The unlikely partnership that might decide the future of meat

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Something unusual is going on in the fledgling but fast-growing lab-grown meat industry. A technology that was developed to displace meat and end animal farming has, in the last couple of years, received a boost from an unlikely source: meat companies.

Take Tyson Foods, the world’s second-largest processor and seller of beef, chicken, and pork. If you’ve ever eaten a hamburger or a chicken nugget in the United States, that cow or chicken was reasonably likely to have been slaughtered at a Tyson Foods processing plant. This February, the company announced it was launching its own plant-based products line, manufacturing meat alternatives made out of plants.

And that’s not its first foray into meat alternatives. Since 2016, Tyson has made investments in plant-based and lab-grown meat research and operations, putting money into the cell-based meat startups Memphis Meats and Future Meat Technologies Ltd., and in the plant-based meat startup Beyond Meat.

It’s not just Tyson. Last fall, Perdue Farms announced it was looking into its own line of plant-based products. Cargill, another major meat producer, was also among the investors in Memphis Meats.

These recent investments are the latest turn in the encouraging development of the plant-based and lab-grown meat industry. Plant-based meat and dairy products like veggie burgers, fake chicken, and soy and almond milk are growing in popularity and in market share — and even better, they’re getting tastier and harder to distinguish from animal meat. Meanwhile, cell-based meat — grown from animal cells in a lab — is still probably years from availability in stores, but it’s growing too, with surveys suggesting that consumers in the biggest markets want to try it and the US government laying out a regulatory framework.

There’s a lot at stake. More than 50 billion animals are raised and killed for meat worldwide every year, almost all of them on factory farms. The enormous industry has significant environmental and public health consequences: antibiotic resistance, disease, greenhouse gas emissions, hazardous animal waste, and destruction of wildlife habitat. Most people hate the way animals are treated on factory farms and worry about the environmental consequences of factory farming — but they want meat. The benefits of plant-based and cell-based meat products could be enormous, if they can grow to meet that demand.

So what are meat giants like Tyson and Cargill doing investing in industries that want to be their biggest competition?

A new day for meat alternatives

Veggie burgers have been around for a long time. But, well, they have tended to not be very good. Earlier versions didn’t taste much like regular burgers, or cook like them. The market for early plant-based meat alternatives was mostly just people committed to avoiding meat, whether for health, environmental, or animal-welfare reasons.

But plant-based meat alternatives keep getting better. As Vox’s Rachel Sugar wrote, companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods aren’t just targeting the vegan market with their meat-like products — they’re aiming to make food that everyone finds delicious, that just happen to be animal-product free. As a result, their market share has grown well beyond just the share of Americans avoiding meat.

Cell-based meat products offer a different picture. The idea is that, when we solve the numerous technical challenges involved, they’ll be cell-by-cell identical to meat from animals. The only difference is that they’ll be produced in a factory, without any animals killed. Advocates hope this will provide steaks, bacon, and other beloved products that don’t just “taste like meat,” but actually are meat — winning over even the most dedicated carnivores.

Many different priorities motivate the companies and nonprofits that work on plant-based and cell-based meat products. One is to replace industrial farming to prevent the suffering of sentient animals on factory farms. Another is to protect the environment by inventing better ways to grow meat without the land-use and climate-change side effects. There are also worries about antibiotic resistance and interest in improving public health and reducing the risk of infections like E. coli.

The growing interest in investing in meat alternatives is a sign that another motivation is creeping in: profit. And that’s not a bad thing.

To succeed at their lofty goals, plant-based and cell-based meat companies will need to become the major source of protein for an increasingly wealthy world that wants to eat more meat products, even as consumers worry about the environment and about the abuses that go on at factory farms.

That means that if they succeed, there’ll be a lot of money in the plant-based and cell-based meat industry. And that means that, as these alternatives have started to look promising, the meat industry has to some extent ceased to regard them as a competitor and started considering them a possible future for meat.

“From their perspective, they’re seeing the same statistics as we are” — growing consumer interest in meat alternatives — “and then the flip side of that, where consumers are saying they’re trying to reduce their consumption of meat,” Alison Rabschnuk, director of corporate engagement at the meat-alternatives research nonprofit the Good Food Institute, told me. (While Western consumers are interested in cutting back on meat, overall demand is still rising as demand in middle-income countries has grown to match Western demand.) “So they need to take this interest in alternative proteins pretty seriously,” Rabschnuk said.

Thus the move into the alternative-meat space. As Tyson’s then-CEO Tom Hayes told Fortune last summer, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, right?” A representative from Tyson Foods told me in an email, “There’s growing global demand for all forms of protein and we want to grow with it.”

So what does all this mean for the future of meat? It’s hard to predict. But all of the worries about our carnivorous world — climate change, environmental despoliation, antibiotic resistance, the humane treatment of animals — are enough to at least have the biggest meat companies hedging their bets by making substantial investments in plant-based and cell-based meat.

Of course, the significance of these bets shouldn’t be overstated. Tyson had $40 billion in revenue in 2018. Their venture capital fund for investing in future meat technologies is $150 million — certainly not small change, but dwarfed by the revenue from their core business. Cargill is even bigger, with $114 billion in revenue last year (they didn’t disclose how much they invested in Memphis Meat, but the whole funding round was $17 million). While hugely significant for the fledgling meat-alternative companies, these investments are a tiny share of what meat companies do.

Unlikely partnerships

For their part, some animal activists who’d normally deplore these companies have greeted these investments with enthusiasm. The meat processors and distributors have invaluable experience with supplying meat products to consumers at the kind of scale that plant-based and cell-based meat companies can still only dream about.

“Pragmatically, we need meat companies,” Rabschnuk told me. “GFI has always had the stance that the best way to do this is by not convincing consumers how to eat differently, but giving them products that are competitive with animal products, and if these products truly are as tasty, as inexpensive, as the animal products, why wouldn’t they choose them? If we’re looking to make change pretty fast, we actively need those companies on board.”

Not everyone in the animal-rights community has been thrilled with these partnerships. “We got attacked when we signed a deal with Tyson. People said I personally have blood on my hands,” Beyond Meat founder and CEO Ethan Brown told Bloomberg. “Tyson took a big risk, too. I mean, Hayes didn’t get any love letters when he backed us. But I’d much rather try to get things done than throw stones, and the people at Tyson know how to move the needle.”

To some, the situation parallels the complicated feelings in the environmental movement when oil companies invested in clean energy. On the one hand, money could spur faster innovation; on the other, some felt that the companies were purchasing good PR with “greenwashing” while still investing far more in an unethical core business model.

For the most part, though, meat-alternative companies have welcomed their unlikely new allies. It’s one more sign of an animal movement that’s in the process of figuring out how to go mainstream: building a coalition around all of the problems with factory farming and flexibly signing on to any partnerships that make sense for a meat-free future.

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