It is interesting to look into the business case of these companies, to see why their stakeholders consider non-meat products to have real potential. Beyond Meat, which IPO’d in 2019 and commands a valuation at time of writing of $4.8bn, stresses the lower ecological footprint of one of its flagship products, the “Beyond Burger”. The company cites a Life Cycle Analysis study (which it commissioned and was conducted by the University of Michigan) which suggested the Beyond Burger required 99% less water, 90% fewer GHG emissions, 93% less land, and 46% less energy than its 1/4lb US beef burger cousin.
A similar analysis is used by California-based Impossible Foods Inc., which reports the far smaller ecological footprint of its products compared to the animal meat alternatives, and encourages customers to help “save the best planet in the known universe”. Greggs’, by contrast, highlights that the launch of its vegan sausage roll “followed strong consumer demand, including a petition signed by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) last year , which was signed by more than 20,000 people”.
It seems, then, that their products’ smaller ecological footprints and lower GHG emissions feature heavily in these companies’ publicity materials, with less emphasis placed on animal welfare/suffering.
Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have garnered much attention due to the fact that what they offer mimics traditional meat-based products. The Impossible Burger achieves this because it contains leghaemoglobin – an ingredient from soybeans – which gives the Impossible Burger its beefy taste and colour. By contrast, the Beyond Burger uses pea-based proteins, beans, apples and rice to give it its flavour, plant fats that resemble the gristle and fat in ground beef for texture and appearance, and powdered beetroot as a colourant. Additional technology used by Beyond Meat includes a so-called "e-mouth", which is like a mechanised jaw and quantifies how new versions of burger push back when you chew.
TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE?
Despite the excitement over these products and companies, ecosystems and climate scientists have warned that they are not likely to be a panacea for environmental degradation. For instance, Marco Springmann of Oxford University notes that, whilst “it makes sense to develop alternatives to beef” on climate grounds, and “their processed products have about half the carbon footprint that chicken does, they also have 5 times more of a footprint than a bean patty…So Beyond and Impossible go somewhere towards reducing your carbon footprint, but saying it’s the most climate friendly thing to do — that’s a false promise.”
Moreover, it has been pointed out that Impossible Foods (unlike Beyond Meat) now uses genetically-modified soy in their products. Depending on land-use change and other factors, soy’s ecological footprint, as indicated, can be quite high. As a considerable land area (mostly former prairie) in the US Midwest has been turned over for intensive, monoculture soy cultivation, biodiversity (primarily insects, ground-nesting birds, and, by extension the wider ecosystems) has suffered. This serves to highlight the complexity behind any products’ lifecycle ecological footprint.
Whilst there is growing appetite for non-meat proteins/meats in Europe and elsewhere, there are only a handful of publicly-listed, specialist companies focused on “vegan meats” (or similar). The environmental benefits of these products compared to their meat alternatives is clear, and they could also help to reduce the number of animals which are slaughtered for human consumption. But compared to other potential options for vegan diets, they still fall short on their environmental credentials. In an era of climate and ecological breakdown, it seems the question is really whether ‘better’ is good enough.