Thanks in part to pandemic-driven disruptions of conventional meat processing, sales and interest in plant-based alternatives are taking off, changing the future of food.
Why it matters: Meat-processing plants have proven especially vulnerable to coronavirus outbreaks, and meat consumption adds to climate change. Better-tasting alternatives could shrink that environmental footprint while solidifying the supply chain for protein.
Driving the news: The UN Food and Agriculture Organization reported this week that global per capita meat consumption is projected to fall to the lowest level in nine years.
- In the U.S., per capita meat consumption isn't expected to return to pre-pandemic levels until at least 2025.
By the numbers: While demand for conventional meat has fallen, new plant-based alternatives are on the rise.
- Grocery store sales of alternative-meat products rose 264% in the nine weeks ending May 2 — faster than they were growing in the weeks before the pandemic, according to data from Nielsen,
- Impossible Foods, a leading maker of alternative meat, reports its grocery store footprint has increased 18-fold since March, and it expects to see a 50-fold rise by the end of 2020.
- Last month JBS, the world's biggest meat seller, launched its own brand of plant-based burgers and chorizo alternatives, a sign that conventional producers want in on plant-based business.
Some environmentalists criticize the most popular alternative-meat products for being overly processed. There's some truth to that charge, but that processed quality has made the alternative sector more resilient to the coronavirus.
- As the Wall Street Journal reported this week, more than 17,300 meat and poultry workers were infected with COVID-19 in April and May, in part because meat processors employ 3.2 workers per 1,000 sq. ft. of manufacturing space — three times the national average for manufacturers.
- Alternative-protein production tends to be significantly more automated than conventional meat processing, and fewer workers means less vulnerability to outbreaks.
- "All our focus is about enhancing the efficiency of what we do," says Thomas Jonas, the CEO of the Chicago-based alternative-protein company Nature's Fynd. "Doing more with less — that should be the motto of our species for the next few decades."
Details: This spring Nature's Fynd began production at a 35,000 sq. ft. manufacturing facility on the site of Chicago's Union Stockyards, a historic meatpacking center and the location for Upton Sinclair's notorious exposé "The Jungle."
- The company produces alternative protein using microbes discovered during research into Yellowstone's hot springs. Nature's Fynd says that at full capacity, it will be able to make as many hamburger substitutes in a year as 16,000 acres of grazing cows, with just 1% of the equivalent greenhouse gases.
The catch: Despite the recent growth, the alternative-meat sector is still a fraction of the size of the conventional meat industry.
- Conventional meat producers are also investing heavily in automation technology that should make their facilities more resilient to pandemics and labor shortages.
The bottom line: COVID-19 could mark a lasting disruption to the most American of foods: the burger.