The first large food company to go carbon neutral comes from the part of the industry with the largest carbon footprint. Maple Leaf Foods, a meat producer with around $3.5 billion in annual revenue, announced today that it is offsetting all of its emissions, as it simultaneously works to shrink its emissions as much as possible.
“The urgency for leadership and specific action around the climate crisis that we face is irrefutable,” says Michael McCain, CEO of the Canada-based company. “And our industry is a key protagonist in that discussion. So we believe that in the best interest of the communities that we serve, and the populations that we serve—and the long-term interests of our shareholders as well—it’s important for us to take a leadership position.”
The company, which makes products including ham, roast chicken, and sausages, already had aggressive sustainability goals, with a plan to cut its total environmental footprint in half by 2025 compared to 2014. (Since 2015, it has already saved more than 86 million kilowatt-hours of electricity, more than 4.3 million cubic meters of natural gas, and more than 1.2 billion liters of water.) It’s now also making a commitment under the Science Based Targets Initiative, a partnership between nonprofits and the U.N. Global Compact that helps companies cut emissions in line with the goals of the Paris climate agreement.
The company is working to shrink its emissions in a variety of ways, including investing in more efficient equipment and technology that can capture methane from manure on farms and reuse it as an energy source. Emissions from its own operations and electricity use will drop 30% by 2030, and emissions from the rest of the supply chain—from its suppliers’ animal feed to packaging—will also drop 30% for each metric ton of food that it produces.
To tackle its remaining carbon footprint now, the company is investing in offset projects such as new wind farms and forest protection. Because of the size of its footprint—440,000 metric tons, including its own operations and the rest of its supply chain—it’s a meaningful investment, which may cost between $5 and $10 million a year. The company sees it as an internal carbon tax that gives it even more reason to keep shrinking emissions.
The work raises questions at a time when many climate experts believe that it’s necessary for the world to eat less meat. One recent report found that if agriculture continues on its current path, we’d need to cut down forests over an area roughly twice the size of India to create enough farmland; much of that would be driven by huge growth in meat consumption. The same report suggested that eating less meat is key to meeting climate goals. Still, beef is the worst offender, and Maple Leaf Foods doesn’t happen to work with beef. The company does make some plant-based meat, though, and it’s beginning to build a new $310 million plant-based meat factory. But it argues—unsurprisingly, considering its business interests—that people don’t need to change their diets if the industry radically improves.
“It’s a mistake, in our view, to conclude that what exists today will be the case into the future,” says McCain. “There are very material ways and paths for the animal meat production or protein production system to improve its footprint and achieve carbon neutrality to the point where it doesn’t have that impact. And consumers can make the choices that they see fit for any number of reasons between plant proteins, animal proteins, or any other choices in their personal diet.”
The company does hope that others in its industry will make similar choices to cut emissions; Tyson Foods, an even larger meat producer, set its own science-based target in 2018. And Maple Leaf also hopes that others will buy offsets. “For the sake of all of us stakeholders that rely on a future healthy planet, we would hope that other industries, and businesses within our industry, would follow suit,” McCain says.