Chipotle and other companies are focusing on meat and meat alternatives as a way to minimize environmental impacts and address customer preferences and potential health concerns related to meat. Chipotle offers “sofritas” made from organic soybeans as a vegetarian option. Furthermore, Tyson Foods has invested in a plant-based protein company, Beyond Meat, and many other plant-based protein companies are cropping up. Plant-based proteins offer solutions to some of the challenges described earlier, such as overall environmental footprint, the overuse of antibiotics in livestock, and GHG emissions. Plant-based proteins are also meeting customer preferences: a recent Mintel study suggests the mainstreaming of vegetarian/vegan offerings in North America, finding that 30% of US adults are trying to eat a more plant-based diet.
Companies are also working to reduce the use of antibiotics in meat production. The results of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Chain Reaction report, which rates the top 25 US fast-food and -casual restaurant chains on their antibiotics use policies and practices, highlight Panera and Chipotle’s strong efforts to implement policies and use antibiotics responsibly. Moreover, the Canadian packaged meat company Maple Leaf just launched an ambitious plan to be “the most sustainable protein company on earth”, outlining efforts to reduce negative impacts of producing meat and advocating for eating meat in moderation.
Working with the System to Create a Better Way Forward
It’s important to note that addressing such challenges within our food system is of course not easy; each decision comes with tradeoffs. Take cage-free eggs for example. Cage-free production typically brings animal welfare benefits, such as enabling chickens to walk, spread their wings and generally have a more humane life. However, the Coalition for Sustainable Eggs has conducted studies on various egg production methods and finds that some cage-free egg production practices can cause poorer worker health and safety conditions, as well as increased impacts on natural resources compared to conventional production. For example, collecting eggs from the ground in cage-free aviaries increases physical strain and exposure to respiratory hazards.
Developing a food system that feeds our growing global population whilst also achieving accomplishments across numerous sustainability factors, and whilst balancing economic considerations is a tall order. The good news is that in addition to the corporate efforts described above, others are aiming to tackle these challenges. One such example is the EAT Foundation, which aims “to reform the global food system and enable us to feed a growing global population with healthy food from a healthy planet.” EAT is conducting research to improve nutrition and tackle global health and environmental challenges such as obesity and climate change. We also see companies like Unilever articulating bold thinking around their role in creating a sustainable food system, with their Five Steps to a Sustainable Food System.