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The Beef With Big Meat: The barriers to expanding the meat-alternative market

Within the span of a month in the spring of 2019, Impossible Foods made a historic deal with Burger King to launch the Impossible Whopper, and its biggest competitor, Beyond Meat, went public in one of the splashiest rollouts in modern history. The plant-based meat industry has experienced a stunning rise: In the past few years, meatless meat has infiltrated our local restaurant chains and grocery stores, offering a taste of the future of plant-based food. What sets these groundbreaking products apart from previous iterations of veggie burgers is their deliberate imitation of the texture and taste of meat, down to the Impossible Burger’s beef-like “bleeding.” These companies target traditional meat eaters rather than vegetarians or vegans, hoping to replace some of their meat purchases by offering tasty, affordable, and sustainable alternatives.

Now, Big Meat is getting in on this lucrative market too. Some of the biggest food companies in the world—including the major American meat manufacturers Tyson, Smithfield, and Perdue—have recently announced major commitments to roll out their own meat alternatives and to drastically increase plant-based sales in the coming years. Some plant-based diet advocates celebrate the addition of new meat alternatives into the market, presuming that more competition will satiate demand and drive down prices. However, while these moves may be savvy business ventures, they do not represent a fundamental shift in Big Meat’s attitudes toward sustainability. Instead, these investments in plant-based meat may serve as just a veneer for the meat industry’s environmental offenses and thus should not be lauded by environmental activists.

Major meat producers’ hasty attempts to capitalize on the plant-based meat trend indicate a recognition that meatless meat is gaining popularity. Consumer demand is high, especially given customers’ concerns about Covid- 19 in meatpacking facilities and supply-chain issues in the early months of the pandemic. Moreover, health fanatics and environmental activists are extremely effective advertisers of plant-based meat products. People may not be clamoring to go vegetarian or vegan, but they are nonetheless trying out habits such as Meatless Mondays or flexitarianism, a diet centered on plant-based foods with the occasional inclusion of meat. In fact, a Generation Lab poll conducted for the Brown Political Review found that 47 percent of 803 college students had already tried plant-based meat; of the remainder who had not, 27 percent were curious to try it.

Yet while pioneers of the plant-based meat market underwent years of innovation and rigorous testing, Big Meat companies have responded to the rise in demand for plant-based options by hastily producing baffling products in an attempt to protect their consumer base and increase profits. Tyson’s Raised & Rooted brand sells burgers made with 90 percent lean Angus beef blended with pea protein, and Perdue’s Chicken Plus products contain chicken blended with cauliflower, chickpeas, and other plant proteins. Not only are hybrid meat options less environmentally friendly than meat alternatives, as they typically still contain a high ratio of meat to plant-based protein, but a flood of mostly-meat products risks confusing customers and disincentivizing future purchases of meat alternatives. These subpar products can also negatively impact a first-time customer’s experience of plant-based meat, becoming a serious obstacle to long-term adoption of a meatless diet. This problem is especially salient given that a majority of Americans have yet to try plant-based meats. “I haven’t ever heard a consumer tell me they want a blended product,” said Ethan Brown, the CEO of Beyond Meat.

As Big Meat crowds out the plant-based meat market with undesirable alternatives that fail to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, it is also standing in the way of critical climate change mitigation efforts. Meat production accounts for 14.5 percent of GHG emissions, and food emissions alone could put the Paris Climate targets out of reach and have devastating effects on biodiversity. A 2018 study published in Science Magazine found that meat, dairy, eggs, and aquaculture account for around 56 percent of food-related greenhouse gases while only providing 37 percent of protein and 18 percent of calories. Yet US meat producers like Tyson and Smithfield have done practically nothing to actively combat climate change. In fact, despite a target to reduce GHG emissions by 30 percent by 2030, Tyson’s direct GHG emissions actually increased from 2018 to 2019. Smithfield, for its part, has lofty goals of becoming carbon negative by 2030, yet its sustainability reports overwhelmingly focus on converting methane into biogas. Methane, however, is not a natural byproduct of hog manure, but rather a direct result of meat companies’ irresponsible practice of creating waste lagoons. Thus, Smithfield’s sustainability programs focus on addressing a problem that is entirely of their own design. Given Big Meat’s track record of corporate greenwashing, their plant-based ventures could simply be their next publicity stunt, exploiting a sustainability initiative to disguise their lack of real action to reduce GHG emissions.

The benefits of the increased demand for plant-based products, however, do not have to be lost to Big Meat. Plant-based meat options that have gone through rigorous research and design, such as those of Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger, offer a promising alternative to the environmental degradation of meat production. A plant-based burger’s carbon footprint is about only about one-tenth of its meat counterpart. In fact, widespread adoption of a plant-rich diet has been found to be the most effective intervention to reduce food emissions. Alternative meats have the power to transform society by allowing us to adopt a food system that does not exploit the environment. Yet while they might be trending, plant-based products still represent less than one percent of the meat industry’s product volume. Unfortunately, then, it’s too small a market share to have a substantial environmental impact. Plant-based meat may never reach its true market potential without swift government action to rein in the political influence of Big Meat that allows companies to continue their polluting practices.

Furthermore, major meat manufacturers have a long history of anti-competitive practices. They have been regularly accused of restraining competition, fixing prices, and manipulating price indices. Without intervention, similar tactics could become commonplace in the plant-based meat sector, with the sinister goal of squeezing out plant-based meat startups before their products become regular purchases for most Americans. Considering the massive amounts of capital Big Meat could invest to drive down the prices of their own meat alternatives, there is no way startups would be able to compete. Through marketing cheap and subpar meat alternatives, Big Meat could destroy the plant-based meat market well before it reaches its full potential.

To compound the problem, meat companies shell out millions to political campaigns each year, which has provided them with unprecedented amounts of political influence. The only way to ensure that Big Meat does not destroy plant-based meat is to address the industry consolidation that enables its misleading advertising campaigns and deleterious polluting practices. Rather than championing the environmentally friendly plant-based meat industry, unregulated Big Meat only stands in the way.