Widely hailed as the answer to society’s environmental challenges, plant-based foods have come under scrutiny as analysts find it difficult to determine if they are more sustainable than meat and dairy products due to a lack of emissions transparency.
US-based plant-based producers Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are creators of products claimed as being better for the environment than meat processing which raises and then slaughters millions of heads of cattle each year, contributing to gas greenhouse emissions released into the atmosphere.
Beyond Meat’s website state that consumers who switch from animal to plant-based protein can positively affect the planet, the environment, the climate and even ourselves. Impossible Foods goes a step further and compares the switch as superior to getting solar panels, driving an electrical car or avoiding plastic straws in reducing our environmental footprints.
Now researchers and analysts are starting to question to dominant narrative that these companies are better for the environment and health. Research director of the alternative meats program at the University of California Ricardo San Martin likens many plant-based products to a “black box” – much of the carbon footprint of plant-based burgers, sausages and chicken is undisclosed.
According to their critics, neither Beyond Meat nor Impossible Foods disclose the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions and water use across all operations, supply chains or consumer waste. Sustainalytics who rate the sustainability of companies based on their ESG impact does not have sufficient information about Beyond Meat to rate whether it is fundamentally different to meat processor JBS.
The majority of food companies do not disclose emissions from crops and livestock used in their products or emissions from converting forests into agricultural use. That could change soon – at least for US companies as the US SEC is weighing a regulation that would force companies to report emissions.
A working group at Impossible Foods has completed a full greenhouse gas inventory and the company plans to set targets to reduce emissions as well as prepare for their ESG reporting. Beyond Meat has completed a greenhouse gas analysis to be published in 2022 and plans to update its ESG goals by the end of the year.
Studies commissioned by both Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods analyse and compare plant-based with meat products in terms of environmental impact. The studies conclude it requires less water and land use to make a plant-based burger, as well as fewer emissions. Despite these reports, analysts are still looking for more transparency on the environmental impacts of ingredients used in plant-based burgers, sausages and chicken.
Impossible Food founder and CEO Patrick Brown argues that those who are obsessed about the carbon footprint of the entire supply chain are ‘missing the point’, saying it would be a ridiculous use of the company’s resources to account for every sustainability measure.