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How Plant-Based Protein Bullied Meat Into Submission

By
Glenn Jeffers
June 24, 2019
5 min read
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If the cows in the Chick-Fil-A commercials were serious about self-preservation, they’d scratch “CHIKIN” off their signs and write in “PLANTZ.” 

Because, you know, spelling. 

2019 is shaping into the “Year of the Plant-based Protein” as companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods spent the month of May gobbling up huge chunks of money and becoming the darlings of investors. 

Beyond Meat opened the month -- literally -- with a record-setting IPO selling at $46 a share, almost double its expected price of $25. By the close of its May 2 opening, the stock was at $60. 

The stock spiked again after news broke that the company signed a deal with Zandbergen World’s Finest Meats to start producing plant-based meat alternatives in Europe next year. That pushed the company’s stock to open at $103.25 on May 29, 313% above its initial offering price, and giving it a market value of more than $5 billion. 

So, no, that’s not a zit on that horse’s head but rather a large pointy horn. #unicornproblems 

But don’t think Impossible Foods isn’t getting its grill on. Chains as haute as Umami Burger to as… “homey” as White Castle have already added the soy-based Impossible Burger to their menus. And it might be the polish that brings some shine back to Burger King’s crown. In April, the restaurant announced it would test an Impossible version of its Whopper in the St. Louis market. 

A month after debuting the Impossible Whopper, Burger King’s average foot traffic increased in the market by 18.5%, according to news reports, even as foot traffic dropped nearly 2% nationwide. The results spurred Burger King to push its roll out to additional markets in Florida and Georgia. They expect to go nationwide with the Impossible Whopper by the end of the year. 

(Sorry, California. Hey, we still got Fatburger and Del Taco. Not sorry, Brooklyn.)

News of the test market’s success helped bolster Impossible Foods’ latest funding round, which closed mid-May raising more than $300 million, bringing its total to $750 million. 

The month has left analysts cautiously optimistic about investing in the plant-based food craze. Bank of America Merrill Lynch analyst Bryan Spillane said in a research note

“These next-generation plant-based alternatives [are positioned] to disrupt the meat category in a similar fashion that plant-based milks disrupted dairy and energy drinks disrupted caffeinated beverages.” 

Which is all well and good, but a bigger question remains: How do they disrupt the environment?  

Short answer? They don’t. 

Last year, Beyond Meat commissioned a study with the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan to provide the company with a life-cycle analysis of the Beyond Burger, its best-selling product.  Think “cradle-to-freezer aisle.” 

Researchers tracked the pea protein-based burger’s entire process, examining greenhouse gas emissions, energy use, water consumption, land use, and packaging. They then compared that to uncooked, four-ounce burgers shipped to retail outlets and sent the study to a third party of outside scholars to review. 

The Wolverine researchers discovered that when compared to a meat burger, the Beyond Burger: 

  • Generates 90% less greenhouse gas emissions
  • Requires 46% less energy
  • Has 99% less impact on water scarcity 
  • Has 93% less impact on land use. 

According to the company, Americans eat an estimated 50 billion hamburgers a year. On average, that's three burgers per week. If Americans switched just one of these beef burgers to a plant-based Beyond Burger for a year, it would be the equivalent of taking 12 million cars off the road or saving enough energy to power 2.3 million homes.

In a statement, Beyond Meat CEO Ethan Brown continued the flex: 

“From the start, Beyond Meat has been steadfast in our perspective that meat doesn’t have to come from a chicken, cow or pig. 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.”

That’s huge when you consider the ecological challenges that have developed thanks to our love of meat. According to the FAO (that’s the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, not the toy store), animal agriculture accounts for 14.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions globally. In the United States, agriculture generates 9%, mostly from the raising -- and tending to -- of animals. 

But don’t let the small numbers fool you. The FAO expects global demand for livestock products to increase by 70% by 2050 to meet rising population needs. As in, Earth will be home to more than 9 billion people by that time. 

And livestock plays a huge role in feeding and supporting that growing brood. Livestock contributes 40% of the global value of agricultural output and supports the livelihoods and food security of almost 1.3 billion people worldwide, according to the FAO.

This also leads to bigger problems down the line. This gets a little deep, so breathe and… 

Let’s talk biodiversity. 

According to the UN Environment Assembly, more than 45% of Earth surface is used for either grazing or growing crops to feed livestock. And over the last quarter century, biodiversity -- the variety and variability of life in a particular habitat, ranging from a single ecosystem to global territories -- has dropped worldwide as deforestation for agricultural use and increased food population has led to land degradation and soil erosion, according to the nonprofit Food and Land Use Coalition.

Don’t believe me? Ask the folks in North Carolina how their lagoons and waterways are doing after Hurricane Florence last year. 

That increased animal production has led to a global shifting toward a more Western-style nutrient-intense diet that, according to the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate's 2018 report, “is a major contributor to the rise of diet-related, non-communicable diseases that are rapidly becoming a leading cause of human mortality. Around 2 billion people are obese or overweight. At the same time, persistent inefficiencies and inequalities in the food system continue to leave 815 million people hungry while a third of all the food that the world produces is lost or wasted.” 

So forget the Paris Agreement keeping rising temperatures to 2 degree Celsius a year. If we don’t stop eating meat, we’re going to grow, choke, burn, starve and eat our way into oblivion. 

“Unless we act quickly to reduce or eliminate the use of animals as technology in the food system, we are racing toward ecological disaster,” Impossible Foods Founder and CEO Dr. Patrick O. Brown told the UN Environment Assembly. “By far the most urgent problem to me was the use of animals as a food production technology – the most destructive technology on earth.”

In other words, listen to the damn cows. Stop eating meat. Start eating plants. 

______________________________

There’s a fundamental issue with investing in America: Your money might support companies that harm people and the planet, and you probably don’t even realize it.

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