Greenwashing: Plant-Based Meat

Fake meat companies claim their products as environmentally friendly. But are they?

Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods, and other synthetic meat companies tout their products as the meat alternative that could save the planet. They argue meat production emits too much greenhouse gas and fake meat is a greener replacement. Impossible Foods CEO Pat Brown went as far as to say that he sees their products as the “last chance to save the plan­et from envi­ron­men­tal cat­a­stro­phe.” Some companies have paid for studies that found that their products use less land, less water, and less greenhouse gas than the meat industry.

The apocalyptic sales pitch seems to be working, with McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, and other major brands adding fake meat to the menu. But while these companies may see these ventures into synthetic meat as an eco-friendly endeavor, there is little independent research to back that up. 

Macro Springmann, a senior researcher at Oxford University, warned consumers that the environmental credentials touted by fake meat have not been properly vetted by the scientific community. He argued that the research bought and paid for by the synthetic meat industry does not accurately reflect the environmental attributes of fake meat. (Much as anti-meat activists question studies funded by the meat industry.)

“Those companies make wild claims, but they don’t back that up with any independent attestment,” Springmann told NBC. “Their claims are based on third-party potential estimates of emissions.”

In Sprigmann’s independent research, he found that synthetic meat was nowhere near the environmental savior it purports itself to be. He and his team at Oxford discovered that plant-based fake meat produced the same amount of greenhouse gas emissions as chicken and five times the emissions of real vegetable or legume alternatives found in veggie or tofu burgers. 

Even worse, cellular-based fake meat produced five times the amount of greenhouse gases created in chicken production. Cellular-based fake meat nearly produced the same emissions as beef, which is the most greenhouse-gas intensive meat to produce. 

Springmann and other environmentalists noted that alternatives such as veggie or mushroom burgers made from whole foods like rice, beans, seeds, lentils, or mushrooms are the products consumers should choose if they want a significant emissions cut.

Moreover, these whole food products are healthier than “ultra-processed” synthetic meat alternatives. Fake meat burgers come packed with sodium, sugar, and a plethora of ingredients you’ve never heard of. They also have 20% more calories than a lean beef burger.

“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,” Springmann said

Fake meat is not nearly as green as its investors make it seem.

This is the second report in a series about companies “greenwashing” products to make them appear to be better for the environment than they actually are. You can read our other greenwashing reports here. Keep an eye on the Periodic Fabels blog for future updates to the series.