despite these positive findings, microbial protein is still very much ahead of plant-based meat and cultured meat in terms of popularity. According to Humpenöder unjustified. “Incubated meat has been getting a lot of public attention lately,” he says. “However, this biotechnology is still at an early stage of development with many unknowns, especially in terms of growth medium composition and cost. In contrast, microbial protein is already available in supermarkets in some countries – such as the United Kingdom and Switzerland. In addition, unlike most vegetable meat substitutes, microbial protein is not only protein-rich, but also contains all the essential amino acids that humans must obtain from food.”

There’s work to be done

All in all, the researchers allow their studies see the great benefits of microbial protein. Still, there is still work to be done. “Commercially available microbial protein requires sugar as a raw material,” explains Humpenöder. “The sugar is produced on arable land, a factor that was taken into account in our research. However, this is why the current microbial protein cannot be completely decoupled from agricultural production, although it does require much less agricultural land than real meat. At the moment, however, work is also being done on fermentation using micro-organisms that do not use sugar, but CO2 or methane as a food source.”

No miracle cure

Although the application of microbial protein is not yet fully developed, the researchers are showing its potential. “However, microbial protein should not be seen as a panacea to solve the climate or biodiversity crisis,” emphasizes Humpenöder. “Instead, it should be part of a bigger picture.”

In short, it’s a both-and story. But it seems indisputable that microbial protein will appear more often on our plates in the future.