Vion Food Group

Background

Vion Food Group is one of the largest meat producers in Europe, with production sites in Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands and offices in 13 countries. Vion is headquartered in Boxtel, Netherlands and was founded in 2003 through a merger of the meat companies Dumeco, Hendrix Meat Group, Moksel, and NFZ (Nordfleisch). [1], [2], [3]

In 2020, the company recorded 4,673 employees, 7,451 flexible workers, and €4.9 billion in revenue. During the previous year, Vion slaughtered 15,200,000 pigs and 844,000 cows. In 2021, Vion announced the acquisition of Belgian beef producer Adriaens to strengthen the company’s position in the European beef market. [4], [5], [6]

Vion’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are currently equivalent to 7.5 percent of the Netherlands’ total emissions, according to a 2021 New York University study. It estimated that on a business-as-usual pathway, by 2030 Vion’s emissions would be responsible for 14 percent of the Netherland’s emissions target under the Paris Agreement, known as a Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC). [7]

VION is owned by the Dutch farmers union ZLTO, an association with 13,000 members in Zeeland, Noord-Brabant, and the southern part of Gelderland. [2], [8]

In 2019, Vion launched new plant-based products in a new line called ME-AT, stating that “the European meat market is expected to shrink in the next ten years, whilst meat consumption in Asia and Africa will continue to grow.” Since the launch, Vion has been offering a range of vegan products, including plant-based hamburgers, minced meat, schnitzel, fillet pieces and chipolata sausages. [9], [10], [11]

Stance on Climate Change

In 2020, Vion’s CEO Ronald Lotgerink stated in a video on LinkedIn: “The planet has limited resources. We cannot go on the same way we have done for the past 50, 60 years.” [12]

In Vion’s 2020 corporate responsibility report, the company stated that “the husbandry and feeding of animals result in several challenges of global concern with regard to sustainability, such as greenhouse gases, nitrogen and phosphate emissions, water usage, biodiversity, deforestation and land use.” Vion further noted that “as an important meat producer, we have an influence on lowering the negative impact of livestock farming.” [13]

The company announced a new strategy in 2019 to “develop sustainable chains that contribute to a healthy food supply” and address “climate change challenges that affect agricultural entrepreneurs.” [14]

In the company’s 2018 corporate responsibility report, Vion said the reduction of GHG emissions was a “matter of worldwide concern and according to the Paris Agreement, we must strive to reach the target of a maximum temperature increase of 1.5°C to slow global warming by 2050. […] Vion needs quite a large amount of energy in its operations; for example, for cooling the meat, for cleaning and for transportation. As such, Vion has a role in reducing CO2 emissions.” [15]

The company’s 2018 annual report stated that Vion was working “to play our role in reducing environmental impact.” However, it also identified falling meat consumption in North-Western European markets as a risk and said it would manage this by focusing on “growth opportunities in Asia where, due to economic growth and the adoption of more western consumption patterns, the consumption of meat per person is increasing.” [16]

Livestock emissions

According to Vion’s 2020 sustainability report, the company emitted 179,100 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) in 2020 and 172,100 tonnes of CO2e in 2019, in “scope 1 and 2” emissions. Scope 1 and 2 emissions are from the activities of a company or activities under their control and from the production of energy used by the company. In 2020, the company announced it had measured GHG emissions on fifteen farms supplying Vion, and planned to measure emissions at 160 farms in 2021. Vion’s 2019 corporate responsibility report did not include information about the company’s total carbon dioxide emissions. [17], [18], [19], [10]

In contrast to Vion’s estimate, sustainability non-profit GRAIN and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) estimated in a 2018 report that Vion produced 15.2 million tonnes of CO2e annually, using a model developed by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which also includes “scope 3” emissions. Scope 3 emissions are from all other activities associated with a company, originating from sources the organisation does not own or control, such as land use and land-use change, including deforestation, the production of animal feed, and emissions from farms that supply meat companies. [20], [21]

Scope 3 emissions account for the vast majority of meat companies’ emissions but, according to the UK-based sustainable farming charity Feedback, most “don’t even know what their scope 3 emissions are, or if they do they aren’t publishing them.” [22]

Dutch environmental organisation Milieudefensie estimates that Vion emitted 11.6 Mt CO2e in 2019: 7.1 Mt CO2e from producing 1,022,000 tonnes of pork and 4.5 Mt of CO2e from producing 213,000 tonnes of beef. [23]

Key Narratives

Vion promotes a number of narratives to justify its business model. Find out more about how the meat industry is climate-washing its activities in our investigation. And you can read counter-arguments and criticisms of these narratives in our factsheet.

‘Animal agriculture isn’t a serious driver of climate change’

‘Dutch meat is environmentally friendly’

In 2018, Vion’s CEO Ronald Lotgerink announced a project with stakeholders to calculate the footprint of pig farms supplying Vion’s Good Farming Star programme, a specific product line that aims to improve animal welfare and sustainability within its supply chain. Lotgerink stated that: “The first results were astonishing and showed that these farms are producing pork with a carbon footprint equivalent to the carbon footprint of tofu, a vegetarian alternative for products of animal origin.” [15]

In 2018, Bert Urlings, Vion’s Corporate Director Quality Assurance, argued during a conference on climate-friendly food chains that with 5 kilograms of CO2e per kilo, the carbon footprint of Dutch pork is among the 10 percent lowest in the world, performing better than tofu. The company repeats similar claims in its 2018 and 2020 corporate responsibility reports. According to Dutch sustainability consultancy Blonk Consultants, the production of pork releases 12.4 CO2e per kilogram produced, more than twice as much as tofu, considering the whole life cycle and land-use change. [24], [15], [19], [25]

‘Our feed comes from responsible sources’

The company notes that “buying soy from countries like Brazil and Malaysia may contribute to deforestation” and advocates the “use of soy certified by Round Table [on] Responsible Soy (RTRS).” According to Vion, “the RTRS certification includes strict requirements on the preservation of natural forests and other natural resources.” [13]

In a 2021 report on certification schemes, Greenpeace accused RTRS of making claims about responsible feed production that are “misleading, allowing companies a green image even if they are still contributing to human rights abuses and/or the destruction of nature.” It noted that “the vast majority of RTRS soya sales are based on credits” and that credit buyers “thus might not know whether the producers of the actual products they are buying are engaging in deforestation or other ecosystem destruction.” [26]

In 2016, Vion scored 2.5 out of 24 on WWF’s “Soy Scorecard” and neither made a “responsible soy” nor a “no deforestation” commitment. According to WWF, “Vion has made a partial responsible soy commitment for one specific product line (Good Farming Star)” and did not share data on the size of this programme with WWF. [27]

‘Grazing supports biodiversity’

The company claims that “by focussing on sustainable farming together with our farmers, we reduce the degradation of natural habitats and halt the loss of biodiversity.” Vion further states that: “Both in Germany and in the Netherlands, Vion is involves [sic] in sourcing cattle from areas where nature preservation is an important issue. […] Nature preservation is actively promoted by the farmers in these regions, and Vion makes it transparent to the market that this specific beef originates from these wonderful regions.” [28], [15]

The US-based environmental group, Center for Biological Diversity, states: “The ecological costs of livestock grazing exceed that of any other western land use.” A 2020 study by researchers from the University of Alberta warned that scaling up livestock grazing to meet future food demand could threaten the biodiversity of herbivores and pollinators worldwide. [29], [30]

‘Cattle grazing uses land unsuitable for other uses’

Vion argues that “meadows in the region of North-Western European [sic] produce grass very effectively. This grass is not edible for humans, but it is converted by cows into high quality dairy and beef products.” [15]

University of Oxford environmental researcher Marco Springmann, however, argues that “if everybody were to make the argument that ‘our pastures are the best and should be used for grazing’, then there would be no way to limit global warming.” [31]

‘Plant-based diets do not solve the problem of climate change’

‘Dietary change is an ineffective climate strategy’

In Vion’s now-deleted 2018 corporate social responsibility report, the company argued: “In discussions on the CO2 footprint, it is often mentioned that less meat consumption contributes to a more sustainable agriculture and world. In contrast, scientists from, amongst others, the United States government claim that eating less meat will not necessarily contribute to more sustainability, because essential nutrients can then only be consumed in sufficient amounts by eating much more plants/vegetables. The increased consumption was estimated to generate more GHG than eating meat.” [15]

Vion backed up this statement by quoting a 2017 study by researchers at the Department of Animal and Poultry Science at Virginia Tech and the U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center, which envisaged the complete removal of animal farming from the US. The study has been criticised as misleading by environmental, nutrition, and epidemiology researchers for failing to take into account the impacts of land no longer being needed for animal feed crops, and for the “uncritical use of nutritional values and optimization algorithms” as well as a “highly unrealistic and narrow scenario design.” [32], [33], [34], [35]

‘Less meat is wasted than fruit and vegetables’

Vion argued in its 2018 corporate social responsibility report that “food waste proportions are larger for fruits and vegetables than for animal-derived proteins, also adding to the footprint.” [15]

Studies have found “plant-based diets are also more climate friendly when they are wasted,” however. Researchers from the University of Michigan showed that “fruits and vegetables which comprise 33 percent of food waste [in the U.S.], account for only 8 percent of carbon dioxide emissions,” while animal products “account for 33 percent of food waste by mass and 74 percent of carbon dioxide emissions.” [36]

‘Meat is needed for a healthy diet and to feed the world’

‘Meat is needed to feed the world’s growing population’

In a video released in 2020, Vion’s CEO Ronald Lotgerink stated: “In 2050, we have to feed 10 billion mouths. All those people have the right to safe, quality food. […] When you are in Asia, you see the growing population live before you. When you are in Europe, you see a big focus on climate change, animal welfare, and when you put those things together, then you have a kind of contradiction because we have to feed all those people, but you have to do it in a responsible way.” [12] 

A 2016 report on world hunger by the World Bank and the UN, however, found that global agriculture could already feed up to 14 billion people “if harvests were used entirely and as effectively as possible as food.” The report points out the majority of the world’s livestock are kept in factory farms where they are fed with crops grown on arable land, resulting in the loss of land that could be used to grow food for direct consumption instead. [37]

‘Meat is an exceptional source of nutrients’

According to Vion, “meat is a good source of proteins, minerals and vitamins,” and “proteins of animal origin are more easily digested and absorbed more quickly and effectively by the body when compared to plant proteins.” In its 2018 social responsibility report, the company stated that “meat plays a role in a healthy diet, especially for pregnant women, children, athletes and the elderly.” [15]

In its 2020 sustainability report, the company appeared to contradict previous statements when it said that to “create wholesome meat alternatives, we enrich products with vitamins and minerals, like B12 and iron” and noted that: “90% of our assortment of plant-based products has a premium nutritional score (A). This means: not too much saturated fat, salt and sugar, and enough fibres and proteins.” [38]

Nutrition associations, including the British Nutrition Foundation, approve of meat-free diets, however. According to the American Dietetic Association, “appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.” [39], [40]

‘Innovations in animal agriculture will tackle climate change’

‘Improvements in packaging, transport and energy use are cutting emissions’

In 2019, De Groene Weg, a subsidiary of Vion, announced the launch of packaging that contains 80 percent less plastic than standard meat trays. During the same year, Vion invested €35 million to modernise a meat production facility in Boxtel to reduce transport emissions. [41], [42]

In Vion’s now-deleted 2019 corporate social responsibility report, the company stated it was increasing the number of farms on which emissions are measured and decreasing the company’s non-renewable energy consumption and water usage. [10]

According to an analysis published by Oxford University’s Our World in Data project, the transport and packaging of meat accounts for only a small share of emissions caused by the livestock sector. Sustainable farming campaigners such as the charity Feedback have criticised meat producers for focusing on scope 1 and 2 emissions, which do not include land use emissions, stating in 2020: “They’re farming companies using the emissions reduction strategies of transport companies rather than coming up with strategies that are consummate with the fact that they are meat and dairy companies.” [43], [22]

Lobbying

In 2018, Vion was invited by the Dutch Government to participate in working groups on sustainable consumption and reducing emissions from manure to help the government reach its target of cutting the country’s agricultural emissions by 1.5 Mt CO2e by 2050. [15]

In 2020, the Dutch government published its climate plan for the period 2021-2030. The climate plan does not mention dietary change as part of its strategy. It states that livestock production mainly causes GHGs emissions through the release of methane and nitrous oxide and that “reductions can be achieved in livestock farming by making adjustments to barns (incl. manure storage), the feeding and breeding of animals, and the proper processing of manure.” The report stated that the livestock sector needs to take “”necessary steps with regards to barns, such as low-emission barn systems” and announced subsidy schemes for farmers “for generating sustainable energy” and implementing a system of “mono-manure fermentation.” [44]

In March 2021, Carola Schouten, Dutch Minister of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality, replied to questions by Dutch politician Laura Bromet, member of the Green Party GroenLinks, about a recent report concerning the high carbon emissions of Dutch meat and dairy companies. Schouten declared that she “regularly consults with these companies [including Vion] directly and through their representative bodies” and that “it is up to the companies to determine whether they want to make their own climate ambitions public and how they will achieve these ambitions.” Questioned about Vion’s scope 3 emissions related to land-use change, Schouten stated that “it is up to Vion whether they want to set specific targets for every part of their supply chain.” [45], [23], 

In 2019, Schouten wrote a parliamentary letter that “a lot is already happening on various farms and in the supply chain, which contributes to making livestock farming more sustainable.” Schouten referred to CoViVa, of which Vion is a member, stating that “this program working to achieve a more sustainable way of pig farming contains important elements that assist in the transition to a recyclable pig industry,” including “increasing the share of raw materials in animal feed not fit for human consumption,” “low-emission farm systems,” and “an acceleration of manure processing and valuation.” Schouten echoed Vion’s claims that livestock farming can increase biodiversity and mentioned technological innovation, including manure storage and “green energy” generated by pig farms as ways to reduce the sector’s emissions. [46]

Affiliations

Vion is a member of the Round Table on Responsible Soy Association, a multi-stakeholder initiative co-founded by environmental group WWF in 2005. [47], [48]

Vion is a premium sponsor of the 2021 German Meat Conference. [49]

In 2021, Vion announced it was joining the “Coalitie Vitalisering Varkenshouderij,” a pig farming coalition, to help the Dutch government reach its 2050 climate goal. The coalition is chaired by former Dutch politician Prof. Dr. Uri Rosenthal, and its other members are the Dutch pork association Organisatie Varkenshouderij (POV), Dutch multinational bank Rabobank, the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality, Dutch agricultural cooperative enterprise Agrifirm, Dutch feed manufacturer ForFarmers, and Topigs Norsvin, a German company specialising in pig genetics. [50], [51], [52]

Since 2017, Vion has been a member of the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative (SAI) Platform’s Beef Working Group, the predecessor of the European Roundtable for Beef Sustainability, to which it now belongs. [53]

Theo Koekkoek, then chairman of AgriProFocus, a multi-stakeholder initiative to promote agriculture in Dutch development policy, joined Vion’s supervisory board in 2017. [54], [16]

Ton van der Laan, Vice Chair of the Rainforest Alliance, joined Vion’s supervisory board in 2014 and Vion’s audit committee in 2018 but is no longer listed on its website. [55], [16], [2]

Research Collaborations

As of 2021, Vion is listed as a partner of the “Sustainable Animal Stewardship,” a joint initiative between Utrecht University’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Wageningen University & Research’s Animal Sciences Group and the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality. [56]

In 2020, Vion partnered with Wageningen University on a project that measures the carbon footprint of pork as part of “Publiek-Private Samenwerking,” a government initiative on housing and infrastructure. [57], [58]

In 2018, Vion collaborated with multinational chemical company BASF, using their AgBalanceTM tool to calculate the footprint of the company’s meat. [15]

In 2016, Vion collaborated with agricultural initiative Topsector Agri & Food, poultry producer Plukon Food Group, and beef producer VanDrie Group on a project exploring opportunities to satisfy rising meat demand in China with “high quality meat.” [59]

References

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  2. About Vion,” Vion. Archived July 14, 2021. Archive.fo URL: https://archive.fo/8d6yX 
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