The new generation of veggie burgers do taste more like meat than their sawdust-leaning predecessors. And most agree that plant-based meat alternatives are a step in the right direction, considering the hefty impact that cattle have on the environment. But the Impossible Burgers and Beyond Meats of the world come with their own not-so-insignificant carbon challenges. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak with environmental reporter Nithin Coca about his research for Vox.com on the impact of these popular plant-based meats on agricultural supply chains around the globe. We talk about the rapid growth of the market sector, take a look at how it affects the coconut oil and cacao butter industries, and, while we are at it, get a snapshot of lab grown meats, as well.
00:02 Narrator – This is Sea Change Radio, covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.
00:18 Nithin Coca (NC) – There’s a reason it was included in the European Union’s recent deforestation regulations. One of the six commodities included in that is cacao, because of the deforestation risk presented.
00:30 Narrator – The new generation of veggie burgers do taste more like meat than their sawdust-leaning predecessors. And most agree that plant-based meat alternatives are a step in the right direction, considering the hefty impact that cattle have on the environment. But the Impossible Burgers and Beyond Meats of the world come with their own not-so-insignificant carbon challenges. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak with environmental reporter Nithin Coca about his research for Vox.com on the impact of these popular plant-based meats on agricultural supply chains around the globe. We talk about the rapid growth of the market sector, take a look at how it affects the coconut oil and cacao butter industries, and, while we are at it, get a snapshot of lab grown meats, as well.
01:49 Alex Wise (AW) – I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by Nithin Coca. He’s a freelance environmental journalist based in Japan. Nithin, welcome back to Sea Change Radio.
01:58 Nithin Coca (NC) – It’s great to be here again.
01:59 Alex Wise (AW) – So you just submitted a piece for vox.com entitled plant burgers are way better for the planet than beef. But these two ingredients threaten tropical ecosystems, so I wanted to dive into these two ingredients in a deeper way. You really uncover the problems that go into coconut and cacao. Why don’t you start at the beginning in terms of these veggie burgers, these plant-based meats and how the industry has evolved over the last few years?
02:32 NC – Happy to. So I remember when I first heard about plant based meat, I think it was at an event like five or six years ago and there was like a big marketing push by these companies, Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, to come to these environmental and journalism conferences and kind of push this as a more sustainable alternative to normal agriculture. And it was, I think, when I was in in 2019, I was doing several reporting on coconut in Southeast Asia, looking at kind of issues that farmers are facing. And my editor at the publication at the time asked me to, like, look into what are the key companies that are using coconut oil? And I came across the fact that there are key ingredient in both beyond and Impossible Burgers and I thought that was super interesting because they’re basically shifting to sourcing an ingredient that only grows in the tropics and only grows in regions where there’s high levels of biodiversity and forests and I was concerned, like if plant based meat grows to the scale they want to because, you know, look at the projections, they want to expand by 10 to 20 times in just five or ten years. To rapidly displaced animal meat and hopefully and transform our food system to one that they argue is more sustainable. If that’s the case, there’s going to be a lot more coconut oil. And, as is covered later cacao butter is an ingredient in Beyond products. So anytime we have a food shift anytime we kind of like change how we do something. There’s going to be impacts across the supply chain and what I was curious about is if plant-based meat does take off to the scale it does, and if we start consuming more of these plant-based meat burgers from both and beyond, impossible and. How is that going to impact these tropical supply chains for ingredients that have key deforestation, biodiversity and also, you know, labor and social risks in Southeast Asia? That’s where the idea came from.
04:11 AW – How tied to these two oils are the industry? Can they use other types of oils or is it’s either cacao or cocoa?
04:21 NC – Yeah, it’s a good question. So as I learned like cacao and coconut are pretty unique, they’re both solid or room temperature, which is similar to animal fat. So if you’re trying to create a product that mimics animal fat, animal meat in the same way you want to use ingredients that kind of mimic those qualities and cacao butter and coconut oil are two quite unique plant based oils because they have high burning points so they allow for things like the grilling sensation when you try to grill a plant based burger and they wanted to you know the companies want to make easily replaceable for cooks and chefs and home cooks to like use in grills at home in ways that exactly mimic regular meat.
04:59 AW – So they want it to be greasy to what we’re used to tasting with a greasy hamburger, that grease, but not like a mess.
05:07 NC – Yeah, exactly. So like other oils, like, you know, the typical oils we use in the US like sunflower oils in canola oil, they are liquid or room temperature, they don’t have the same kind of like consistency as coconut oil or cocoa butter. So they won’t give the same type of texture, they won’t have the same kind of…
05:24 AW – Mouth feel?
05:25 NC – Mouthfeel. Yeah, so there aren’t any really good replacements for these two. I think some companies are looking into synthetic oils, basically like lab created oils. I think the challenge for beyond and impossible, and especially I think especially beyond because they really kind of push that they’re not GMO versus impossible has that kind of they use some GMO genetically modified ingredients. They’re both pushing for their products to be natural. And as natural as possible, they don’t want to. They they’re concerned that people are worried about too many artificial or lab created ingredients. And I think they’re going to be really reticent to use a lab-created oil and also the fact is like these lab-created oils might be very expensive. They might also have their own environmental or energy impacts, so they’re quite untested and unclear. So at the time, these are the two best ingredients for them to create that kind of fatty quality necessary for their products to be as they claim to be, just like meat but not be meat.
06:21 AW – One of the first characters you profile in this Vox piece is a farmer who was the longtime cacao butter farmer who was shocked to learn that his product is actually being used in burgers around the world.
06:34 NC – Yeah. So for this trip, I got funding from the McGraw Center for Business Journalism, so I was able to travel to some of the farming regions in Southeast Asia, which is a real great opportunity to kind of get, you know, be able to meet people in the field and get to understand their stories. So I connected with, I went to Solac, which is in East Indonesia and it’s one of the major cacao butter and cacao bean growing regions in the world, I think the largest outside of Africa. And actually most cocoa butter exported to the US come is coming from Indonesia, not from West Africa. So Jalil had been farming, I believe, for more than 20 years he would he took me to his farm showed me like what was going on and when I asked him, like, do you know where your cacao goes to and I asked this to several farmers. He had no idea and most farmers had no idea because farmers are one of the supply chain and they, you know, sell to a middleman. And it just goes off into some abyss and they don’t know like who’s using it or how it’s adding up and plant-based meat beyond meat, these burgers, these products were completely unknown to him. He didn’t even he had no idea that plant-based meat existed. He had never heard of these companies before. He had no idea that you could take cocoa butter and use it in, you know, different types of products. He assumed everything was just for chocolate, but he really didn’t know. And I think that kind of illuminate something about supply chains that the people producing the products, the ingredients for the goods that we use usually have no idea like how their ingredients are being used in these complex, diverse ways and how they’re flowing around the world, which I think is a big problem.
08:08 AW – And what did you learn about the stresses of the supply chain that are being created by the popularity of these plant based meats.
08:17 NC – So at this stage like the industry is still relatively small. So it was hard to identify like specific like supply risks that are happening just because of demand from plant based meat. What was kind of like we identify more as like, you know, if growth guests will stage where it will in the future, there will be a lot of very potential. Large amounts of coconut oil and cocoa butter are being used for plant based meat. I think projection I saw was by 2030, something like 19% of global coconut oil could end up just being used for plant based meat, which is a humongous amount coming from now. Probably like 1 to 2%.
08:52 AW – That’s a tough projection. Also when you consider how popular those two commodities are for a lot of other things that are gaining in popularity like I know people are cooking with coconut oil a lot more and they put it in their coffee, that bulletproof coffee and then chocolate, dark chocolate is in particular has gotten more popular. And I know that there’s been some real supply chain issues with cacao beans, correct?
09:18 NC – Yeah, there’s lots of challenges along these supply chains, especially cacao, I think has gotten a lot of attention because of child labor concerns and deforestation in Africa specifically. I guess one thing that really surprised me and I didn’t expect when I went to the field is that I thought because of these things you mentioned, like the popularity of cacao, the popularity of coconut oil, that farmers would be, you know, doing well, that they’d be faced. They have a lot of demand for their goods and that there’s a strong market and actually I saw the opposite in both the Philippines and Indonesia. The market for these products is really weak. And a lot of farmers are switching to other products or cutting down their coconut trees, Jaleel. Three of his four neighbors they used to all grow cacao had switched to rice because they were getting subsidized to do rice from the government, and they found it to be a more profitable venture than doing cacao. He had stuck to cacao because he felt some sort of kind of connection to his plants in his farm because he had inherited from his family and been doing it for quite a while, but he was, you know, he definitely expressed sadness that his neighbors no longer want to grow cacao and that coca production in that part of Sulawesi has been choppy and I think this is a big concern for the plant-based meat industry because if they want to grow 10 to 20 times in 10 to 15 years. But there are a lot of farmers who are abandoning their cacao oil, cacao butter and coconut oil farms. Is there going to be enough of these products for them to actually meet those projections and are they able to do it? Or are they have to pay a lot more and then they’re going to have challenges meeting price parity with meat? Which is a key goal of both of the companies because they see the future growth in the market being when they can be cost competitive when you go to the grocery store. And buying their product is the same as buying a beef hamburger. They think that’s going to really drive a lot of growth, but the only way to get to that is to reduce costs. And if you don’t have, you know, access to good and cheap. It’s going to be really hard to reduce costs.
11:15 (Music Break)
12:10 AW – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to environmental journalist Nithin Coca. So Nithin, you just mentioned comparing this to hamburgers in terms of the marketplace, can we do an apples to apples comparison in terms of carbon emissions or methane emissions? What’s your feeling after studying this in depth? Are plant-based meats a promising alternative to beef and pork and other animal meats or are we going to look back at this as a flash in the pan, no pun intended.
12:42 NC – Yeah, that’s a good question. I think there’s been quite a few, like life cycle analysis being published that kind of like try to compare the greenhouse gas, water, land use impacts of plant-based meat compared to traditional animal agriculture. And most of those studies are pretty clearly show that plant-based. Meat will have much lower greenhouse gas emissions, use less water, and then they also argue that it’ll use less land. And I think most of those, those the arguments are pretty clear because I think animal agriculture, especially industrial production in the US and in the Global North is very intensive and very bad for the environment. So I think the, the, there isn’t really a case to say like. That plant-based meat. There I think the science there is pretty clear and pretty unequivocal, I think though what I what I was like concerned about is like anytime you have a shift in supply chains. You’re going to have, like environmental impacts in certain regions. So like in Southeast Asia, I think we’re really understanding like globally like tropical landscapes are really important for climate, for biodiversity. They hold so much more carbon stock. Post a lot more animal and plant species than any other landscape, so these landscapes deserve like particular protection because of the role they play. And if we’re displacing plant based, if we’re displacing animal agriculture production in the US and the Midwest. To these coconut and cacao, farmers in Southeast Asia, there’s a risk of unintended consequences that have, you know, effects in these landscapes that are particularly important globally. So I think that’s the area where I think there’s not enough attention being paid. And we need to like look a little bit more. That’s not to say like that means that plant-based meat is worse than animal meat, but is saying that there. There’s a real risk of impacts along supply chains in Africa and Southeast Asia that could be really negative and I think we need to understand those risks, how to make sure we can mitigate them and maybe find ways to avoid acerbating social, environmental harms along these in these very critical tropical regions.
14:32 AW – So when we look at tropical oil problems in Southeast Asia, we’ve often been focusing on palm oils, but coconut and cacao are slightly different, right? Are they still presenting themselves with the same set of environmental challenges that we look at with a tropical palm oil in terms of the degradation that can accompany monocultural agriculture practices.
15:01 NC – Yeah, that’s a that’s a fascinating question, is something I was curious about too, especially for coconut oil, since it’s being kind of presented that you see it in the US as people are switching to coconut oil from palm oil, because they’ve seen all of these stories about the negative impacts of palm oil production in Southeast Asia, the deforestation, the fires, some human horrible human rights and social risks.
15:21 AW Right. And it’s also marketed in the US similar to like olive oil. You see, like the organic virgin coconut oil, it’s a very wide range for these products in terms of pricing, sorry, go on.
15:33 NC – Yeah, no, it’s true. What I I found, like with coconut specifically, and Cacao was very different. So I’ll talk about Coco a little bit later. But with coconut like, it’s actually in Southeast Asia. And I think also in India and the Pacific. It’s a heritage crop. It’s actually been growing there for, you know, generations. It’s often in these multi crop settings grown by smallholders. I think 98% is grown by farmers who have less than 10 hectares. Oil palm is like, you know, 30 to I think 50 to 60% is grown by these gigantic monoculture plantations owned by big companies. So it’s a very, very different type of production scale. Because coconut oil integrates with the landscape better palm oil, you know, is not from Southeast Asia, it’s a it’s a non-native crop bought by the Dutch and the British during colonial era. And actually, that’s one of the reasons that caused a lot of problems is because it’s in conflict with the landscape. It drain you drained the soil. You have to like change the kind of water system to grow oil, which is coconut oil, integrates very well because it’s just it’s always been growing in that area. So I didn’t see the same level of deforestation impacts looking at coconut oil, I definitely encountered a lot of, I think, concerns about labor and livelihoods. A lot of farmers that are struggling not making enough money, you know, a couple of people mentioned the risk of human trafficking because some of these villages in rural areas are so poor that treatment traffickers that come and like kind of take advantage of these farmers and predatory loans. So I think there’s a lot of other issues with coconut oil with cocoa butter there is like a much clearer evidence of deforestation risk, particularly in Africa, because of the growing demand for cacao and cocoa butter. And I think in Southeast Asia as well. And so we see like when the industry grew in the 70s and 80s, there was a lot of deforestation that took place and there are still key risks of deforestation. And one thing that came up. Is that because climate change is changing the landscape, changing the areas where cacao can grow product? Farmers are being encouraged to push into areas like higher elevation with a little bit cooler and cocoa. More can be more productive. So because of that incentive is to kind of shift crops, you know, the place I saw where they are shifted from cocoa to rice could be displaced by somewhere else. So much itching from deep, you know, tropical forest to cacao. So there is a real deforestation risk for cacao and there’s clear evidence in West Africa. That cacao plantations have expanded into the Congo into tropical forested regions, and it’s actually there’s a reason it was included in the European. Union’s recent deforestation regulations, one of the six commodities included in that is cacao. Because of the deforestation risk.
18:03 AW – And from a taste perspective, I know that like coffee beans, cacao beans are marketed at least as regional. You know you’ll see like chocolate from Costa Rica or chocolate from Kenya or I’m not aware of that in in the coconut marketplace it does that exist. Is there a big difference between regions?
18:26 NC – Yeah, I think. You have to look at it like, I guess, like the very, very niche market for like virgin coconut oil and the kind of high end product you see in health stores like Whole Foods. I think those products are probably it’s a tiny segment. I think it’s probably like 1% of global coconut production is actually for those kind of virgin coconut. Oil products.
18:45 AW – I don’t know. Things have changed. You’ve been away for a little bit, but I was just at Costco and there was these huge tubs of extra virgin organic coconut oil at ridiculously low prices. So I think the market is shifting just in the last year or two here in the US.
19:01 NC – Yeah, well actually I did. It did come across my reporting like people told me that the coconut oil virgin coconut bloom is kind of faded in the West. So if they told me like 5-6 years ago there was like a strong demand, it was seen as a health conscious product in the last four or five years. They told me it’s really kind of dropped. And that people who create, especially the ones I spoke to that do this in a more ethical, sustainable way and with traceability, they’re having a harder time finding. Intruders because they can just replace it with a cheaply produced virgin coconut oil, I guess like the other 99% of coconut oil is what’s called RBD coconut oil and it’s just a processed product that’s completely everything is mixed up together. There’s no differentiation. It’s actually like sold at the same markets as palm oil or sunflower oil, and that’s the product that’s going to plant based meat, not the virgin coconut oil. That’s kind of a niche product that’s kind of just. Going to Western markets.
20:29 (Music Break)
20:57 AW – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to environmental journalist Nithin Coca. So, Nithin, turning to some of the alternatives to alternative meats, let’s look at lab grown meats and the threat that plant-based meats might face from the introduction of lab grown meats to menus across the world. Eventually we are just talking about the price points and the thin margins. That farmers have in Southeast Asia and in other parts of the world where they grow cacao and coconut oils do we see? Let’s turn to lab grown meats and see how that might play out for this industry?
21:39 NC – Yeah, I’m deeply curious. I think a lot of people are quite curious about lab-grown meat. I mean, it just got approved in the US I think 2 products got approved last week, which is pretty historic. And then when I was in Singapore for a conference plant-based meat conference, Singapore was the first country in the world to have a land based meat product approved. You can actually purchase, but only at a very expensive. Gourmet restaurant and you had to make reservations several weeks in advance. So it’s really I I think it’s quite far from being available commercially. I have a lot of questions. There are concerns and I’ve seen a couple of lifecycle analysis that show that lead based meat is so energy intensive because it requires a lot of energy for production that it will not have the same environmental benefits as plant-based meat. The companies argue that with economies of scale and like technological innovation, that they’ll be able to do the energy input. But I’m it’s a question because it’s not proven that they can, so the environmental benefits may not. Be as strong if that’s the reason people are switching to plant-based meat, lab, grown meat may not provide those same. Type of benefits for climate, for land, and the second question is… lab-grown meat still needs input. They still need ingredients. You still need something to, you know, to be used in the lab to create the product. So I’m curious like where are they going to be sourcing their ingredients for what are their ingredients is because they are not going to create it from air. Is it going to be electricity or energy? Is it going to be some other synthetic material? Is it going to be soy or is it going to be coconut oil? Is it potentially going to be using the same type of things? Or are they gonna use synthetic oils? So there’s a lot of questions about how lab-grown meat will impact the supply chain. I think it’s too early to say much about it yet because it’s quite a I think it’s still several years away until we’ll start seeing it in grocery stores and start seeing kind of getting these life cycle analysis and understandings of like what? Actually the science behind these things and their potential sustainability and environmental impacts.
23:32 AW – Well, aren’t the substrates often just animal cells that they’re cloning, or is it different than that? Or are they putting together something similar to a plant-based meat but using animal cells?
23:43 NC – Yeah, I think it’s there’s actually there’s quite a range. So like the product that’s approved in Singapore is actually a, it’s a hybrid product. So they use some animal cell animal cell. Using the process you mentioned mixed with a plant based ingredients. So it’s actually not 100% lab grown meat and like it sounds like quite a few other products will actually be more likely to be something like that, like using maybe getting the animal tissue or the protein part from a lab grown product, but also kind of mixing it with other ingredients to kind of create the texture so it’ll be it’ll be interesting to see like how they actually end up with the final formulas that they’ll use. But I guess even for like, even if they’re, if they’re cloning. Even if they’re cloning these cells in a laboratory, they have to provide something for the cells to kind of, you know, absorb to be cloned. So they still need to price some sort of energy input or some sort of input for those for that lab for laboratory. So I’m curious like where those where they’re going to be sourcing their inputs from like. Where they going to gain the protein, the raw protein material to actually make those cells and what is that going to? Where is that coming from I’m curious about that side because it’s not quite clear I even see what they mentioning it much.
24:52 AW – I’m also curious how the vegan community will approach the ethical dilemma that a lab grown meat. Could present to oneself. I guess the bigger question from a an industry perspective would be India, which is kind of the Holy Grail for the beef industry. Do we know how the Indian marketplace would view lab grown meat? Can everybody eat this?
25:17 NC – It’s complicated. So I mean I was looking mostly at kind of my focus as a journalist, mostly on sustainability and in kind of environmental effects and supply chains. So I was kind of focusing on that angle in this story, but I do. There are, you know, segments of the vegan population that are really focused on animal welfare. And I think for them as a live creative product is fine because they’re really, really focused on really concerned about how the health of animals in animal, in industrial, agricultural systems versus I think for other vegans that take a different approach may not work. I did look a little bit like the kind of the scale of plant based or meat alternatives in Asia, in Southeast Asia and South Asia and at this stage like even plant-based meat hasn’t yet really been introduced into those markets. Like Singapore is an exception, but like Indonesia, the Philippines, India. There is very little beyond an impossible. For example, they’re not really producing products for those countries, so it’s hard to know like what impact lab grown meat would have when we have not even like seeing how plant-based meat is going to be accepted by those countries. Places like India and there’s this other side like a lot of the products being created by these companies are really like Western oriented, you know, impossible and beyond their first product was hamburger alternative and then they’re kind of in kind of shifting to other things that kind of are really part of the Western palette. But in Asia, like the way meat products are used is quite different. There are like a lot of Asian startups that are trying to like create products that are more like for, you know, India or Southeast Asian pallets and kind of like mimic how meat is used in those countries and those diets. But so far, they’re all quite small. I don’t think as this industry grows, there’s a lot of questions and things we have to see something that came up also like these plant-based meat companies have the same rush. 5-6 years ago. They want to be the first ones to create the product. So sometimes they think they put out a product that wasn’t that good at the beginning. And then a lot of people tried, you know, they tried one plant-based meat burger and it wasn’t that good. And then they don’t want to try again because they had it once. So there’s a question do you want to be the first or does the industry need to like, wait until you have something really good and then release that, and then you might be able to get more skeptical people to enjoy it’s a difficult question. So I think that I think right now because of this kind of it’s you know the feeling I get from the industry, it’s very techie and they’re pushing to release things fast. They’re pushing to test things quickly as possible. They’re not really not companies aren’t willing to take a slow approach, and I think it might be somewhere for lad braces, meat with the caveat that there is a they have to go through a very complicated approval process because it’s a completely unknown different product than we’ve ever seen before.
27:52 AW – He’s a freelance environmental journalist and his latest piece is in vox.com, Nithin Coca. Nithin, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.
28:01 NC – Thanks so much for having me, my pleasure.
28:17 Narrator – You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis, and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by Stevie Wonder and The Clash. To read a transcript of this show, go to SeaChangeRadio.com stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcast on our site or visit our archives to hear from Doris Kearns Goodwin, Gavin Newsom, Stewart Brand and many others. And tune in to Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.