According to two recent reports, large meat and food conglomerates are threatening to drive out small producers of meat alternatives in the same way they have affected other food industries.
Meat companies such as JBS and Cargill have invested heavily in plant-based proteins and lab-grown meats in recent years and have taken over several smaller companies, according to a report released Tuesday by the nonprofit Food & Water Watch and a March report from IPES-Food, a coalition of food systems experts.
Animal meat conglomerates join other food giants that already control about 80% of the meat alternatives market, including Kellogg’s, owner of the MorningStar Farms brand, and Conagra, owner of Gardein.
“With most of these products, you won’t see the name of the parent company on the label,” said Philip Howard, associate professor at Michigan State University and lead author of the IPES-Food report. People who buy meat alternatives “may not realize they’re supporting these big companies,” he added.
The meat substitutes market is expected to grow rapidly, from $4.2 billion in sales in 2020 to $28 billion in 2025, according to IPES-Food. Much of this growth will come from the already robust plant-based meat industry, according to the report, but several conglomerates have also invested hundreds of millions to develop lab-grown meat – meat produced in bioreactors without it is necessary to slaughter animals.
Plant-based and laboratory-based meat producers claim their products are better for the environment than meat. According to a report by Johns Hopkins University, plant-based alternatives have a median carbon footprint 93% lower than beef. And German scientists have said that replacing even 20% of the world’s beef consumption with microbial proteins such as Quorn could halve deforestation.
Even as the meat industry downplays the value of fake meat, as pressure mounts from climate scientists and other experts to drastically reduce meat consumption, some big meat companies may be looking to other sources. of income.
Cargill has been active in the sector, investing in lab-grown meat company Aleph Farms and creating its own plant-based proteins. Tyson Foods sells plant-based meats under its Raised & Rooted brand and has invested in several plant-based and lab-grown meat companies.
JBS, the world’s largest meat company, last year bought lab-grown meat company BioTech Foods as well as Dutch plant-based meat company Vivera, whose slogan reads: “Life is better when you eat less of meat”.
“They’re covering their bases because it’s a very rapidly growing area,” Howard said. “These companies have grown big and powerful using every possible strategy.”
US federal regulators are doing little to stop consolidation in the alternative meat sector, said Amanda Starbuck, research director for Food & Water Watch, who added that it could end up looking like the beef industry, where four companies – JBS, Cargill, Tyson Foods and National Beef Packing – control 85% of the industry.
“Plant-based meat brands are hardly an alternative to the current system if they continue to entrench corporate power,” the Food & Water Watch report concludes. “It shows the futility of voting with your dollar,” Starbuck said.
It’s a concern echoed in the IPES-Food report, which says corporate scrutiny threatens to undermine the gains from reducing reliance on animals by replicating some of the problems of the traditional food industry. meat, including mass-produced and monocultured ingredients and energy-consuming methods. Increasing meat alternatives could “reinforce the power relations that hold current systems in place and not answer the question of how systemic changes will be achieved,” the report notes.
With big corporations likely to consolidate control of the meat alternatives industry, Howard fears the landscape will look like the American craft beer industry. While the United States has nearly 9,000 breweries, the vast majority are tiny and cannot distribute beer beyond their neighborhood bars, and alcohol conglomerates have taken over most of the large craft brewers.
Small producers could struggle to get the grains and other plants needed for meat substitutes, said Celia Homyak, co-director of UC Berkeley’s Alternative Meats Lab. The big companies “are going to capture all of these ingredients and take them out of these small companies that are innovating,” Homyak said. “They have the power of money and size.”
But she also sees benefits in the increased interest from big meat companies. Business investment and smaller industry aren’t necessarily bad, Homyak said. “We need more people to come into this space, and obviously it will shrink because you can’t have a million players,” she said. “I’m not really worried about the big conglomerates coming in, because it shows that these big companies think this industry is worthwhile.”
At least 1,300 startups were producing meat alternatives six months ago, said Zak Weston, supply chain manager at the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit that advocates less animal-based protein. “There’s a lot going on right now in the ecosystem, and big companies are playing a role. And we think that’s a positive,” Weston said.
But some worrying investments by big meat companies will stifle innovation in an industry that depends on it.
The industry is better off with smaller companies with no corporate ties, said Dan Staackmann, who founded Upton’s Naturals 16 years ago. The Chicago-based company, which Staackmann says has never taken outside money, sells vegan protein in stores and restaurants across the country.
“You take this money and suddenly someone is looking over your shoulder,” he said. “I can do more with $100,000 than some of these companies can do with $100 million, and I think that’s the same with a lot of entrepreneurs. You just can’t steer a big ship fast enough in a changing market like this.
But independence can be fleeting for many producers, said Howard, a professor at Michigan State. The conglomerates have partnerships with large grocery chains and distributors, he said, so anyone looking to expand their meat alternatives beyond their neighborhood will feel compelled to sell.
“It’s going to be very difficult for these small and medium-sized companies to stay in business,” Howard said. “We have economic systems that strengthen the position of the rich and powerful. Just getting onto supermarket shelves is very difficult for small producers. »