Hi Folks! In a return to the Daily Footprint posts, I’m going to spend some time looking at plant-based meat substitutes. They are definitely catching on: last year, in the US, sales of meat rose by 2% while sales of plant-based meat-substitutes rose by 24% (and sales rose even faster than that in Europe). Over the course of just this one day, around 150 million land animals are being killed for human consumption. Many of us don’t want to be a part of this anymore. Beyond Meat has been making some of the biggest waves in the plant-based protein market, attracting investors such as Bill Gates and Leonardo DiCaprio. For an overview of the company here’s a great interview with Beyond Meat founder, Ethan Brown, on Plant Based News:
Sustainability of Beyond Meat
Researchers at the University of Michigan carried out a comprehensive Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), comparing a Beyond Meat burger to a beef burger. The impact of the plant-based burger is impressively lower: around 10-fold reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and land use, and a 200-fold reduction in water use.
The main ingredients in the Beyond Meat products are pea protein, canola oil and coconut oil. The first two are mainly grown in Canada and the US and the coconuts are grown in Malaysia and Indonesia. I’ve written about the impact of coconut oil before and consider it an ethical product when sourced well (e.g., Nutiva coconut oil gets 5/5 Green Stars). Note that coconuts don’t compete for rainforest land, as palm oil does. Let’s take a closer look at peas…
Peas are far more sustainable than meat
Just to further clarify the comparison between legumes (peas, soybeans, lentils, peanuts) and meat, here’s data from an Oxford University study, published in 2018 in Science. The table for Beyond Meat (above) looks at the impact of the entire final product, including all ingredients, processing and packaging. If you just look at this straight comparison between beef and peas (below) you can see that the reduction in GHG emissions and land use are even more impressive. There’s also a massive reduction in stress on soil and water systems (acidification and eutrophication). So I’m sure you’ve heard it before, but eating your peas, beans, nuts and tofu are all excellent ways to do your part in healing this planet.
The researchers from the University of Michigan also looked at the packaging for Beyond Meat burger patties, and one recommendation for improvement was to make the tray from post-consumer recycled polypropylene. Packaging for their sausages is significantly better, comprising a cardboard tray covered with a layer of thin polyethylene film with a label attached. Actually, this was one of the first things that caught my attention in the store: it’s a nice example of minimal packaging. Consumers in the US seem to be a bit paranoid about their packaging, preferring products to come in layers of reinforced plastic rather than something more sustainable. Beyond (and other brands like Quorn, which I’ll feature in upcoming posts) deserve recognition for bucking that horrible trend (at least with their sausages).
Pea protein takes off.
Making plant-based alternatives from pea protein is really taking off these days. In a post on plant-based milks, I’ve looked into Ripple milk, also pea-based. Like Ripple, Beyond has raised the bar when it comes to plant-based alternatives. In both cases, the ingredients are not organic, but both companies have expressed interest in using organic ingredients in future. For both companies, there are still a few areas for improvement as far as social and environmental impact goes.
Room for improvement: agriculture and trade practices
Since peas (like all legumes) have the wonderful agricultural advantage that they fix their own nitrogen, it’s not entirely clear that there’s a benefit switching to certified organic. That’s because organic certification puts restrictions on the kinds of fertilizer that can be used, which can make it complicated to treat legumes that usually need potassium and phosphorous more than nitrogen. So, although I’m usually in favor of organic products (and I do follow the pro and con arguments in the science literature) I would say that for legumes, I’m not always looking for organic certification but would like see evidence that sustainable farming practices are used.
So, it would be great to see Beyond Meat (and Ripple Foods) providing information on how the peas are farmed and using their leverage to encourage suppliers to use Integrated Pest Management and minimize pesticide usage. It would also be nice to see Beyond Meat moving towards adoption of organic coconut and canola oils. Perhaps the last major factor that Beyond could look at to seal the deal on a completely ethical product is to use fair trade coconut oil, or in other ways show that their supply chain in Malaysia and Indonesia is as ethical as possible.
Overall scores for quality and ethics
As far as quality goes, I wholeheartedly recommend the Beyond Meat sausages. As someone who hasn’t eaten a meat-based sausage in a few decades, I can say that these chaps brought back fond memories (without causing suffering). They have amazing flavor and texture that’s quite unlike any soy- or gluten-based products that I’ve eaten. The main downside is the price – they are not cheap compared to other veggie dogs – but as a monthly treat I think they are worth it. So 5/5 gold stars for quality. Perhaps 4/5 if you weigh the price heavily into your consideration.
For social and environmental impact, I’m awarding them 5/5 Green Stars. As listed above, there are still some improvements that could be made in the supply chain, and I look forward to seeing if they can make these happen. At the very least, I hope that they can maintain the standards that they already have set, after the company goes public.