Meat is the Next Big Disruption: Taking Down a $7 Trillion Industry

Meat is the Next Big Disruption: Taking Down a $7 Trillion Industry

Imagine a world where the protein display case at your local grocery store is filled with plant-based (vegan) meat and cell-based meat (also called clean meat or cultured meat) rather than products made from slaughtered animals. That day may be coming sooner than you think. The reason? Animal products are profoundly unsustainable, and as meat consumption rises across the globe we are reaching a crisis point where something has to change. Forward-thinking investors, scientists, and environmentalists have a vision for the future of meat which could disrupt the entire industry and make slaughterhouses obsolete.


A leading indicator of this coming disruption is the millions of investment dollars streaming into alternative meat development. Billionaires Bill Gates and Richard Branson have invested in plant-based and cell-based meat companies because they see a unique opportunity to grab a share of the $7 trillion worldwide meat market while at the same time benefitting the environment, animals, and human health. Even huge meat producers like Tyson Foods and Cargill are getting into the game, investing in alternative meats as a way to ensure their own continued relevance as the world shifts away from animal-based protein.


Early market feedback shows that these are smart investments. Consumers are wildly enthusiastic about plant-based meats at major restaurants. A&W in Canada sold out of plant-based Beyond Burgers the first day of launch. TGI Fridays added the Beyond Burger to all of their 469 locations after a hugely successful market test; it’s their fastest ever test-to-table turnaround. White Castle launched plant-based Impossible Sliders nationwide, calling it a cult favorite. And Del Taco is currently testing Beyond Meat tacos at two Los Angeles locations.


This is encouraging because we urgently need to find sustainable alternatives to meat. The earth’s current population of over 7.5 billion is already pushing against planetary resource limits. Biodiversity loss, deforestation, fresh water shortages, and climate change all pose threats to our continued existence, and these problems only get worse as our numbers grow to 9 billion by 2050. The scary part? Our growing appetite for meat and other animal products is a major contributor to all of these issues. But that’s also good news, because if we can find a way to satisfy that appetite with more sustainable products, we can avoid the worst-case impacts.


Our planet’s oceans are under intense environmental threat. According to this report from the Good Food Institute, the welfare of humans (and indeed all life on earth) depends on ecologically diverse oceans. Yet continued overfishing and destructive fishing practices are wiping out individual species and entire ecosystems. Bycatch (a euphemistic description of the unintended catch of sea mammals, turtles, birds, and non-target fish species) represents an incredible 40 percent of the global fish catch – and many of these animals are killed in the process.


Animal agriculture is one of the biggest worldwide drivers of biodiversity loss and climate change. But on top of that, consider the many negative impacts on human health. Animal products are proven contributors to the incidence of diabetes and some cancers. In addition, animal agriculture is a breeding ground for antibiotic resistance, microbial contamination, and diseases like bird flu, swine flu, and mad cow disease, all of which can infect humans. Large fish accumulate toxins such as mercury in their flesh. And animal agriculture is a big polluter – think of the overflowing pig manure lagoons in North Carolina that were recently in the news after Hurricane Florence.


At the recent Good Food Conference, many speakers commented on the potential for alternative meats to mitigate environmental impacts. Scott Faber (VP for Government Affairs, Environmental Working Group) said that the expected 60-70 percent rise in meat and dairy consumption over the next 30 years will wipe out all other gains we make in greenhouse gas emissions. He concluded that our only option, if we can’t break our meat habit, is to change how those products are made. This report from the Environmental Working Group shows that animal products have much higher climate impacts than the most common plant-based proteins. The report includes a recommendation to eat less animal-based meat and cheese.


Pat Brown, CEO of Impossible Foods (maker of the plant-based Impossible Burger), explained at the conference that animal agriculture already occupies half of the land on earth, which makes it clear that we don’t have the resources for dramatic increases in meat consumption. Impossible Foods has done an analysis which shows that, compared to a beef burger, their plant-based burgers produce 1/8 of the greenhouse gas emissions, and use 1/4 the water and 1/20 the land. Cell-based meat is also expected to drive dramatic environmental improvements. Isaac Emery, Senior Environmental Scientist at the Good Food Institute, expects clean beef to reduce land use by 90-95 percent vs. animal-based beef.


Brown went on to say that the real challenge is to get people to care. Many people are aware of the outsize environmental impact of meat, but they continue to base their food choices on taste, price, convenience, and familiarity. He asserted that the most effective solution is to bypass the “getting people to care” problem and instead find a more sustainable way to produce the proteins that people want. He ended with a call to action for scientists: “Answering the question ‘What makes meat delicious?’ could solve the most important problem the world faces.”


Plant-based burgers like the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger that closely resemble the taste and texture of beef are already winning praise from meat-eaters. We’ll see an explosion of new alternative meat options in the next few years as more companies deliver innovative plant-based meats and as new cell-based meats hit the market. In just the last few years, new companies like Good Catch and Ocean Hugger Foods and established brands like Gardein have produced plant-based alternatives to many seafoods (Gardein’s Crabless Cakes are just amazing). Alternative meat that tastes great and is good for the planet and for your health isn’t just a pie-in-the-sky dream – it’s coming soon to a store near you!


Lisa Towell
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