The last time American protein consumption changed dramatically was the turn toward industrialized chicken in the last decades of the 20th century. Billed as a healthier and cheaper alternative to red meats like beef and pork, chicken went from an animal kept in relatively small flocks, usually for eggs, to one that was mass-produced and engineered for its meat, which became a new industrialized commodity. American chicken consumption passed pork consumption in the 1980s; by the early 1990s, it had also surpassed that of beef, according to the National Chicken Council.
Technological innovation was at the forefront of the story the chicken industry told about itself. These innovations included moving chickens inside from indoor-outdoor coops to temperature-controlled houses with automatic feeding and protection from the pathogens and perils of life outside. With the help of the federal government and researchers at land-grant colleges, the industry changed the very genes of chickens — today’s chickens are much larger than they were 70 years ago, their breasts (where most of the meat comes from) bred to be much bigger. The kinds of chicken products available on supermarket shelves changed, too, thanks to refrigerated trucks that could haul frozen meat farther than before, and processing facilities where chickens are slaughtered, cut up and packaged for sale in assembly-line fashion.
But the meteoric rise of chicken came with serious downsides — ones the industry’s early entrepreneurs didn’t necessarily expect. Some of them are simply endemic to industrialized agriculture and would have been difficult to foresee. The chicken industry has contributed to land, air and water pollution, and for decades has exploited low-wage workers in its processing plants — disproportionately women, immigrants and people of color, whom the industry recruits to work in its factories across the right-to-work South. And then there’s its impact on the chickens themselves: Their lives last just several weeks, all of that time spent inside a cramped chicken house or a crate on a truck between the farm and the processing plant.
Now there’s a new form of protein on the rise, whose boosters hope will capture a significant share of America’s protein market in the next few decades and trigger a consumption revolution of the sort last seen with chicken. That protein is alternative meat. Right now, only plant-based meat alternatives (think Beyond Burgers and the like) are currently approved for sale in the United States, but companies producing other forms — like cultivated, or cell-based, meat, which is grown in a lab from animal cells — hope federal approval is coming soon.
The consequences of the last major shift in American protein consumption suggest what might happen as we anticipate another one. If you take the alternative meat industry and its champions at their word, another sea change in the American diet could be on the horizon, with the plant-based industry massively scaling up production over the next several years. Now is the time to consider the lessons of chicken. Large-scale industrialized food production inevitably comes with costs. What are the potential downstream impacts of alternative meat production being scaled up exponentially? Are there potential negatives that might counterweight the industry’s many promises? And are there ways to safeguard against problems now, before the alternative meat industry gets too big?
“We have to be careful with technology. Sometimes it creates little monsters,” said Ricardo San Martin, the research director of the Alternative Meat Program at the Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology at the University of California, Berkeley.
Industrialized animal agriculture poses a massive threat to the world’s climate — it trails only fossil fuels among human activities that produce the most greenhouse gas emissions, and it contributes to biodiversity loss, water and air pollution, and deforestation. Chicken isn’t the worst of it — beef production has a far more negative impact, causing massive methane emissions. Pork is up there as well. Mass-produced meat, especially beef and pork, uses immense amounts of land and resources inefficiently, both for keeping the animals themselves and for the grain produced to feed them. One way to slow down climate change would be to get Americans — and the world — to cut down on meat consumption.
The alternative meat industry pitches itself as a solution. Because plant-based alternatives are more environmentally friendly, more efficient and use less energy than factory-farmed meat, they can move us to a more just, less-polluting food system, the industry says.
There’s almost no question that plant-based meat is a more ethical way to produce protein than industrialized animal agriculture — even if some of its larger promises don’t bear out. But if the industry is selling itself as a solution to climate change, the more just way to feed the planet, it is prudent to ask: How much of a solution is it really?
San Martin has been pushing alternative meat companies to temper their tones a little bit. In a call hosted last summer by the Good Food Institute (a donor-funded nonprofit that supports the alternative meat industry and envisions “a world where alternative proteins are no longer alternative”) on the future of cultivated meat, he questioned whether the cheap, scaled-up cultivated products the industry promised are really possible. He’s skeptical of the promises made by plant-based meat producers, too: The biggest plant-based companies, like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, he said, keep their production processes mostly secret — they tell you what’s in the product but not how it’s made. Like many other environmental advocates, he questions industry-funded studies that claim to show plant-based alternatives are significantly more sustainable than industrialized meat.
Most plant-based meat companies don’t share their full production processes, so it’s hard to get independent estimates of the climate and emissions impact of plant-based meat. That’s especially true when you consider all the ingredients and steps in the plant-based-meat supply chain, which usually include things like soy, pea protein, palm oil and coconut oil. The production of soy and palm oil in particular has had negative environmental impacts that, if the alternative meat industry ramps up production, might be exacerbated by higher demand, San Martin said. When farmed at large scale, palm oil and soy have been responsible for deforestation and declines in land quality. As with all large-scale farming, there are also concerns about the ecological and environmental impact of pesticides, soil quality and possible water pollution.
If plant-based meat is more sustainable, the only way for it to make a dent in greenhouse gas emissions would be for people stop eating real meat and start eating alternatives. So far, there’s not much evidence that’s actually happening.
Though consumption of plant-based meat has grown exponentially in the United States over the last few years — it is currently a $7 billion industry in the United States, and it is growing at twice the rate of other food markets, according to the Good Food Institute — it hasn’t made a dent in global meat consumption, which is also increasing. For plant-based meat to have a serious climate impact, it would have to significantly cut into meat’s market share — especially beef. But a recent paper by Jayson Lusk, a professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University; Glynn Tonsor, an agricultural economist at Kansas State University; and Saloni Shah and Dan Blaustein-Rejto of the Breakthrough Institute found that in the short term, plant-based meat alternatives will have little impact on the number of cattle raised in the United States or on greenhouse gas emissions. (Lusk and Tonsor published a similar study funded by the beef industry early last year.)
Alex Smith, a food and agriculture analyst at the Breakthrough Institute, thinks the best-case scenario is that plant-based meat consumption might be able to replace the market share of future rises in real meat consumption — making sure the meat industry doesn’t get larger and consequently pollute even more. “I am skeptical of the ability of plant-based meats to win over a huge audience,” he said. “You see some growth, and there’s big growth year-over-year for the industry, but still, in terms of the grand total of U.S. meat consumption, it’s very small.”
If demand for plant-based meat does continue to grow, scaling up production would involve seriously scaling up technology and manufacturing capacity. Plant-based meat is highly processed because plant proteins don’t behave the same as animal proteins — to get soy or pea protein to have a similar texture as ground beef, for example, you have to strip soy of all its oil, then add oils back in later in the process to mimic the fat in a traditional burger. While some commonly cited life-cycle assessment studies (industry-funded, with data provided by the industry) show that plant-based alternatives like Beyond, Impossible and Morningstar Farms have significantly less environmental impact than beef, which is almost always the measuring stick, San Martin urges caution.
“Right now, we conservatively estimate that the industry will need to operate at least 800 manufacturing facilities at a global capital cost of $27 billion within the next decade in order to meet even modest consumer demand,” said Lauren Stone, the acting policy coordinator of the Good Food Institute. She said that the GFI encourages more research funding toward figuring out how to “make sure this industry is as environmentally beneficial as possible.” The industry will also need to figure out how to avoid bottlenecks in coconut oil and pea protein — key ingredients for companies trying to figure out how to make plant-based meat alternatives that look, feel and taste like a burger.
For cell-based or “cultured” meat, the size of the facilities and bioreactors that would be necessary for lab-grown meat to scale up to even a percent of a percent of the scale of meat production have literally never been produced. As reported by the Counter, some researchers doubt that bioreactors and facilities so big are even possible to make.
“The electricity and power required to produce this stuff — it’s not significant, it’s not like fertilizer production, but it’s not insignificant either,” said Smith. “We’re sort of dependent, when we talk about these numbers, on a future renewable-slash-clean grid.” He points to the potential of using nuclear power for cultivated meat, but the technology (and the federal approval) isn’t there yet.
Because plant-based meats produced by companies like Impossible and Beyond are so processed, it’s hard to know exactly how healthy they are, San Martin said: “They are telling you that it’s super healthy, super environmentally positive and everything. But that’s the industry narrative.” Plant-based burgers, while they’re made of plants, aren’t health food, he said — they have more saturated fats than a real burger, more sodium. “If you want the benefits of a plant, I strongly recommend you eat quinoa or lettuce,” he added.
One of the reasons the meat industry has been able to exploit workers, farmers and even consumers is that it is so concentrated — the majority of pork, beef and chicken markets are controlled by just four companies. Concentration means less competition for consumers and fewer choices for farmers about whom to grow chickens for. And while Impossible and Beyond are, to consumers, probably the most familiar names for plant-based alternatives on the market today, major meat producers and agribusinesses — including Tyson Foods, Conagra, and Kellogg’s — are also in the plant-based alternatives game.
If the traditional meat industry is any measure, there’s reason to be worried that the same agribusinesses that already control America’s meat market will control much of the plant-based market as well. These companies have less-than-stellar environmental and worker safety records as it is; the pursuit of larger profit margins has always been the goal. Conagra acquired Gardein, a plant-based meat brand, in 2018. The plant-based brand Morningstar, which was acquired by Kellogg’s in the 1990s, is the industry leader in frozen plant-based meat right now.
And though Tyson was an early investor in Beyond, it now sells its own brand of plant-based meats called Raised and Rooted. On its website, Raised and Rooted says, “Currently, the cows, pigs and chickens we raise generate the same greenhouse gas emissions as every car, truck and automobile combined. … Adopting ‘meat consciousness’ as a society is necessary to reduce our carbon footprint for future generations.” But Tyson’s vice president for marketing told Insider last year that the company’s venture into plant-based meat isn’t necessarily about replacing meat consumption — “it’s about giving consumers choice.”
“The companies can’t regulate themselves, right? Because they will say they’re super good,” said San Martin.
“I think the industry definitely wants to be regulated in a way that puts them on an even playing field with their conventional counterparts,” said Stone, of the Good Food Institute. “So not having to go through undue regulatory hurdles that conventional meat doesn’t.” Right now, plant-based alternative meat is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, while real meat is regulated by the Department of Agriculture; in 2020, the FDA and the USDA agreed to jointly regulate cell-based meat, which has not yet been approved for the market.
Another serious question for the future of alternative meat is its relationship to its workers and to organized labor. This isn’t a “what if” — a unionization drive at No Evil Foods, a plant-based meat company based in Asheville, met with a union-busting effort from the company, which had, ironically, named many of its products after socialist leaders. A National Labor Relations Board complaint resulted in a $40,000 settlement with two workers involved in the organizing effort. If a significant amount of alternative meat production is going to happen under the auspices of agribusiness — another industry famously unfriendly to organized labor and, often, worker safety — there are serious concerns about working conditions and compensation, not just for factory workers but on the farms that produce the plants that go into plant-based meat.
While the story of the chicken industry points to some potential downsides for the alternative meat industry to address as it grows, researchers also see some models to follow that could help plant-based and alternative meats snag a larger market share. In the 1980s and 1990s, the chicken industry created many kinds of “further-processed” products — think chicken nuggets, chicken tenders, chicken patties — to entice consumers into eating more chicken. And it worked — in the United States, per capita consumption of beef has fallen 31 percent since 1970, while per capita consumption of chicken has increased 160 percent. Smith of the Breakthrough Institute thinks that instead of just trying to replicate the experience of eating meat, the plant-based protein industry should take a cue from poultry and make products that don’t seek to replicate the experience of eating meat but rather offer consumers something entirely new to pull off grocery shelves or order from fast-food menus.
The Chicken of Tomorrow contest — a past public-private research endeavor funded by the Department of Agriculture and A&P supermarkets — could be a potential model for similar public-interest research that could be done in the alternative meats sphere, Smith thinks. These contests, one in 1948 and one in 1951, brought together chicken breeders and scientists from around the country in search of the golden goose — or, rather, the golden chicken.
The contest’s organizers were hoping to create, in the words of a contemporary documentary, “a superior meat-type chicken,” the language itself an indication of how novel the idea of mass-producing chicken for its meat still was at the time. They incentivized breeders around the country to produce birds fitting the criteria developed by the contest — efficient to feed, quick to grow and with as much meat on their bones as possible.
The alternative meat industry could similarly benefit from such a collaboration, Smith thinks. “You’ve had public-private partnerships to get to the idea of the broiler chicken,” he said. “I’m kind of sold on ‘price is God,’ because it seems like chicken was able to get into consumers’ diets because it became the much cheaper protein option.”
With USDA research and support, he thinks, there could be real strides toward making different forms of alternative meat cheap and easier to produce, leading to a greater consumer shift toward alternative proteins than the industry has been able to achieve so far. That could be a way, Smith said, for plant-based and other alternative forms of meat to make an even bigger dent in meat consumption. And that might help alternative meat achieve some of its biggest promises.