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Plant-Based Food Companies Face Critics: Environmental Advocates

Consumers and investors alike have gobbled up Beyond Meat’s burgers, sausage and chicken in recent years, thanks at least in part to the company’s message that its plant-based products are good for the environment.

But some aren’t so sure.

One investor tracking firm gives Beyond Meat a zero when it comes to sustainability measures. Another rates it a “severe risk,” putting it on a par with the beef and chicken processing giants JBS and Tyson.

“We don’t feel we have sufficient information to say Beyond Meat is fundamentally different from JBS,” said Roxana Dobre, a manager of consumer goods research at Sustainalytics, a firm that rates the sustainability of companies based on their environmental, social and corporate governance impact.

At first glance, it seems logical that plant-based food companies like the publicly traded Beyond Meat and its privately held competitor, Impossible Foods, would be better for the environment than meat processors like JBS. Those processors slaughter and package millions of heads of cattle each year, a significant contributor to methane released into the atmosphere.

The problem, critics say, is that neither Beyond Meat nor Impossible Foods discloses 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 how much water they use.

But on its website Beyond Meat claims that consumers who switch from animal to plant-based protein can “positively affect the planet, the environment, the climate and even ourselves.” Impossible Foods says that switching to plant-based meats “can be better than getting solar panels, driving an electric car or avoiding plastic straws” when it comes to reducing your environmental footprint.

“The dominant narrative from the plant-based industry and the venture capitalists supporting it is that these companies are better for the environment, they’re better for health, they’re better for this and better for that,” said Ricardo San Martin, the research director of the alternative meats program at the University of California, Berkeley. “But it is really a black box. So much of what is in these products is undisclosed.

“Everybody 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 primary driver of deforestation and uses as much as 70 percent of the world’s fresh water supply.

Yet it is lax in terms of tracking and disclosing not only its greenhouse gas emissions, but also the effect it has on forests and water use. An examination 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 didn’t disclose emissions from converting forests into agricultural use.

In response to growing investor concerns about the risks of climate change on corporations, the Securities and Exchange Commission is weighing a rule that would force companies to report their emissions, although it remains unclear whether the agency would also have companies account for emissions that came from supply chains and consumer waste.

Even as consumers and investors move to hold Big Food more accountable for its emissions, the fact that two of the leading plant-based food companies don’t offer these disclosures is a source of frustration for watchdogs.

Beyond Meat, which went public in the spring of 2019 and whose shares have fallen 16 percent this year, said it had completed a comprehensive greenhouse gas analysis that would be released in 2022 and planned to update its environmental, social and governance goals by the end of the year.

But Patrick Brown, the founder and chief executive of Impossible Foods, echoed some of the arguments made by big food companies around the current accounting and reporting standards for emissions and other climate data, saying it doesn’t reflect the total impact of a company like his.

The environmental, social and governance reporting that currently exists “simply doesn’t contemplate something of the magnitude that we’re doing,” he said. “We are as transparent as it is reasonably possible to be about our environmental impact, but the existing framework doesn’t recognize, doesn’t appreciate, the overall majority of our impact, which is massive.”

A spokeswoman for Impossible Foods added that the company had a working group that had completed a full greenhouse gas inventory and was planning to set targets to reduce emissions.

Both Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have commissioned studies by academics or third parties that compare how their plant-based burgers or sausages stack up to beef or pork products. A 2018 study by researchers at the University of Michigan concluded that a quarter-pound Beyond Burger generated 90 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than its beef burger equivalent.

Likewise, an analysis by a third-party firm done for Impossible Foods concluded that its plant-based burger used significantly less water and land and created fewer emissions than the meat equivalents. Impossible Foods has commissioned similar analysis for other food products.

But those reports, say analysts, may not tell the whole story about how the production of plant-based burgers, sausage and chicken may be affecting the climate. An Impossible Burger has 21 ingredients, according to the company’s website, including soy.

“The problem with plant-based products, generally speaking, is that while they may be fixing one problem, combating the fact that growing meat is very carbon intensive and emits a lot of carbon dioxide, depending on the ingredients and where they are sourced from, you could still be involved in deforestation issues,” said Ms. Dobre of Sustainalytics. “You still need the space to grow the soy that is in many of these products.”

Mr. Brown of Impossible Foods acknowledged that soy was a key ingredient in the company’s products, but argued that much of the soy grown in the world is used to feed animals and that Impossible Foods uses the soy more efficiently than the animals do.

Further arguing his point, Mr. Brown said it would be “ridiculous” for the company, which uses coconut oil in its products, to try to ascertain how many of the coconut shells it used were recycled versus thrown away.

“It’s such a tiny fraction of the positive impact that we’re having, to be perfectly honest,” he said. “We’ll report it if it’s necessary, but really, you’re totally missing the point if you’re obsessing about that kind of stuff.”

Trying to account for every sustainability measure “is a ridiculous use of our resources,” he said. “It will make us less impactful because we’re wasting resources to satisfy an Excel jockey rather than to try to save the planet.”

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