a collage of cows in a pasture next to a plant-based burger
Collage by Cathryn Virginia | Images from Getty

Big Meat Is Selling Veggie Burgers—But It's Still Destroying the Environment

As the world's largest meat producers launch plant-based products to compete with vegan start-ups, beware of those greenwashing for profit.
Bettina Makalintal
Brooklyn, US
September 25, 2020, 11:00am

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The American supermarket is changing. Dairy shelves are increasingly crowded with coconut yogurts, oat milks, and cashew cheeses, while "meatless" sections eat up more and more shelf space to make way for new options in plant-based burgers, soy "crumbles," and assorted nuggets and sausages.

As shoppers have cut back on animal products—whether due to environmental concerns, health issues, or an ethical stance against animal cruelty—and look for appealing replacements, there's no shortage of companies offering up choices. While dairy alternatives have seen the most stratospheric growth in recent years, meatless options have also seen a surge in popularity as beef and chicken substitutes become more enticing to the mainstream, with a 37.8 percent growth in sales from 2017 to 2019, according to research from the Good Food Institute. From March to May of this year, sales of plant-based meats rose 264 percent over just nine weeks amid a major uptick in home cooking during the COVID-19 lockdown. And as start-ups like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods bring the spotlight to the expanding profit potential in the plant-based meat market, Big Meat is angling for its share.

It's clear from alt-milk's current success that Big Dairy has essentially failed to contain the soy, almond, and oat milk industries, though certainly not for lack of trying. Meat companies seem to be trying a different approach: If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

Through hopeful new lines and marketing campaigns, the meat industry is showing shoppers how its own products can be integrated into plant-forward eating instead of being replaced entirely. In 2019, Tyson—which produces an estimated 20 percent of all beef, pork, and chicken in the United States, and has previously backed Beyond Meat—launched a line of "plant-based" and blended meat products called Raised & Rooted. Perdue announced that it, too, would offer blended nuggets, alongside a five-year goal of making blended meat 5 percent of its overall business. Smithfield, the world's largest pork producer, followed suit with a meatless brand called Pure Farmland, as did Hormel under the name Happy Little Plants. This June, JBS, the world's largest meat processing company, jumped in the arena with its line of OZO faux meats, under its new subsidiary Planterra Foods.

Now that many of the world's biggest meat corporations are getting into plant-based products, the question remains as to whether they can effectively contribute to the movement for more climate-friendly food. Is there reason for consumers to trust their new direction, and is it even possible for these companies to ameliorate the problems caused, in part, by their own systems of industrial meat production?

The more plant-based a diet is, the more environmentally sustainable, a research review published in Sustainability concluded last year. That verdict echoed high-profile guidance from researchers of a study in Science in 2018, who found that avoiding animal products has "transformative potential" for the environment. The land use and greenhouse gas emissions of animal-based food production have majorly contributed to the climate crisis, in which experts now estimate that just seven years remain until the effects of global warming become irreversible. The science is there: Moving toward a future less dependent on animal agriculture is both responsible and unavoidable.

Naturally, there's a financial incentive for meat companies to launch vegan-friendly lines, according to Brian Kateman, co-founder and president of Reducetarian Foundation. His goal through the Reducetarian movement is to view meat consumption not as an all-or-nothing choice, but through the perspective that every vegetarian meal a person eats helps advance a world in which fewer animal products are consumed. "It's not necessarily because [meat companies] loathe factory farming, or have decided that they want to abandon the primary ways in which they make money," he said.

Kateman believes it's "unquestionably a positive development that meat companies are investing, producing, [and] promoting plant-based products," but there's good reason to be skeptical of their reasons for getting into the game and their methods of marketing those products. Many companies of this size will just go wherever the money is: In 2018, responding to the rising interest in non-meat protein, Perdue chairman Jim Perdue said, "Our vision is to be the most trusted name in premium protein. It doesn’t say premium meat protein, just premium protein. That’s where consumers are going."

For this reason, Kari Hamerschlag, deputy director of food and agriculture at Friends of the Earth, doesn't see the meat industry's current push into vegetarian options as an effective step toward a more sustainable food system. "I actually think that these large company investments will do very little to cut the massive impact of the world’s largest meat companies," she said. "Unless these companies actually slash their emissions, then they are not doing what they need to do to address the climate crisis."

Meat, fish, and dairy production use roughly 83 percent of the world’s farmland and are responsible for around 57 percent of our food system's greenhouse gas emissions, according to that 2018 Science study on reducing food's environmental impact. Even more disproportionate is the fact that all of that animal agriculture—and the environmental harm that comes with it—accounts for only 37 percent of the protein in our food supply. Producing a single kilogram of beef emits 60 kilograms of greenhouse gases (CO2-equivalents), while farming peas (which are used in numerous vegetarian meat substitutes) emits just one kilogram of these emissions per kilogram produced. When it comes to beef, most of those emissions come from land use and farm-stage processes like manure management and methane emissions. According to the EPA, manure management—yes, dealing with cow poop—alone accounts for 12 percent of the agriculture sector's total greenhouse gas emissions nationwide.

With these statistics in mind, it's difficult to see how Big Meat could be meaningfully interested in environmental causes while continuing to obtain most of their profits from factory farming. "It's greenwashing, and it's a smart marketing tool, and it's a profit," Hamerschlag explained. Greenwashing, a term coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986, refers to practices that mislead consumers about a company or product's environmental practices or benefits, whether that's through false claims, self-congratulatory statements without backing evidence, or just vagueness.

For example, a bag of Tyson's Raised & Rooted meatless nuggets offers the slogan "100% delicious. 0% compromise," without even explaining what that compromise is. Other examples of greenwashing include the many instances of companies labeling foods "sustainable" without evidence or proof of third-party certification. Kateman pointed out that labeling around these claims needs to be honest: As he has written, Tyson's use of "plant-based" for its nuggets can be misleading since they contain eggs, breaking from the common understanding that "plant-based" means vegan.

"[Meat companies] are meeting the market, but they are not addressing climate change," Hamerschlag said. "Let's just be clear about that: They are not slashing their greenhouse gas emissions—in fact, they continue to grow, because they're expanding their operations in the meat sector." Though large meat companies have announced emissions reduction initiatives—Smithfield has committed to reducing absolute emissions 25 percent by 2025, and Tyson is working toward a 30 percent reduction by 2030—Hamerschlag cited concerns with the scope of their emissions reporting. These same companies have made false promises before: In 2007, Smithfield promised to eliminate gestation crates, and later claimed to have fulfilled this commitment in 2018, but animal welfare groups found that the company was still keeping many pigs in cramped, unsanitary conditions.

The average American eats over 200 pounds of meat per year, according to data from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, amounting to some of the highest meat consumption in the world. But as Hamerschlag pointed out, even if American meat consumption goes down, domestic meat production could still remain high due to the demand for exports. Before the pandemic hit meat processing plants hard—unsafe workplace conditions for meatpacking workers have caused at least 42,000 cases of coronavirus and more than 200 deaths—the pork industry was still expanding. Driven by exports to China, pork production hit a record last year, the New York Times reported.

"I think the key thing to keep in mind is that in order to be a real solution to climate change, the meat companies need to start tracking, reporting, and setting serious greenhouse gas reduction target goals that would actually require them to divest, and produce less meat and dairy overall, rather than just adding a plant-based option to their portfolio," Hamerschlag said. While it is a "real climate solution" for consumers to eat more vegetables and legumes, and specifically, to opt out of factory-farmed meat, she concluded that it's crucial for meat companies to curb production and emissions, as well as for the government to tip the scale by integrating reduction goals into its food procurement programs.

Unlike the smaller vegan start-ups that we've been seeing more and more of in health food stores, these massive meat companies are equipped with resources to not just meet the demand for these options, but increase it. They have a large reach, distribution channels from supermarkets to stadiums, and capital to fund R&D, marketing, and investments in plant-based food brands. "Anywhere that food is served, these companies have, in one way or another, connections, so they're really able to accelerate the distribution of these products," Kateman said. Because of these resources, analysts have forecasted that companies like Tyson and Nestle will eventually become the leaders in the meat substitute space.

Danielle Nierenberg, co-founder and president of the sustainability-focused think tank Food Tank, would also ask for more from meat companies than just blended burgers and copycat veggie nuggets. "What I'd like to see from the Tysons and other big meat companies in the world is reversing some of the practices that have been so destructive to public health and the environment and to animal welfare," she said. "That would be a bigger step forward in curbing climate change and the environmental problems that come from industrial meat production." Big companies have power to sway things, Nierenberg added, pointing to Walmart's push into the organic sector. Though the chain's move into organic was controversial, its sheer size made those products more available to suburban shoppers, and familiarized more people with the concept in general.

"I think it's really important that we not let perfection, be the enemy of the good."

Ultimately, it's unclear whether it's possible to truly divest from the meat industry's systemic problems by buying plant-based products produced by those same corporations, even if doing so could help shift consumer thinking. While consumers could ostensibly avoid some of these issues by buying vegan food from smaller start-ups and independent companies, financial ties to the meat industry are common: OSI, which supplies meat to McDonald's, also produces Impossible Burgers, and Lightlife is owned by Canadian meat packaging goods company Maple Leaf Foods.

Despite the benefits that come with large meat companies' ample resources and wide distribution channels, Hamerschlag does not personally want to see the profits from meat substitutes going to corporations whose "exploitative" business model gives her "significant concerns with the labor practices, the environmental practices, and health practices."

But shopping ethically is never perfect—that's part of the ethos Kateman promotes with the Reducetarian movement. Earlier this month, oat milk brand Oatly, which has boasted about its products' environmental benefits and company sustainability, came under scrutiny for receiving an investment from a firm with ties to deforestation. But as Oatly has explained in response, it hopes this partnership will push other private equity firms to invest in green companies, ultimately resulting in maximum change for the environment.

A whole foods-based diet that relies on vegetables and legumes rather than processed meat and dairy substitutes is the safest bet when it comes to environmental friendliness and ethical consumption—but ultimately, we've just got to do our best. "The point is it's a spectrum. I think it's really important that we not let perfection, be the enemy of the good," Kateman said. "If someone has decided to cut back on animal products, eat more plant-based foods, regardless of the source, that's something to be celebrated."

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