Life cycle assessment of animal-based foods and plant-based protein-rich alternatives: a socio-economic perspective

J Sci Food Agric. 2022 Sep;102(12):5111-5120. doi: 10.1002/jsfa.11655. Epub 2021 Dec 3.


Background: Extensive research shows that replacing animal protein with plant-based protein in the diet would strongly alleviate the environmental impact of the food system. However, much less attention has been given to the socio-economic considerations of dietary transitions. This study analyses the socio-economic performance of innovative legume-based food prototypes, developed in the Protein2Food research project, and conventional animal-based products (chicken meat and dairy milk). We implement a social life cycle assessment (sLCA) to quantify and compare their potential socio-economic impacts along the entire life cycle.

Results: Findings from this analysis show that legume-based prototypes and their respective animal-based counterparts have, overall, a comparable socio-economic performance. Looking at the disaggregated life cycle stages, socio-economic hotspots (points of most negative impacts) were mainly identified at the production stage in legume-based products. Farm-level net margin and profitability are low when compared with their animal equivalents. However, at the processing stage, there are socio-economic gains for plant-based products regarding lower unemployment rates. Finally, at the consumption stage, there are mixed results. Plant-based products show worse protein affordability but better nutritional contents (lower saturated fat and cholesterol) than their animal counterparts.

Conclusions: To improve socio-economic performance of legume-based foods, greater emphasis should be placed upon developing improved processing technologies and supply chains. This would broaden the supply of sustainable protein-rich food options and make these products more economically attractive. The research illustrates that policies should be targeted to the different stages of the food value chain to optimize the development of innovative plant-based foods. © 2021 The Authors. Journal of The Science of Food and Agriculture published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of Society of Chemical Industry.

Keywords: innovation; plant-based meat substitutes; protein transition; social life cycle assessment; sustainability.

MeSH terms

  • Animal Feed*
  • Animals
  • Life Cycle Stages
  • Plant Proteins*
  • Socioeconomic Factors
  • Vegetables


  • Plant Proteins