Consumers and investors have gobbled up Beyond Meat’s burgers, sausages and chicken in recent years, at least in part thanks to the company’s message that its plant-based products are good for the environment.
But some are not so sure.
An investor tracking company rates Beyond Meat a zero on sustainability metrics. Another considers it a “serious risk”, putting it on a par with beef and chicken processing giants JBS and Tyson.
“We don’t think we have enough information to say that Beyond Meat is fundamentally different from JBS,” said Roxana Dobre, head of consumer goods research at Sustainalytics, a company that assesses the sustainability of companies based on their environmental, social and corporate criteria. impact on governance.
At first glance, it seems logical that plant-based food companies like publicly traded Beyond Meat and its private competitor, Impossible Foods, are better for the environment than meat processors like JBS. These processors slaughter and pack millions of head of cattle each year, a major contributor to the methane released into the atmosphere.
The problem, critics say, is that neither Beyond Meat nor Impossible Foods disclose the amount of greenhouse gas emissions from its operations, supply chains, or consumer waste. They also do not disclose the effects of their operations on forests or the amount of water they use.
But on its Beyond Meat website claims that consumers who switch 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 meats “may be better than having solar panels, driving an electric car, or avoiding plastic straws” when it comes to reducing your environmental footprint.
“The dominant narrative from the crop 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 better for that,” said Ricardo San Martin, research director of the alternative meats program at the University of California at Berkeley. “But it’s really a black box. Much of what is in these products goes undisclosed.
“Everyone has a supply chain, and there is a carbon footprint behind that chain. “
By some estimates, the agriculture industry produces a third of the world’s greenhouse gases linked to human activity, is a major driver of deforestation, and uses up to 70 percent of the world’s water supply. gentle.
Yet it is lax in terms of tracking and reporting not only its greenhouse gas emissions, but also the effect it has on forests and water use. A review of 50 North American food companies this year by Ceres, a nonprofit investor network, found that the majority did not disclose emissions from crops and livestock used in their products, nor emissions from conversion of forests to agricultural use.
In response to growing investor concerns about the risks of climate change for businesses, the Securities and Exchange Commission is considering a rule that would require companies to report their issues, although it is not clear whether the agency would also ask companies. to account for emissions from supply chains and consumer waste.
Even as consumers and investors strive to hold Big Food more accountable for its emissions, the fact that two of the major plant-based food companies are not offering this information is a source of frustration for watchdogs.
Beyond Meat, which went public in the spring of 2019 and whose shares have fallen 16% this year, said it has completed a comprehensive greenhouse gas analysis and set environmental, social and governance goals.
But Patrick Brown, founder and CEO of Impossible Foods, echoed some of the arguments made by big food companies about current standards for accounting and reporting of emissions and other climate data, saying it doesn’t reflect the total impact of a business like hers.
The environmental, social and governance reports that currently exist “just don’t envision something of the magnitude that we are doing,” he said. “We are as transparent as it is reasonably possible to be about our environmental impact, but the existing framework does not recognize, do not appreciate, the overall majority of our impact, which is enormous.”
A spokeswoman for Impossible Foods added that the company had a task force that had completed a comprehensive greenhouse gas inventory and planned to set targets to reduce emissions.
Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods commissioned studies from academics or third parties that compare how their plant-based burgers or sausages compare to beef or pork products. A 2018 study by researchers at the University of Michigan concluded that a quarter-pound Beyond Burger produced 90% less greenhouse gas emissions than its beef burger counterpart.
Likewise, an analysis done by a third-party company for Impossible Foods concluded that its plant-based burger uses much less water and soil and creates fewer emissions than meat equivalents. Impossible Foods commissioned a similar analysis for other food products.
But those reports, analysts say, may not say everything about how the production of plant-based burgers, sausages and chicken may affect the climate. According to the company’s website, An Impossible Burger contains 21 ingredients, including soy.
“The problem with plant-based products, generally speaking, is that while they can solve a problem, it tackles the fact that meat production is very carbon intensive and emits a lot of carbon dioxide,” he said. the ingredients and where they come from. , you could still be involved in deforestation issues, ”said Ms. Dobre of Sustainalytics. “You still need space to grow the soybeans that are in many of these products. “
Mr. Brown of Impossible Foods acknowledged that soy is a key ingredient in the company’s products, but argued that much of the soybeans grown around the world are used as animal feed and that Impossible Foods uses the soybeans more efficiently than animals.
Making his point, Mr Brown said it would be “ridiculous” for the company, which uses coconut oil in its products, to try to determine how many coconut shells that it has used have been recycled or thrown away.
“It’s such a small fraction of the positive impact we have, to be perfectly honest,” he said. “We’ll point it out if it’s necessary, but really, you’re totally missing the point if you’re obsessed with this stuff.”
Trying to report on every sustainability measure “is a ridiculous use of our resources,” he said. “It will make us less impactful because we are wasting resources on satisfying an Excel jockey rather than trying to save the planet.”