The Meat of Neutrify’s Market Research
The first significant task we took on within the Market Research team was to assess the carbon footprint of meat products. Specifically, how do different meat production practices (grass-fed, organic, regenerative, and conventional) differ in CO2 emissions? This question is not one you can answer in a week. It’s been six months. And so, six months later, there are still several gaps and unanswered questions. But, it’s a journey worth sharing.
Since the purpose of Neutrify is to help customers opt for low emission food products, a logical first step was to identify the high emitting food products. The published research and data pointed to the meat industry. Are all meat products equal? What about meat produced under different production conditions such as grass-fed, organic, and the up-and-coming regenerative agriculture — production systems marketed as more environmentally-friendly — how does the environmental performance of these practices compare with conventionally produced meat? What does the range of CO2 emissions between these agricultural systems look like? Our research began with beef.
Our Preliminary Search Yielded More Questions than Answers
We needed to exhaust all avenues to understand better where beef truly stands in sustainable food systems and solutions.
These questions were a challenging task because where do you begin? Should we go straight to the academic literature and sift through peer-reviewed studies, or should we isolate top-performing brands and assess their environmental performance? And the biggest question of all, is an assessment of only CO2 emissions enough to deem a food product unsustainable? As I said, this HUGE task yielded challenging questions. But, we needed to exhaust all avenues to understand better where beef truly stands to create sustainable food systems and solutions.
Let’s Start Here: The Academic Literature
The academic literature surrounding beef production is extensive. A simple search of ‘CO2 emissions of beef production’ into Google Scholar yields 37,000 results in 0.09 seconds. As we began reading, it became clear that we needed to be specific because academic studies can be pretty context-specific. And that is the nature of agricultural studies, specifically, studies that assess the environmental performance of food products. A standard method to evaluate environmental performance is “Life Cycle Assessment (LCA),” a systematic analysis of the potential environmental impacts throughout the life cycle of a product (i.e. from production to manufacturing/processing, packaging, distribution, use, and end-of-life). LCA studies will assess a food product, like beef, in specific regions of the world, particular stages of its life cycle, and evaluate a specific production system (sometimes compare a few). So, we were looking at a lot to get through. The question of “What does the range of CO2 emissions between these agricultural systems look like?” wasn’t easy to find, especially data that was recent and local to North America. We developed a method of analysis using a variety of credible industry sources.
What we found and what we didn't
Grass-fed beef and conventionally produced beef emissions were similar and relatively high (~30kg CO2e/kg product). These emissions were due to mass land-use change, fertilizers and pesticides, and methane (4x as potent as CO2) produced in conventional systems and significant methane from grass-fed cattle. Grass-fed cattle graze on the land and grow slowly, releasing more over a longer lifespan. However, we could not find robust data on the performance of organic beef systems or regenerative practices that integrated cattle production. Remember what I said about CO2 being a tricky metric to measure environmental performance? Let me bring that back. Alternative production systems like grass-fed, organic or regenerative may have limited data on CO2 emissions. Still, we did see some positive benefits on the ecosystem and soil quality, farmer and animal welfare, and positive findings on carbon sequestration (pulling carbon from the atmosphere and into the soil). However, it was disheartening to face so many roadblocks in this research endeavor. Suppose this information wasn’t readily available for us as researchers. Where can anyone find synthesized data to make informed decisions about what we should be eating or demanding from the food sector?
What if we looked at beef-producing brands and looked for brand-specific data?
You can laugh. I’m laughing now. I was so optimistic to think that the big conventional beef brands were publishing sustainability reports. That’s issue #1, not just for our research but for customers and the general public! However, this was an exciting approach because if the conglomerates Tyson Foods, Cargill, and Smithfield — the world’s largest meat-producing corporations- weren’t publishing data, maybe meat alternative brands or “eco-friendly” brands were. And more often than not, brands like Beyond Meat published a study on their carbon emissions, and meat alternative brands like Yves would have a health and production section on their site. We didn’t find what we were looking for, but we came across several resources and brands engaging in organic, grass-fed, and regenerative practices. The momentum was picking on alternative forms of beef production, which was exciting to see!
All of this research happened over several months
Where are we six months later? It probably seems like we didn’t get far, right?
Well, we are learning so much. We learned about LCA, different beef production systems and their regulations, got a better sense of the variance of GHG emissions for other production systems, the availability and variety of different meat alternative brands, and the various factors that characterize environmental performance beyond CO2 emissions. This information set the baseline for the rest of our meat-related research as we advanced. It also opened new avenues of research questions and tasks that we can’t wait to share!
We’re currently building a database.
We’ve come a long way. Learned from the roadblocks and resources we came across. A Neutrify database is in the works. Stay tuned.