Is plant-based meat more sustainable? Experts question the data

By Staff
8 Min Read

Sustainability is at the root of Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat’s marketing strategy, with the plant-based meat giants claiming their products are better for the planet than traditional meat. But their proof for these claims are increasingly coming under question from investors and scientists over a lack of independent data and a failure to consider the emissions associated with sourcing soy and other commodities used in plant-based burgers.

To bolster their sustainability claims, companies often draw from self-commissioned analyses called life-cycle assessments (LCAs), which calculate the environmental impact of products and services from production to waste. However, experts have struggled to replicate the findings of Impossible and Beyond’s LCAs, raising concerns about the accuracy and validity of certain claims.

It’s unlikely plant-based burgers, nuggets and other products are worse for the climate than traditional meat products. Still, accurately quantifying sustainability claims is important as corporate messaging influences policy and investment decisions.

“Investors want to understand this relatively new industry, whether it’s having a reduced environmental or social impact compared to animal-derived proteins,” said Abby Herd, a senior analyst with the Farm Animal Investment Risk and Return (FAIRR) Initiative, which raises awareness of ESG issues in the food industry.

Both Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat declined multiple requests for interviews.

Lacking data

Major plant-based companies lean on LCAs to determine the climate impacts of their products, a practice that is susceptible to conflicts of interest, said Ricardo San Martin, director of the Alt: Meat Lab at the University of California, Berkeley.

“Any plant-based company, really anyone in the food industry, that produces their own paid data, will always only publish whatever makes them look great,” San Martin said. “If it’s negative, why would they publish that?”

Over the years, Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have commissioned a number of LCAs to illustrate the environmental impact of its plant-based products compared to conventional meat. One of the earliest reports came from the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability in 2018.

“Saying something like ‘eating our burger is better than driving electric cars’ is not the messaging that we would like to see.”

Alex Ernstoff

Quantis global science lead

The findings concluded that Beyond Meat’s burger uses 99% less water, 93% less land, generates 90% fewer greenhouse gas emissions and requires 46% less energy than a typical beef burger.

However, Hannah Ritchie, a researcher at Oxford University, tried collecting data on the claims and found them difficult to substantiate.

“I thought it would be easy to find a clear answer,” said Ritchie, deputy editor at the nonprofit Our World in Data. “But I struggled to find many comparisons based on solid data,” noting that the vast majority of studies were industry-backed.

This can lead to potentially hyperbolic or misleading claims. According to its website, Impossible Foods claims changing diets to include more plant-based foods can be more effective than “getting solar panels, driving an electric car, or avoiding plastic straws.”

“LCA communication and marketing needs to build on scientific evidence and interpret that evidence in a way that’s credible,” said Alexi Ernstoff, global science lead at the sustainability consulting firm Quantis, which conducts LCAs for clients. “Saying something like ‘eating our burger is better than driving electric cars’ is not the messaging that we would like to see.”

Researchers who took part in LCAs for plant-based companies have no qualms with how firms are portraying their commissioned data. Greg Keoleian, director of the University of Michigan’s Center for Sustainable Systems, said there could be a lack of transparency in areas to avoid disclosing sensitive information.

“[Companies] may have confidential data that they do not wish to disclose publicly such as ingredient portions,” said Keoleian, who co-authored Beyond Meat’s LCA from 2018. “Life cycle analysts are given access to such data and can aggregate them in published reports so as not to disclose such proprietary information.”

Sustainable sourcing concerns

While beef is a key driver in emissions and land conversions, plant-based products contribute to the impact of deforestation in the carbon-rich tropics, including for key ingredients cacao butter, soy and coconut oil. Due to a lack of sourcing traceability within Impossible and Beyond’s LCAs, the companies cannot fully account for the potential environmental and social impacts of their products.

The climate impacts of these ingredients can vary depending on where they are grown. Some may be from a certified sustainable farm, while others may be from recently deforested land in the Amazon, Africa or Southeast Asia.

“If you look at where plant-based meat brands are sourcing from, probably a lot is coming from the same big traders.”

Sophia Carodenuto

University of Victoria assistant professor

However, neither Impossible Foods nor Beyond Meat specifies which farms or land areas they rely on for high-risk ingredients in tropical countries. They also have not publicly released plans to partner with major food companies or sourcing initiatives to expand their tracing efforts.

That’s concerning to Sophia Carodenuto, an interdisciplinary scientist focused on forest governance at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. She worries the expansion of the plant-based food industry could be linked to deforestation in cacao farming regions.

“If you look at where plant-based meat brands are sourcing from, probably a lot is coming from the same big traders,” Carodenuto said. “So at the end of the day, it’s the same thing and it’ll be the same issues that [companies like] Hershey are dealing with.”

A lack of sourcing information is part of the reason experts believe the reports are merely a snapshot based on several assumptions, making them “easy to discredit, according to Ritchie.

“It shouldn’t be this way,” she said. “Every claim that a brand makes should be backed up with transparent, publicly available data, and ideally, these analyses would be done by academics and independent evaluators.”

The use of science to push an agenda can go both ways. Some of the harshest criticisms of plant-based burgers and nuggets come from entities or individuals supported by the meat industry, which is also potentially misusing data.

“It’s complex. It’s not black and white,” San Martin said of corporate sustainability data. “It depends on where you’re coming from or what you care about.”

Share This Article
Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *