Peeling Back the Bun - Part 01

Parker Hughes
Nov 5, 2020

The Plant-Based Pledge 

In 1974, Earl Butz, the Secretary of Agriculture under Richard Nixon, proudly announced that “only 4 percent of all US farms...produced almost 50 percent of all farm goods.” The liberation of 96 percent of America’s manpower from food production was viewed as a technological triumph. 46 years later, we are witnessing the negative implications of this so-called freedom. Modern society’s apathy towards agriculture has created a paradigm shift in consumption. The standards of cheapness and convenience have taken priority over the quality of health (of both people and land). To satisfy consumer preferences, the US food chain has been consolidated into an industrial system that is best described as “too big to fail.”

A 2018 report by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), found that the five largest meat and dairy corporations - JBS, Tyson, Cargill, Dairy Farmers of America, and Fonterra - generated 578.3 metric tons (mt) of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). The combined emissions were on par with Exxon-Mobil and significantly higher than those of BP or Shell (Figure 1).

Figure 1: GHG emissions of the five biggest farms compared to fossil-fuel companies (2017): taken from

The problems associated with animal agriculture are not going away anytime soon. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the global appetite for meat is expected to double by 2050. In light of this insight, established food manufacturers are investing in new ways of increasing livestock production while small-scale ranchers are earnestly refining practices that work in partnership with nature to produce carbon-negative animal protein.

At the same time, a number of biotech startups are striving to replace livestock with science labs. In reality, plant-based meat proxies are not a new concept. Over a century ago in 1911, the Seventh-day Adventist Church produced the first commercial meat alternative in Nashville, TN. Historically, meat surrogates - including Tofurkey, jackfruit jerky, and seitan bacon - have struggled to mimic the taste and texture of the real thing. In modern times, startups like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are using new industrial processes to launch products that further remove consumers from the land. With the goal of convincing shoppers that “meat doesn’t have to come from animals,” the manufacturers of plant-based substitutes are disingenuously touting the health and environmental benefits of their proprietary methods.

Amidst all of the buzz about the potential for meat alternatives to save the planet, there has been a lack of research into the negative impacts of these mysterious creations. The question remains: Are we really better off substituting farms with chemistry labs and livestock with genetically modified (GM) crops? Before propagating risky food technologies that may be highly processed problems disguised as favorable solutions, we must peel back the bun to uncover the hidden impact of fake meat.

The Problem with Hypergrowth

Armed with new science, chemists and startups have succeeded at positioning plant-based animal proteins as a promising retail food category. In 2019, far before the pandemic, grocery sales of plant-based goods reached $5 billion and grew 11 percent over the previous year. In particular, the US plant-based meat market grew to $939 million as dollar sales increased by 18 percent. In early 2020, as hundreds of industrial animal processing plants became hot spots for coronavirus, plant-based meat sales swelled by an additional 264 percent. Even with this momentum, meat alternatives account for a mere 2 percent of retail packaged meat sales.

In just ten years, Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have become dominant players in the faux meat industry. Both startups epitomize Silicon Valley’s obsession with blitzscaling: the science of rapidly building a company to serve a large and often global market. Consumers can now find Impossible products in over 15,000 restaurants - including McDonald’s, Carl’s Jr., Burger King, Tim Hortons - as well as in about 2,700 US grocery stores. Whereas, Beyond Meat’s products are available at more than 30 thousand grocery stores, restaurants, and health food stores. In a 2020 interview with Crunchbase, Patrick Brown, the CEO of Impossible Foods, said that to remove the use of animals in food production by 2035, his company needs to “double production every year...for 15 years.”

To keep up with ambitious production goals, leaders in the faux meat sector have avoided profitability and come to depend on large cash infusions. Impossible has raised about $1.4 billion from hedge funds, venture capitalists (VCs), and celebrities like Jay-Z and Serena Williams. Beyond has followed suit by accepting checks from VCs and strategic investors like Tyson Foods - a meat giant that annually exports the largest percentage of beef out of the US. Yet even after IPOing in May of 2019 (NASDAQ: BYND), Beyond regularly misses earning expectations due to higher than anticipated production costs.

As animal-free protein startups continue to disrupt the multi-billion dollar meat and poultry sector, industrial processors are taking notice. In 2019, Smithfield Foods - a pork processor founded in 1936 - launched a plant-based protein portfolio under its Pure Farmland™ brand. By 2020, Cargill debuted PlantEver™, a pea protein-based brand. Not long after, Planterra Foods, a startup owned by JBS, debuted Ozo, its first plant-based items, in 12 states. Even Tyson, an early investor in Beyond, sold off its stake in the company in order to launch Raised & Rooted®, a line of plant-based products. Instead of ceasing destructive practices, large-scale meat companies - that generate emissions comparable to fossil fuel companies - are leveraging animal welfare concerns to diversify revenue streams with molecular farming.

In Regards to Economic Welfare

In a 2019 interview with Engadget, Brown said, “it was completely incidental that the problem that I was trying to solve was all related to food.” It is apparent that startups like Impossible Foods - whose senior management are either scientists or Silicon Valley alumni - fail to recognize how rural economies rely upon livestock to survive and make a living. Before removing animals from agriculture, critics must recognize that:

  • Animal husbandry provides 33 to 55 percent of the household income for the world’s 640 million small farmers, 190 million pastoralists, and 1 billion urban peasants. 
  • For 100 million people living in arid lands, grazing livestock is the best source of income. 
  • In 2018, cash receipts for US animals and animal products totaled $176.0 billion.

Last year, US farm bankruptcies increased by 24 percent compared to the prior year. How is this struggling population expected to stay afloat if the livestock sector is displaced by GM alternatives? Meanwhile, plant-based meat companies continue to cut costs and support industrialization by importing commodities - including coconut and sunflower oil - from distant countries. In the Philippines, where 70 percent of the world’s coconuts are grown, eight million farmers make a meager 40 cents for the hours-long work it takes to extract a kilo of oil from the fruit. When evaluating the most sustainable path forward, the large number of people involved in animal husbandry for lack of alternatives must be brought into the conversation.

Stay tuned for the Part 02 coming soon! In the next article, we will be examining the negative effects of plant-based meat substitutes on people and the planet. In the meantime, please consider subscribing to The Regeneration Weekly. We scour the web to harvest a fresh serving of regenerative agriculture news, insights, and resources. Delivered to your inbox every Friday.

Parker Hughes
Associate at Soilworks Natural Capital
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