It’s a dynamic time for the meat industry, as COVID-19 changes labor conditions, buyers scrutinize animal welfare and the nutritional components of beef, and environmental activists contemplate how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions caused by farming.
There’s no doubt that meat is big business, with a significant environmental footprint. As recently as 2017, U.S. meat production totaled 52 billion pounds, 26.3 billion of which was beef. While there are a range of estimates, as much as 30% of the calories consumed globally by humans come from meat products.
And according to the United Nations, livestock contribute nearly two-thirds of agricultural greenhouse gas emissions and 78% of agricultural methane emissions — with cattle representing the bulk of that amount.
Speaking at last month’s MIT Sustainability Summit, representatives of five companies discussed ways to reconcile this consumption with eco-friendliness, with various approaches. Speakers included:
- Pat Brown, CEO of Impossible Foods, which develops plant-based substitutes for meat products.
- Charley Cummings, whose Walden Local raises and distributes sustainable meat through a farm-share-like program.
- Jill Marshall Gould, founder of Butter Meat Co., which focuses on mature, organic local beef.
- Cara Nicoletti, whose Seemore Meats & Veggies produces carbon-neutral, vegetable-forward sausages.
- Brian Spears, CEO of New Age Meats, which grows meat from the cells of animals that have not been slaughtered, a process known as “cultivated meat” or “cell-based meat.” The company’s products are not yet for sale.
While each has a unique business proposition, their hurdles are similar. Here are their insights about the state of the industry.
Human labor is fragile
Panelists discussed how COVID-19 has underscored the frailty of human labor and will remain a topic of concern going forward. Hourly employees who work at slaughterhouses propel the meat supply. Because this work is acutely physical, and conducted in such proximity, it’s been difficult for businesses to rely on this labor during the pandemic. Meanwhile, demand surged, underscoring weaknesses in the supply chain.
Savvy companies will be motivated to pay greater attention to workforce conditions in the future. For example, Nicoletti uses data analytics platform Working Metrics, which offers a scorecard to assess and compare how suppliers treat labor, as well as other working conditions.
Cell-based meat could tamp down disease transmission
Futuristic meat companies, meanwhile, hope that their practices will remain unencumbered by disease.
New Age’s Spears asserted how conventional meat creation increases disease risk: people in very tight quarters side-by-side, conducting repetitive operations. In contrast, his company creates meat from the cells of unharmed animals.
“A meat supply that relies on humans to be in close proximity to the carcasses of animals and be covered in the fluids of animals presents a transmission risk,” he said. “Our platform is fundamentally less prone to that safety risk.”
Affordability is a challenge — and a mandate
High-quality meat is also prohibitively expensive for many, which threatens to turn eco-friendly eating into a socioeconomic issue.
“I really want this humane movement to be available to more people,” Nicoletti said.
For its part, Impossible Foods has an ambitious goal: completely replace the use of animals as a food source by 2035, with a focus on distribution to malnourished populations. It is estimated that one-third of the world’s population is affected by anemia and that half of those cases are due to iron deficiency. As many as two billion people worldwide are iron-deficient.
“It’s primarily a problem of poverty. So we have to think about, how do we make these foods more affordable?” Brown asked. He believes that costs will decrease as plant-based meat substitutes become more mainstream.
“We charge more than the animal industry does for our products, but structurally, the economics are all in our favor. This is just a growth phenomenon,” he said.
Marketing is key
Mission and method don’t move the purchasing needle. Taste does.
“It’s really simple. If we make products, we’re not going to try to convince people that our mission is a good thing. That’s wonderful if they believe that, [but] that’s not going to cause people to change their dietary habits,” Brown said.
His plant-based Impossible Burger, which mimics the taste of meat, is now in 15,000 grocery stores and 30,000 restaurants worldwide. The company is looking to expand into dairy and seafood. Its product is made from soy protein and heme — an iron-containing molecule that makes the Impossible’s meat replicate the real thing. Brown is also considering using leaves as a protein source as a complement to soybeans.
Stressed-out customers might not care much about mission or sourcing, though. Storytelling around brand and provenance has long been part of food companies’ marketing strategies, but right now, many people simply want familiar foods and fast.
“People buy meat that they think has the highest quality and tastes the best, and that’s what they want to hear first. The environmental case is a box that needs to be checked,” said Walden Local’s Cummings, acknowledging that messaging might need to change to focus more on flavor.
The democratization of meat might follow the lead of other industries, such as automotive and energy, the panelists said. It will just take time — and government buy-in. The meat lobby is strong.
“It took us two years to get our labels approved — because you can add ammonia, you can add all kinds of things to beef or to meat, but as soon as you say you want to add a fresh vegetable, they lose their mind,” Nicoletti said.
“We were blocked at very high levels, to the point where our USDA rep was like, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this.’ Because [the industry] is run by meat lobbyists from four major companies,” Nicoletti said, referring to behemoths such as Smithfield and Tyson. “We need some help on the government level.”
Look to ecological advocacy organizations such as The Good Meat Project to hold greater sway in the coming years, however.
“They’re finally getting ears, and there’s been some bills introduced in the House … so I think there’s kind of a momentum that we can keep going, because customers are looking for it,” said Marshall Gould of Butter Meat Co.
The clock is ticking
Meanwhile, greenhouse gas emissions loom large over the industry. Brown emphasized that animal agriculture has devastating environmental impacts, and no amount of refinement can change that.
“Animal agriculture currently exploits 45% of the Earth’s land surface, and it’s growing. You can see it growing when you watch the Amazon burn. That’s centrally entirely driven by a demand for land for animal agriculture,” he said. “The total amount of biomass deficit on that land, the delta between what was on that land pre-agriculture and what’s on that land now, adds up to the equivalent of about 16 years’ worth of current greenhouse gas emissions.”
He refused to compromise on what he called “bogus” solutions.
“The stuff about [making] animal agriculture less problematic by feeding them red algae or whatever kind of bull like that, I think is ridiculous. It’s the animal agriculture equivalent of clean coal,” he said.
He believes the only true solution is replacing the system with plant-based production.
“I don’t want to discourage people from trying to make the current system more efficient. But basically, the only way we’re meaningfully going to change things is to replace it entirely because it’s irreducibly destructive, not just from a climate standpoint, but from a biodiversity standpoint,” Brown said.