Plant burgers are way better for the planet than beef, but these 2 ingredients threaten tropical ecosystems

By | Published Jun 07, 2023 | Vox
Plant burgers are way better for the planet than beef, but these 2 ingredients threaten tropical ecosystems

Jalil, a 50-year-old cacao farmer in Palopo, Sulawesi, Indonesia, has never heard of plant-based meats, nor the American company Beyond Meat. When told, he is surprised to hear that cocoa butter made from beans like those grown on his farm, which he has been tending for 30 years, could end up in a Beyond Burger.

“I have no idea where my cacao beans go,” said Jalil. “I thought it’s all for chocolate.”

That may once have been true, but the rapid growth of plant-based meats in recent years has begun to fundamentally alter agricultural supply chains, creating new demand for key ingredients like cocoa butter and coconut oil. Yet even as the plant-based meat industry is snapping up more of those ingredients, small farmers like Jalil say they’re not seeing any benefit.

“Cacao farming is getting increasingly difficult,” he said, pointing to unpredictable prices, a more variable climate, and growing risk of crop disease as growing challenges. “Many farmers are cutting down their cacao trees” and abandoning their plantations. (Cacao is the raw, unprocessed product of the cacao fruit, from which cocoa is roasted and processed.)

What is happening on the ground in Sulawesi should serve as a major warning sign for the plant-based meat companies that rely on these tropical oils. Facing slowing growth in the United States, plant-based meat producers are working hard to reduce costs in the hope of hitting a goal deemed essential to their future: bringing the price of plant-based meat in line with that of beef or pork. Industry watchers warn that plant-based alternatives will struggle to break out of their current niche status unless they can achieve price parity with meat. “Long-term price parity is the only way that these products are going to be competitive,” said Ryan Nebeker, a research analyst at the nonprofit Foodprint.

One way to do that is to lower ingredient costs, but supply chain challenges and threats from climate change could make achieving that goal tough. Much of the supply of coconut oil and cacao butter comes from countries such as Indonesia, the Philippines, Côte d’Ivoire, and Ghana, with weak labor and environmental protections. There is a risk that a desire to lower costs could result in purchasing cacao butter or coconut oil from less ethical sources.

These are delicate questions to ask. Nothing can take away from the fact that the emissions and deforestation footprints of beef are far worse than those of plant-based alternatives. Beef is an outsize driver of deforestation around the world, including in the vital Amazon rainforest. One serving of beef, as Vox has reported, requires as much as 20 times more land and four times more water, and creates more emissions, than an equivalent serving of plant-based meat.

But no diet is free from impacts on the planet and those who live on it. Even as the plant-based meat sector offers an important tool in mitigating climate change — not to mention reducing the number of animals sent to the slaughterhouse — there are risks of unintended environmental and labor consequences. That includes significant localized impacts in tropical cacao- and coconut-growing regions in Asia and Africa, areas that haven’t been as intensively impacted by the beef industry as South America. Even though their products are indisputably more friendly to the planet, those consequences present key business challenges to plant-based meat producers as they try to scale their industry.

Pressure to cut costs from Beyond and Impossible, neither of which has the publicly available sustainable sourcing policies or guidelines that are increasingly common in the packaged food industry, risks exacerbating problems such as deforestation, the use of child and forced labor, and sub-living wages for farmers and workers.

Those aren’t the only risks the industry faces in striving to get its ambitious growth plans back on track. Decades of underinvestment and unpredictable prices have left many Indonesian and Filipino farmers unable to maintain their farms, meaning there may simply not be enough cacao butter or coconut oil available.

Coconut and cacao make plant-based meat meaty

To make their animal-free products, Impossible, Beyond, and a host of smaller rivals have developed a range of substitute ingredients derived from plants, such as pea and soy proteins that mimic the texture and feel of animal proteins. But few are as important as cocoa butter — a key ingredient for Beyond Meat as well as products like UNLIMEAT — or coconut oil, which is used by Impossible Foods and several other brands, including Next Gen Foods’ Tindle plant-based chicken, Conagra’s Gardein beefless burgerHormel’s Happy Little Plants plant-based meatballs, and NotCo’s NotBurger.

Refined coconut oil and cacao butter have unique characteristics that help plant-based products replicate meat. Like animal fats, they remain solid at room temperature, and this high melting point enables plant-based meats to be grilled or cooked similarly to their animal-meat counterparts in gourmet restaurants, fast food chains, or home kitchens.

These fats make up between 5 and 20 percent of a plant-based burger; already, major ingredients providers like Cargill and AAK have set up new sales platforms aimed at providing these two oils to the growing plant-based market segment. And that’s just a start. Good Food Institute (GFI), a nonprofit that promotes plant-based alternatives to animal products, estimated in 2021 that plant-based meats will use 19 percent of global coconut production by 2030.

GFI acknowledges that the recent slowdown in plant-based meat sales in the US might impact these projections and plans to provide updated figures later this year. But “continued development of the plant-based market outside of the US and Europe will support global growth of this industry,” the organization told Vox.

On a warming planet, coconut and cacao supplies are increasingly volatile

To achieve rapid sales growth, Beyond and Impossible will need to achieve price parity with meat, which will require steadily increasing supplies of cheap cacao butter and coconut oil. But in a changing climate, where the farmers who produce the raw materials are increasingly struggling to make a living, that supply is far from guaranteed.

Take the Philippines, the main exporter of coconut oil to the US. In the province of Quezon, in the southeast of the island of Luzon, a key coconut-growing region, low or unpredictable wages, lack of investment, and extreme weather events have caused many farmers to simply stop growing coconuts in recent years, said Julito Ordinado, a 51-year-old coconut farmer who has been working his family’s fields since he was 12. He says he can no longer make a living from coconuts alone, and often works as a construction day laborer. His brother was so desperate, he chose to cut down his coconut trees and sell them for wood in order to get needed cash.

“A coconut tree’s harvest lasts a lifetime, but once you’ve sold all the coco lumber, that’s it,” said Ordinado. “You can’t sell coconuts anymore.” It takes years before new coconut trees can start producing nuts, which means it’s not easy to rapidly expand or shrink production in response to market demand.

These problems are compounded by increasingly volatile weather. Last September, Super Typhoon Noru suddenly intensified off the coast of Luzon and slammed into Quezon province’s coconut heartlands. It was the third major typhoon to hit the region since 2020. Many experts connect the growing intensity and frequency of typhoons to climate change.

“When typhoons hit coconut farms, it takes up to a year before they can recover,” said Jun Pascua, director of the National Peasants Movement, a Filipino association that represents coconut farmers. The latest storm was so strong that some of Pascua’s farmer-members in districts that were hit directly lost all their coconut trees.

The situation in Quezon is common across the region, according to Haigan Murray, co-founder of the Coconut Knowledge Center, an Indonesia-based nonprofit. Production has fallen steadily by about 0.1 percent a year since 2010. This is primarily due to aging trees, a lack of investment in replanting, and limited tools to help farmers diversify their incomes. Worse may be yet to come: By 2027, 80 percent of coconut trees in Southeast Asia will be past their productive peak, producing fewer and fewer coconuts per year or becoming senile, meaning that they are unable to produce coconuts at all, according to estimates from the industry group Sustainable Coconut Partnership.

Similar problems are emerging in Indonesia, both in the coconut growing regions of Sumatra and in the lowlands of Sulawesi, which are uniquely suitable for growing cacao. After Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana, it is the world’s second major cacao-growing region and the largest direct exporter of cacao butter to the US. According to industry experts, West Africa is the main source of cacao for chocolate; Indonesian cacao is often used for cacao butter.

Coconut trees flourish along the Agos River in General Nakar, Quezon Province, in the Philippines. Coconuts are among the major produce in the town, where most coconut farmers are involved in either whole nut farming or copra farming. Jervis Gonzales

Cacao farmers are on the front lines of the climate crisis

Jalil, the farmer from Palopo, Sulawesi, says he was surrounded by other cacao plantations until a few years ago. But much like what Ordinado has seen in Quezon, many neighboring farmers have cut down their cacao trees and converted to other crops, like rice or oil palm.

At the local cacao processor, Gudang 999, Fahmi, the branch manager, buys beans from farmers and dries them before sending them off to a factory in the provincial capital, Makassar, where they are turned into cacao butter by major multinationals such as Cargill and Singapore-based agribusiness giant Olam International. He confirms the dire diagnosis.

“We get 70 percent less cacao than a few years ago,” said Fahmi. “Used to be three tons a day, now just one.”

There’s a reason for this. At his farm, Jalil quickly identifies a sickened fruit, tearing it from the branch and with a quick jab with his machete, opening it up for me and tearing out the mushy, white seeds.

“See, it’s diseased. We have to throw it away.”

Because Sulawesi’s dry seasons have been getting hotter due to climate change, plant diseases can spread more easily in lowland-regions like Palopo. According to experts, this is a growing challenge globally.

“Many cocoa farmers are on the front lines of the climate crisis, leaving them vulnerable to drought, pests, and diseases that can decimate a harvest,” said Kerry Daroci, cocoa sector lead at the nonprofit Rainforest Alliance.

Jalil shows the author a diseased cacao fruit. Nithin Coca


Beyond heat, the more frequent floods in the rainy season are also making cacao farming more difficult. Four years ago, heavy rains destroyed nearly half of Jalil’s harvest.

“If flooded, cacao can die,” said Jalil. He points to the rice paddies of his neighbors, a crop less susceptible to flooding and supported by a government program that expanded irrigation. “That’s why they switched.”

According to Fahmi, all across Sulawesi’s cacao-growing regions, the combination of low prices, increased rain and heat, and government incentives to expand irrigation and promote the growing of staple crops are leading many farmers to do as Jalil’s neighbors did: switch to rice or, in West Sulawesi, oil palm.

In West Africa, too, climate change is creating uncertainty over the future availability of cheap cacao butter. Ghana, the world’s second largest producer, saw widespread drought in 2022, which, according to the cacao consultancy Equipoise, led to a more than 30 percent shortfall in production. This has started to impact global cacao prices, which have jumped by about 15 percent since mid-2022, though that has not yet trickled down to farmers like Jalil.

So far, the fall in production hasn’t hurt the plant-based meat industry, partly because other users of coconut oil and cacao butter have been able to more easily replace it with alternatives like palm, sunflower, or rapeseed oil. But for Beyond and Impossible’s need for an oil that behaves like animal fat, as well as the desire to avoid using artificial or lab-based alternatives that might put off consumers, coconut oil and cacao butter remain essential.

Impossible and Beyond haven’t invested in sustainability tracing

Even as the plant-based meat companies grapple with the challenge of finding adequate supplies, environmentalists and other observers see a broader sustainability challenge as the demand for the products increases.

“The spike in demand for coconut as a plant-based fat input could … create negative consequences if no alternative fat sources are concurrently developed,” said Mirte Gosker, managing director of the Good Food Institute’s Asia-Pacific division.

One concern is that if there’s a surge in demand for cacao butter for plant-based meat, and if Indonesian cacao butter production continues to fall, companies may be forced to source more from West Africa. There, cacao is seen as a major driver of deforestation, and child labor is widespread.

“It’s completely reasonable to believe that if they are trying to achieve price parity, they might choose to go for some unreliable suppliers, especially for ingredients that are hard to source in the first place,” said Nebeker. “But cutting corners causes a lot of problems.”

The plant-based meat companies “will face the same issues as other companies that use deforestation-risk commodities like soy or palm oil,” said Erasmus K.H.J. zu Ermgassen, a researcher at Cambridge University. “A lot of these commodities are not currently traceable. It’s important that these companies manage risks in their supply chains.”

Supply chain experts believe that the key to avoiding these risks is committing to sustainable sourcing, investing in farmers, and working with third-party nonprofits like Rainforest Alliance or Fair Trade, which certify coconut oil and cacao, among other products. They, in return, allow brands to use their logos on their packaging.

So far, however, no major plant-based meat brand is using any trusted third-party certifier for their cacao or coconut. In fact, Murray has not seen any of the well-known plant-based meat companies engaging directly with coconut oil producers or farmers. Instead, he believes they are sourcing coconut from the major trading companies: Cargill, AAK, and Barry Callebaut.

A decade ago, when Murray first heard about the innovative, plant-based burgers being promoted by Beyond and Impossible, he saw an opportunity.

“I saw potential for a win-win relationship between plant-based meat and coconut smallholder farmers,” said Murray. “If consumers of plant-based meat are environmentally conscious, then coconut oil could offer multiple co-benefits, from livelihoods to climate change.”

Today, he feels far less hopeful, even after directly meeting with executives from Impossible and other smaller brands. “No one that I spoke to had the first idea about their coconut oil, where it comes from, who grows it, how it’s made, nothing,” said Murray. He points out that the big trading companies are unable to trace the vast majority of their coconut oil.

These big trading companies do recognize that there are supply and sustainability challenges facing coconut oil and cacao production. They’ve created a Sustainable Coconut Partnership to increase investment in smallholder production. But Murray points out that in the four years since it was initially formed, the organization has done little.

Similarly, media attention on child labor in the cacao industry led Cargill, AAK, Barry Callebaut, and Olam to launch numerous sustainable sourcing initiatives.

“They can provide you with cocoa that is traceable, deforestation-free … but only if you pay extra,” said Etelle Higonnet, a cacao supply chain expert formerly with the nonprofit Mighty Earth.

And so far, Impossible, Beyond, or other plant-based meat companies are not listed on reports released by Cargill, AAK, Olam, or Barry Calleabaut among brands paying a premium for traceable cacao.

Cargill declined to be interviewed, while Olam and Barry Calleabaut did not respond to requests. An AAK spokesperson sent an emailed response about their coconut oil sourcing, stating that “traceability data is something that has not been a priority for the coconut oil industry in the past and we are working with long and complex supply chain involving many different players,” but that they hope to achieve “first sub-national level,” meaning state or province traceability, “for all our coconut supply chains by 2025.”

Higonnet and Murray believe trusting the major trading companies is risky, as they have also been criticized for buying ingredients like cacao from sources known to be using child labor or farming on deforested land.

They point to a different model. Some global consumer companies have been successful at reducing these risks by tracing their own supply chains. These include cosmetics brand Dr. Bronner’s and the chocolate producer Alter Eco, which work with Fair Trade certifiers to source coconut oil and cacao butter. Large companies, too, are increasingly rethinking sourcing. Mars, a major candymaker, now operates its own cacao processing facilities in Sulawesi, which allows it to bypass the big traders and directly determine if farmers are meeting its labor and sustainability standards. And just as important, it also offers farmers a higher price.

So far, there are no signs that Beyond or Impossible is willing to invest in creating sustainable supply chains. Neither company responded to requests for interviews about their cacao or coconut sourcing. That is why experts such as Higonnet and Murray feel there’s a growing risk that as they and their many smaller rivals expand supply chains and seek to reduce costs, an increase in deforestation, child or forced labor, and sub-living wages for farmers and workers could follow.

Stores of dried coconut meat in coconut shells in a storehouse in General Nakar, Philippines. Dried coconut meat — which is used to make copra, from which coconut oil is extracted — tends to have a long shelf life. Jervis Gonzales


The future of sourcing

So what does the future hold for these two critical ingredients? For cacao, one of two things could happen. Production falls, leading to higher prices, or cacao expands into new regions — most likely cooler upland forests, or new countries, increasing its impact on deforestation and the climate. That is already happening, according to a recent report from Mighty Earth, which found cacao plantations encroaching into protected forests across West Africa. Almost all of this is tied to the global chocolate industry, since plant-based meat is still a small player in cacao, but if its footprint grows, there is a risk that it could contribute to the problem.

“Climate, economic displacement, and poor soils are pushing cacao farmers into the forests,” said Gerome Tokpa, the West Africa regional head for Earthworm, a nonprofit. “My fear is that we wake up and it is too late. Companies that source cacao really should be more involved in what is going on on the ground.”

Yohannes Samosir, a Sumatra, Indonesia-based agro-scientist and a principal adviser to the coconut company RCA Carbon, has much the same worry for coconut production on his island. “Most of the 3.5 million hectares of Indonesia’s coconut are becoming senile. Unless we do big scale replanting, I don’t think the supply will catch up to the potential increased demand for plant-based meat,” said Samosir. “Should a big plant-based meat company be interested, they could invest in the plantation through a collaboration, or a business-to-business agreement. That would be a good way to secure supply later” while avoiding deforestation.

Cacao beans that have been dried for about three days. These are used to make cacao butter and other products. Nithin Coca

Until that happens, he’ll continue to work partly in construction, and his neighbors will likely continue to cut down or neglect their trees — making the price parity and growth dreams of the plant-based meat industry more challenging.


chains across the region. He has been awarded fellowships from the Pulitzer Center, the International Center for Journalists, the Solutions Journalism Network, and the Earth Journalism Network, and his reporting has appeared in outlets in North America, Asia, and Europe, including the Financial Times, BBC Future, Mongabay, Nikkei Asia, Yale E360, China Dialogue, the Nation, and Engadget.

The reporting of this story was supported by the McGraw Center for Business Journalism at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York.

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