HomePlant-based food companies face the critics: environmentalists

Plant-based food companies face the critics: environmentalists

The Impossible Burger, which contains 21 ingredients, including soy, according to the company’s website, in New York, August 30, 2019 (Con Poulos/The New York Times)

Consumers and investors alike have devoured Beyond Meat’s burgers, sausage and chicken in recent years, thanks at least in part to the company’s message that its plant-based products are good for the environment.

But some are not sure.

One investor tracking company gives Beyond Meat a zero when it comes to sustainability measures. Others classify it as “extremely dangerous,” putting it on a par with meat and chicken processing giants JBS and Tyson.

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said Roxana Dupree, director of consumer goods research at Socialites, a company that evaluates the sustainability of companies based on their environment, social and corporate governance impact.

At first glance, it seems logical that plant-based food companies like publicly traded Beyond Meat and its own competitor, Impossible Foods, would be better for the environment than meat processors like JBS. These processors slaughter and pack millions of livestock each year, which contributes significantly to the release of methane into the atmosphere.

Critics say the problem is that neither Beyond Meat nor Impossible Foods disclose the amount of greenhouse gas emissions from their operations, supply chains or consumer waste. Nor do they disclose the effects of their operations on the forests or the amount of water they use.

But on its website, Beyond Meat claims that consumers switching from animal protein to plant protein can “positively affect the planet, the environment, the climate, and even ourselves.” Impossible Foods says switching to plant-based meat “could be better than getting solar panels, driving an electric car, or avoiding plastic straws” when it comes to reducing environmental impact.

“The dominant narrative from the plant-based industry and the venture capitalists who support it is that these companies are better for the environment, they are better for health, they are better for this and they are better for that,” said Ricardo San Martin, director of research for the Alternative Meat Program at the University of California, Berkeley. But it is really a black box. Much of what is in these products has yet to be disclosed. Everyone has a supply chain, and there is a carbon footprint behind that chain.”

By some estimates, the agricultural industry produces a third of the world’s greenhouse gases associated with human activity, is the main driver of deforestation and uses up to 70% of the world’s fresh water supply.

However, it is lax in terms of tracking and detecting not only greenhouse gas emissions but also their impact on forests and water use. An examination by a nonprofit investor network of 50 North American food companies this year found that the majority did not disclose emissions from the crops and livestock used in their products or disclose emissions from converting forests to agricultural use.

In response to growing investor concerns about the risks of climate change to companies, the Securities and Exchange Commission is considering a rule that would force companies to report their emissions, although it remains unclear whether the agency will also count companies for emissions that come from supply chains and waste consumer.

Even as consumers and investors move to make Big Food more responsible for its emissions, the fact that two of the leading plant-based food companies do not make these disclosures is a source of frustration for watchdogs.

Beyond Meat, which went public in spring 2019 and whose shares are down 16% this year, said it has completed a comprehensive analysis of greenhouse gases to be released in 2022 and plans to update its environmental, social and governance goals by the end of the year. general.

But Patrick Brown, founder and CEO of Impossible Foods, echoed some of the arguments big food companies have made about current accounting and reporting standards for emissions and other climate data, saying they don’t reflect the overall impact of a company like his.

He said the existing ESG reports “simply don’t think of a thing of the scale that we’re doing.” “We are as transparent as reasonably possible about our environmental impact, but the current framework does not recognize, nor does it appreciate, the overall majority of our impact, and it’s an enormous impact.”

An Impossible Foods spokesperson added that the company had a working group that had completed a full greenhouse gas inventory, was planning to set emissions reduction targets and was preparing environmental, social and management reports.

Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have conducted studies by academics or third parties comparing how vegan burgers or sausages stack up against beef or pork products. A 2018 study by researchers at the University of Michigan concluded that a quarter-pound of a Beyond Burger generates 90% less greenhouse gas emissions than that of a beef burger.

Similarly, an analysis by an outside company for Impossible Foods concluded that a vegan burger uses less water and land and produces fewer emissions than its meat counterpart. For other food products, Impossible Foods performed a similar analysis that also includes details about its supply chains and the land and water use of individual products.

But these reports, analysts say, may not tell the whole story about how the production of burgers, sausages and vegan chicken will affect the climate. An Impossible Burger contains 21 ingredients, according to the company’s website, including soy.

“The problem with plant-based products, in general, is that while it might work on one problem, combating the fact that growing meat is very carbon-intensive and emits a lot of carbon dioxide, depending on the ingredients and where you get them from, you can still get involved on deforestation issues,” said Dobre of Sustainalytics. “I still need room to grow the soybeans that are in many of these products.”

Impossible Foods’ Brown acknowledged that soybeans were a key ingredient in the company’s products, but argued that much of the world’s grown soybeans are used to feed animals and that Impossible Foods uses soy more efficiently than animals.

Speaking on his point, Brown said it would be “ridiculous” for the company, which uses coconut oil in its products, to try to ascertain how many coconut husks were recycled versus discarded.

“It’s a very small part of the positive impact we’re having, to be perfectly honest,” he said. “We’ll report on it if it’s necessary, but really, you’re totally missing the point if you’re obsessed with that kind of thing.”

He said that trying to account for each of the sustainability measures “is an absurd use of our resources”. “It will make us less impactful because we’re wasting resources satisfying the jockey in Excel instead of trying to save the planet.”

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