The purpose of the industry summary is to provide producers with a quick reference to research results supported by Checkoff dollars. This summary is intended for non-technical audiences.

Increasing awareness of environmental issues related to food production, distribution, and consumption has led to studies focused on understanding the connection between nutritionally sound consumption and potential environmental impacts. Continued profitability of the swine production sector depends upon producers understanding how consumers may consider sustainability and nutrition when purchasing, preparing, and consuming pork. The main objective of this project is to perform a scan-level life cycle assessment (LCA) of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGEs), energy use, water use, and land use of pork products compared to recently emerging alternative meatless patties: Beyond Burger (BB), Impossible Burger (IB) and Veggie Burger (VB).

A review of the literature and industry reports has been performed to identify relevant lifecycle inventory information for environmental impacts and nutritional considerations. The literature review focused on life cycle inventories for typical ingredients and nutritional characteristics to calculate their nutrient density (Nutrient-rich Foods Indices, NRF9.3 and NRF15.3). The primary audience for this LCA is the pork industry (growers, processors, packaging companies and retailers). This LCA is a field-to-fork (or cradle-to-grave) assessment of the production, distribution, and consumption of pork meat and non-meat alternatives consumed in the U.S. Consideration was given to differential rates of cooking loss and other losses in the supply chain for each of the products.

The environmental indicators are greenhouse gas emissions (GHGEs; also referred to as the “carbon footprint” or global warming potential), cumulative energy demand (energy use), water use, and land use. The functional unit for the LCA is defined as consumption of 1 kg of each of the products. The system boundaries began with the production of raw materials, and end with purchase, preparation, consumption, and disposal of packaging and wasted food in a typical U.S. household. Environmental impacts embodied in the foreground infrastructure (buildings and equipment) are not included in the analysis; however, background processes such as electricity generation do include an accounting of infrastructure from the ecoinvent database. Where data are incomplete, proxy lifecycle inventory datasets were identified from databases available in SimaPro© 9. In determining whether to include specific inputs, a cut off criterion is established using a 1% cut off threshold of any input; however, if data were readily available, they were included. Where allocation of inputs is required, the allocation procedures follow the ISO 14044 hierarchy.

Global warming potential was evaluated using the IPCC 2013 (IPCC, 2017), which contains the climate change factors with a timeframe of 100 years. IMPACT World+ midpoint method (IMPACT World+, 2017) was used for energy and land use, and the ReCiPe 2016 (H) method was used for water use (Huijbregts et al., 2016). SimaPro© 9 was used to create computational impact assessment models. Monte Carlo Simulation (MCS) was conducted to quantify and characterize the effect of uncertainty of input data on the calculated impact estimates.

Differences in environmental impacts were observed between compared products. Pork consumption has the highest relative impacts in all categories. Feed production for swine at the farm was responsible for a significant fraction of impacts. For meatless alternatives, production of ingredients was the largest contributor to most of the impact categories. Unlike other plant-based patties, IB consumption had high intensity of energy demand, especially electricity consumption, during manufacturing stage for the processes of imitating meat-like taste. One somewhat noticeable result of this analysis is that the contribution at processing and packaging is relatively low and that retail refrigeration and energy use for in-home cooking are substantial contributors to the overall environmental impacts.

The nutrient profiles were constructed by accounting for the inclusion of 9 or 15 nutrients to be encouraged and 3 nutrients (saturated fat, added sugar, and salt) to be discouraged in diets. While pork had the highest environmental impacts, it was the second most nutrient dense option. According to the 9-nutrient profile, VB was most nutrient dense, while pork products were similar to IB and more nutrient dense than BB. This is primarily driven by the lower saturated fat content of IB. When B vitamins and Zinc were considered for the 15-nutrient profile, IB was the most nutrient dense, followed by pork, VB, and BB. The high nutrient density of IB was due to greater vitamin and mineral content. The greater amount of vitamin contents in pork products explain the conflicting results and highlights the importance of addressing micronutrient contributions in nutritional assessment. This study underlines the importance of understanding environmental impacts in complete lifecycle supply chain of products. At the same time, it is important to address different aspects of nutritional quality in pork and non-meat alternatives. This initial evaluation of nutrient quality in the context of environmental sustainability highlights the need for further research at the intersection of dietary health and environmental sustainability. In particular, the role of micronutrients is important, as demonstrated by the deference of the NRF 9.3 and 15.3 results.

Key Findings:

  • Pork had greater energy use, water use, land use, and global warming potential than the Beyond, Impossible, and Morningstar Black Bean burgers
  • Pork was the most nutrient dense of the burgers when B vitamins and Zinc content were considered.
  • Given the high levels of uncertainty associated with modeling emerging products such as non-meat alternatives, it is critical that more industrially relevant data is made available to the LCA community.