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Consider the chicken: What history can tell us about the future of alternative meat

Companies like Impossible and Beyond assure us that plant-based meats are the future. Should we buy what they’re selling?

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.

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?

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.

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.

“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.

“The companies can’t regulate themselves, right? Because they will say they’re super good,” said San Martin.

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 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.

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