A giant US agriculture firm described by environmentalists as the “worst company in the word” is set to join the meat-free revolution.
Cargill, which has been accused of being one of the largest drivers of deforestation in Brazil, is to create vegan hamburgers and “mince”, putting it into competition with startups like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods in the red-hot market for imitation meat.
Cargill’s fake-beef products will be made from either soya or pea protein and be sold by retailers under their own labels from April.
Beef is associated with particularly high carbon and methane emissions, often several times those of chicken or pork.
Much of those emissions emanate from clearing trees in richly biodiverse regions like the Amazon and neighbouring Cerrado forests to make way for grazing land.
Soya, from which many meat alternatives are made, is also associated with large-scale deforestation, although it is considered a more efficient use of land than cattle grazing.
Cargill is one of the world’s largest traders of soya beans and conceded last year that it would not meet its commitment to net-zero deforestation by 2020.
America’s largest privately held company exported 39 million tonnes of soya from Brazil between 2006 and 2016, according to Trase, an organisation that seeks to hold companies to account by tracking commodity supply chains.
Deforestation in Brazil increased rapidly last year as wildfires raged and environmental protections were slashed under president Jair Bolsanaro’s government.
“We believe we’re uniquely positioned to be very effective and efficient in the supply chain,” said Elizabeth Gutschenritter, managing director of Cargill’s alternative protein team.
American NGO Mighty Earth produced a report in July alleging that Cargill was the worst company in the world thanks to its environmental impact.
Mighty Earth chief executive Henry Waxman noted that: “In contrast to the oil and tobacco industries, for instance, bad practices… are not inherent to the products Cargill sells, and are, in fact, entirely avoidable.”
There are 1 billion acres of previously degraded land where crops can be grown without further imperiling native ecosystems, at no additional cost, Mighty Earth said.
Demand for plant-based alternatives to animal products is soaring as consumers become increasingly conscious of the carbon footprint of what they eat.
Barclays forecast last year that sales of meat alternatives could hit $140bn (£108bn) in the next decade - around a tenth of the global meat market.
Cargill has already made tentative steps into meat alternatives, investing $75m in Beyond Meat's pea protein supplier back in August.