Can an Industrial-Scale Meat Company Be Carbon Neutral?

Canada’s largest pork and chicken producer is making headlines for bold climate commitments. But it’s still maintaining an emissions-intensive business model.


By Lisa Held, Civil Eats

January 13, 2020


A growing number of scientists concur: The climate crisis cannot be effectively addressed without a major reduction in global meat consumption. That may be why a recent announcement from Canada’s largest meat company caught some by surprise.


In November, Maple Leaf Foods announced that it was “carbon neutral.” The company, which owns 18 brands of pork and poultry products, also said it was setting science-based targets to reduce its emissions by 30 percent by 2030.


While the company has received press coverage hailing its bold climate commitments, a closer look raises important questions about the claim, and what it means more broadly to claim carbon neutrality.


Much of the recent debate surrounding animal agriculture and climate change has focused on whether grazing animals in pastured systems can sequester carbon to a degree that reduces meat’s overall emissions. But Maple Leaf is taking a different tack in arguing that the environmental damage done by factory farming can be counteracted with strategic investments.


“As a large global meat company, we recognize that we’re part of this big global problem that we face in society, and we want to be part of the solution,” Randy Huffman, Maple Leaf’s chief food safety and sustainability officer, told Civil Eats. “And we’ve done enough work in this to know that meat can be produced more sustainably.”


Maple Leaf is primarily a meat processing company, and while it is offsetting emissions from company operations—such as its electricity use and transportation—most of the emissions created in the act of raising and feeding the animals are not included in the calculation.


The company has committed to reducing some emissions in its animal agriculture supply chain, but its targets for reducing its largest source of emissions are weaker. The way its established those targets would allow its overall emissions to grow if its business grows as well—and concrete plans on how to make those operations more climate-friendly don’t yet exist.


Maple Leaf Foods’ annual revenue in 2018 was more than $2.6 billion, and the majority of its sales appear to be of pork and chicken products made from animals raised in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). These systems are known for being carbon intensive (although they have a smaller footprint than beef and dairy CAFOs) and for various other negative environmental impacts, including local air and water pollution from animal waste.


“This is a greenwashing effort top to bottom, as far as I’m concerned,” said Andrew deCoriolis, executive director of Farm Forward. DeCoriolis was initially intrigued to see Maple Leaf taking the climate crisis seriously; then he dug into information on the company’s practices and promises. “Their farms and production methods are going to be huge emitters of greenhouse gases,” he says, noting that those largely fall outside the scope of Maple Leaf’s commitments.


Sujatha Bergen, the director of health campaigns at the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), was less critical. The fact that the company is acknowledging the issue and that it was using science-based metrics to create a plan gives her some hope. “It’s also great that they aren’t using the fact that beef is a bigger emitter [than pork or poultry] to let themselves off the hook,” she said. “That’s not something that all companies are doing, so I think they do deserve lots of credit.”


Unpacking the Claims ...


Plant-based Replacements?


Like Tyson, Smithfield, Perdue, and Hormel, Maple Leaf is actively working to build its portfolio of plant-based meat alternatives. The company purchased Lightlife and Field Roast, and recently invested $300 million in building a new facility in Indiana dedicated to plant-based proteins. “We’re investing heavily in that space as well because we believe that can be part of a sustainable diet,” Huffman said. “We purposely use the term ‘protein’—not meat—company”... 


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