Increasing awareness and concern about the environmental impact of animal agriculture has led to a significant surge in the popularity of meat substitutes, with several brands making names for themselves in the market. These companies aim to provide plant-based alternatives that closely mimic the taste and texture of traditional meat products, while promoting themselves to be a more environmentally friendly option compared to conventional meat. They argue that meat production is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, and their synthetic meat alternative is a more sustainable solution.
The arguments are, indeed, valid, with animal agriculture contributing significantly to global greenhouse gas emissions, particularly methane and nitrous oxide, and requiring vast amounts of land and water resources to operate. This has led to several other environmental issues such as soil erosion, deforestation, and unsustainable water usage.
By claiming that their production process does not involve large-scale environmental degradation that is an outcome of traditional meat production, on top of their ability to replicate the taste and texture of meat, it is not surprising that there is a growing trend towards artificially produced meat. Some of these companies have successfully found their way into grocery stores, fast food chains, and restaurants, attracting both vegans and non-vegans who are interested in reducing their meat consumption.
However, while these companies may view their foray into man-made meat as a sustainable initiative, many have contested their claims stating that there is little science to prove that such products are better for the environment. In fact, these companies have been accused of greenwashing for using alarmist marketing communication strategies to exploit their consumers’ concern for the environment.
All meat, no substance.
Various independent researchers have concluded that synthetic meat may not live up to the hype around sustainability. According to researchers from Oxford University, greenhouse gas emissions from the production of plant-based meat amounted to levels equivalent to chicken production and five times more emissions than real vegetable or legume alternatives commonly found in veggie and tofu burgers.
Other research bodies have also claimed that synthetic meat has been found to contain unhealthy amounts of sodium, sugar, and other unfamiliar ingredients on top of containing 20% more calories than a lean beef burger. There have also been reports that products made by one of the most popular producers of synthetic meat may contain concerning levels of the herbicide glyphosate due to their products being made from genetically engineered soy protein. In the United States, almost all soybean acres are planted with genetically engineered seeds designed to tolerate herbicides made from glyphosate.
If the claims in these reports are true, it would suggest that these fake meat companies are yet another example of greenwashing – the practice of presenting a company, product, or initiative as environmentally friendly or sustainable while glossing over issues that may prove otherwise.
‘Greenwashing’ yet again?
The fact that the practice is becoming widespread is particularly concerning, especially given some of the counterproductive responses made by some of the companies that have been accused of jumping on the environmental bandwagon.
Rather than engaging in a constructive debate around their credentials, there is a rash of smear campaigns to discredit researchers who point out instances of greenwashing. It may be more constructive and even look better from an ESG perspective if such companies engaged with stakeholders to address any potential shortfalls. This could start with the acknowledgement that their initiatives are insufficient and that more needs to be done to document any tangible environmental impact.
This, in fact, is very important given the concerning lack of consensus around ESG and sustainability standards as mentioned in one of my previous articles about greenwashing. Though there have been initiatives to curb greenwashing, including the global baseline on climate and sustainability by the G20-backed International Sustainability Standards Board (ISSB), it will likely take some time before they are implemented and, in the meantime, consumers are being misled. It is important for companies to have a clear definition and credible proof of what it means to claim “sustainability” and being “environmentally friendly.” Contrary to the bold statements made by some fake meat producers, covering up the environmental impacts of their business activities can mislead consumers and investors into thinking their decisions are more beneficial to the environment than they really are, and long term these tactics will literally “come back to bite them”.