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Investors Are Hungry for More Than Just Low-Methane Burgers

29 September 2020
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Key Topic(s)
Greenhouse Gases

Vocal demands from investors, consumers and policymakers to tackle the damaging levels of emissions from livestock have become impossible for meat companies to ignore.

In recent years, we have seen a wave of food companies coming forward with big climate commitments to address their carbon emissions. McDonald’s has pledged a clean-up of its supply chains, announcing plans for a 31% reduction in emissions intensity. Marfrig, which is Brazil’s second-largest food processing company, made the announcement that 100% of its production chain would be sustainable in the next 10 years, and last week, JBS pledged to axe suppliers across its supply chain with ties to deforestation, which accounts for 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

The implementation details for these schemes include plans to decarbonise various elements of the meat supply chain, from feed to transportation. Most recently, these have resulted in a new series of ‘low-methane-meat’ products coming to market.

Earlier this year, fast-food retailer Burger King released its low-methane Whopper, marketed as a more sustainable burger option for consumers. The cows used to make the burger were fed on a diet of lemongrass, which is reported to reduce methane emissions by an average of 33%. Meat giant Smithfield is aiming to become America’s first carbon-negative meat producer by altering hog diets to reduce methane while streamlining its distribution routes to produce lower-carbon animal protein products.

But does this ‘low-methane-transition’ represent a welcome milestone in the transition to a low carbon protein industry, or is it a quick fix for an industry in need of systemic change?

A step in the right direction

The emergence of low-methane meat is certainly a welcome step in countering livestock’s methane emissions, a gas 28 times more potent than CO2 when it comes to accelerating planetary warming. Early research has found that using concentrations of algae within animal feed can reduce a cow’s methane emissions by up to 99%, an approach that has already gained vocal support from The Irish Farmers’ Association.

However, while low-methane products can certainly contribute positively towards cutting emissions, the higher price points for consumers, especially those in emerging markets, leave unanswered questions on the longevity of this as a viable solution. Solutions such as Burger King’s also fail to effectively address other serious sustainability issues within meat supply chains, such as deforestation.

Beef production is the leading cause of deforestation globally, causing the clearing of huge areas of trees in order to grow soy feed for cattle. Beef and soy production currently drive more than two-thirds of habitat loss in Brazil’s Amazon and Cerrado regions. It’s clear then that whilst low-methane products certainly have a part to play in reducing the environmental impacts of animal protein production, they address only one element of a very complex and fragile supply chain.

Only a part of the puzzle

Given the urgency of the climate crisis—the IPCC has predicted that we only have 11 years left to prevent irreversible damage to our planet—it is unrealistic to depend on low-carbon animal protein as the leading solution.

The industry is also considering alternative farming models, such as closed-loop farming model; a no-waste, circular approach to farming that recycles all nutrients and organic matter back into the soil. This method also supports carbon sequestration—the long-term of capturing and storing carbon dioxide.

Most significantly, we’re witnessing a mainstream diversification away from animal proteins. As detailed in FAIRR’s Sustainable Proteins Hub, 40% of leading food firms like Nestle, Tesco and Unilever now have dedicated teams for plant-based products and 47% of food retailers now sell, or plan to sell plant-based meat alternatives ‘on the meat aisle’. It’s becoming clear to leading food companies that protein transition is the most effective method of lowering their emissions, mitigating the risks associated with climate change and building resilience to a warmer world.

Trust the science

So how can we know whether meat companies’ climate commitments ring true? For many, the answer is to trust science. Despite pledges to reduce the footprint of their burgers and bacon, only two meat companies have so far committed to science-based targets. Developing and committing to SBTs is the primary test for whether a company’s emission reduction plans align with the level and rate of decarbonisation needed to meet the objectives of the Paris Agreement and keep our planet below two degrees of warming. Sadly, the majority of animal protein producers have fallen short of this milestone.

In summary, a low-methane transition within animal farming production simply does not go far enough to tackle climate change. We need to see low-carbon animal proteins in addition to a demonstrative commitment towards a sustainable protein transition. While there are certainly winds of change in the industry, investors will continue to monitor this area closely when assessing future climate risk.

FAIRR insights are written by FAIRR team members and occasionally co-authored with guest contributors. The authors write in their individual capacity and do not necessarily represent the FAIRR view.