Is Beyond Meat’s Beyond Burger Beyond Beef?
Earlier this year, Beyond Meat, a Los Angeles-based producer of plant-based meat substitutes, commissioned the Center for Sustainable Systems at University of Michigan to conduct a “cradle-to-distribution” life cycle assessment (LCA) of the Beyond Burger, their plant-based patty designed to look, cook, and taste like a fresh ground beef burger.
The main purpose of the study was to compare environmental impacts, water use, and land use with those from typical beef production in the U.S. Its secondary objective was to highlight opportunities for further improvement in the environmental performance of the Beyond Burger. It’s worthwhile to note that the Beyond Burger is considered functionally and nutritionally similar to beef, both containing about 20g of protein, 23g of total fat and, and 290 kilocalorie per quarter pound patty.
Methodology and limitations
The analysis included upstream ingredient and raw material supply systems, processing and packaging operations, cold storage, distribution to point of sale, and disposal of packaging materials. It excluded activities at the retail and consumer level, as they were assumed to be similar for both plant-based and animal-derived patties.
The production of ingredients in the Beyond Burger made largest contributions to its overall green house gas emissions (GHGE), energy use, and land use, while processing resulted in the bulk of its water use. Plastic packaging was a notable hotspot across all indicators. These results are of great relevance because they present an opportunity to make significant reductions in the total product footprint.
As is typical in LCA studies of beef production, raising the animals dominates all impacts. These on-farm stages represent 96%, 78%, 99% and 98% of the cradle-to-distribution GHGE, cumulative energy use, characterized water use, and land use, respectively.
The researchers also compared the Beyond Burger to the impacts of “dairy beef” – ex-dairy cows killed for beef: at an expected fraction of the US beef supply, its effect on GHGE and energy use is not great enough for significant change. Even when 100% “dairy beef” was assumed, the Beyond Burger still performs significantly better. Similar conclusions were made about beef from grass-fed cows.
In evaluating the uncertainty and sensitivity of this LCA, the researchers found that the absolute values of the presented numbers may vary somewhat, but the bottom line still remains: there is no indication that a situation or condition may arise in which the environmental impact of the Beyond Burger would be worse than that of a beef burger. To demonstrate this point, beef GHGEs are said to vary from 7 to 118 kg CO2 eq./kg compared to the 3.4 kg CO2eq. /kg of the Beyond Burger defined here.
Based on a comparative assessment of the current Beyond Burger production system with a beef LCA from 2017, the Beyond Burger generates 90% less GHGEs, requires 46% less energy, has >99% less impact on water scarcity and 93% less impact on land use than a quarter pound of U.S. beef. This scientific report should aid animal advocates in providing quality data when presenting plant-based alternatives as much more environmentally-friendly. As the Beyond Burger continues to blaze a trail across the U.S. (and Canada!), this information should help speed it along.