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Meatless burgers vs. beef: How Beyond Meat’s environmental impact stacks up

Meatless burgers vs. beef: How Beyond Meat’s environmental impact stacks up
[Photo: courtesy of Beyond Meat]

We’ve all heard about the benefits of plant-based meat alternatives: reduced cholesterol, less impact on the land, animal-friendly, etc. But in terms of its reportedly environmentally friendly practices, how exactly does it measure up to traditional meat? Beyond Meat–makers of non-GMO meat-free burgers, sausages, and chicken strips–discovered it’s quite substantial.

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The food company commissioned a study with the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan to conduct a “cradle-to-distribution” life cycle assessment of its best-selling burger, made with pea protein, canola oil, coconut oil, and beat juice extract. Researchers analyzed greenhouse gas emissions, energy use, water consumed, land use, and even packaging, then compared it to that of an uncooked quarter-pound beef burger delivered to retail outlets. The study then underwent a third-party review process from outside scholars, states the report.

[Image: courtesy of Beyond Meat]
The team discovered that the Beyond Burger generates 90% less greenhouse gas emissions, requires 46% less energy, and has 99% less impact on water scarcity and 93% less impact on land use than a quarter pound of U.S. beef. That means a 41-square-foot plot of land can produce just one beef burger for every 15 Beyond Burgers.

A spokesman for the brand explained that, by this assessment, Americans switching from beef to plant-based patties would be the equivalent of taking 12 million cars off the road for an entire year–or saving enough electricity to power 2.3 million homes.

“From the start, Beyond Meat has been steadfast in our perspective that meat doesn’t have to come from a chicken, cow, or pig,” said Beyond Meat’s founder and CEO, Ethan Brown, in a press statement. “We believe that we can build delicious, satiating meat directly from plants. Though the sustainability of building meat from plants makes intuitive sense, we commissioned the University of Michigan study to generate peer-reviewed data and analysis regarding the positive impact consumers can have on climate and natural resources by shifting from beef to Beyond Burgers.”

The study’s release coincides with the UN Environment organization awarding Beyond Meat the 2018 Champion of the Earth honor on Wednesday. The company is being lauded as a sustainability trailblazer.

[Photo: courtesy of Beyond Meat]
It’s the latest in a series of wins for the brand, which recently revealed a 26,000-square-foot facility dedicated to recreating every popular meat product on the market. The plant-based meat substitute maker, which has seen sales ramp up by 70% in the last year, has sold 25 million burgers since its 2016 debut. It admitted having trouble meeting demand after multiple Whole Foods stores ran out of inventory. Besides the market chain, Beyond Meat sells at Amazon Fresh and 20,000 other grocery retailers–as well as 10,000 restaurants, hotels, and universities.

Americans are increasingly looking for meat substitutes such as Beyond Meat and the Impossible Burger. The plant-based “meat” industry saw sales top $670 million in the last year–up 24% from the year prior, reports the Plant Based Foods Association. The overall plant-based industry, meanwhile, saw $3.7 billion in sales.

For many consumers, the decision to lessen the dependence on meat is based on health and dietary concerns. But for a growing percentage, it’s shifted to environmental reasons. It takes an estimated 18,000 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef. (Peas, in comparison, take 740 gallons.) A recent poll found that 43% of consumers are more likely to try plant-based alternatives today than just five years ago.

As Brown told Fast Company earlier this summer, “More and more consumers are beginning to understand the biggest choice they make in terms of impact on the climate is protein.”

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