Are plant-based meats really sustainable?

The popularity of plant-based meats and seafood has grown exponentially and there are multiple factors why. First, COVID created supply chain issues that increased prices and made it harder for consumers to get beef, chicken, and seafood. So consumers tried alternatives and, with a much better selection on the market than just a few years ago, they had options to choose from.

Also, the movement to purchase environmentally sustainable products is stronger than ever. According to Impossible Meats, you can “save the planet” if you eat their products. They go so far as to say that “adjusting your diet can be better than getting solar panels, driving an electric car, or avoiding plastic straws.” Another giant in the industry, Beyond Meat, says that they emit 90% less greenhouse gas than their beef competitors.

But, while plant-based companies tout their sustainability, many experts aren’t convinced. In fact, some analysts put Beyond Meat at a zero for sustainability. Others put it at a “severe risk” of it being the same as meat processing companies like JBS and Tysons.

A basic lack of transparency may be behind this. While it is no secret that the millions of cattle in our food supply are a major source of methane gas, the large plant-based meat companies don’t fully disclose all of their emissions — or their impact on forests or water usage. Without this data, we can only take their word for how sustainable they are.

So how can these companies brag about saving the planet?

Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have commissioned third-party studies which found that a quarter-pound Beyond Burger generated 90 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than its beef burger equivalent.

Raising large animals for up to 2 years requires a lot of energy to raise, process, and move livestock and their food. Some estimate that the global livestock industry emits as much greenhouse gas as all the cars, ships, and planes in the world. But this is likely not surprising to many because meat is basically on every breakfast, snack, lunch, and dinner table.

All this to say that in comparison to the meat industry, plant-based meat is better for the environment. But how much better is an open question. And not all plant-based meat is equal. The process to turn a pea into something with the same color, texture, and taste as meat requires a lot of steps and energy. But there are new technologies being used that are simplifying the process and producing less of an environmental impact. Like The Better Meat Co.’s Rhize mycoprotein for one.

My hope is that more plant-based meat companies will continue to innovate. After all, they are now a $1.4 billion industry and have grown exponentially in a short time. From 2019–2020 alone, they grew $430 million. So if they want to continue to attract new customers and keep their current ones, they will have to find new ways to keep up their promises.

Danilo Diazgranados is an independent investor in the global food and wine, financial services, real estate, and the hospitality sectors.



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