Making Meat, Part Two

[Here’s the link to Part One.]

I don’t intend to harp on lab-grown meat and meat substitutes indefinitely, but if you’ll indulge another week’s posting on this, I think it is important to look at the food system that these food technologies require and promote.

Oligopoly Matters

We can start off by acknowledging that commodity meat is a mess, particularly because of the relentless pace of consolidation. Most of the meat industry (indeed the entire food industry) is run as an oligopoly. Each industry segment is concentrated to just four enormous companies owning the majority of production in that category. I covered this in some detail this winter, so I won’t rehash the whole thing. These concentrations have eroded local control and depressed incomes at the farmer level. In order for farmers to remain competitive, they must constantly increase their size as neighbors go out of business. The market is unsustainably expansion-oriented.

Plant-based meat and lab-grown meat both perpetuate this problem and actually double down on it. In listening again to the podcast interviews I highlighted last week, I noticed the meat replacement technology advocates were proud to explain that their backers are companies like JBS, Smithfield, Cargill, and Tyson, the companies who currently have a stranglehold on the meat industry. Further, the soybeans and peas that are processed and treated to become the protein isolates used in the simulated meat products are almost all processed by three companies in the US (Bunge, ADM, and Cargill). In many regions of the country, because of the location of processing plants, there is only one local buyer for farm products, allowing these companies to exercise a monopsony in the supply chain. The future of agriculture envisioned is one that will collapse farming to a purely extractive model, where monocultures of corn, soy, and peas are grown with synthetic fertilizers (because, hey, there won’t be animal manure to use as fertilizer anymore) and shipped to distant fermentation and fractionating factories. Farmers will have fewer options for marketing their production and buyers will have greater ability to manipulate prices.

Who Takes the Hit?

As the production processes are scaled up and prices for plant-based meat substitutes and lab-grown meat drop, the farmers at the greatest disadvantage will be the ones that are most disadvantaged today. We’ve seen how these multinational companies operate: when they can do it, they love to dump cheap products into a developing market, causing the collapse of the indigenous product and replacing it with an import. The pattern has created a worldwide population destabilization, as farming becomes impossible and families lose their land, are uprooted and migrate to urban slums, and then the smallholding farms are snatched up in land grabs by wealthy real estate investors to convert the land into monocropped plantations. Throughout Africa and Asia, wherever meat production is still largely sourced from small farms, these will be the early casualties.

Despite the rhetoric about this being the end of factory farming, cheap food production is first going to knock out smaller, poorer farmers. The companies leading the alt-meat charge are heavily dependent on the continued profitability of their factory farms, so they aren’t going to rush to cut their own legs off. They first will expand their markets, creating cascades of human displacement. Let’s not kid ourselves. It is noteworthy that with all the high toned ethics evinced by the spokespeople for this technology approach toward meat, there is no talk about the effects on all the people displaced in the process.

Eventually, if the prices continue to drop below the production costs of factory farming, the corporate owners will shut down their US-based meat processing as well. That would involve some lost investment for them, but the way they’ve structured their businesses will hang most of the cost on their farmer suppliers. Chicken and pig farmers, for instance, pay the mortgages on millions of dollars of housing. If the contract is cancelled, they are left with a mortgage and no option for finding a new buyer. In the event of a dramatic contraction of the livestock business due to a change in food production models, our rural counties would be stripped of millions of jobs in farming, feed milling, fencing, construction, veterinary services, etc. As we’ve seen with other technology revolutions, we are eager to jump to something new but rarely do we stop and think about what happens with the people left behind. For urban and suburban consumers, this may be easy enough to ignore, except perhaps in election years.

Spitting in the Wind?

With the combined forces of a manipulated agricultural system on one side and public misunderstanding about the powerfully positive possibilities for animals to contribute to food and ecology, is resistance futile? The future of food is being engineered by the biggest corporations in the world and invested in by people with outsized control of billions of dollars of wealth. Regardless of the way meat alternatives develop, the forces directing the entire food production system will continue to select against small producers like us. In talking with other farmers, and just by counting all the farms I’ve seen shuttering their operations, it does seem like it is becoming more difficult to sell to a local marketplace than it was a decade ago. Candidly, there are times when I wonder if this is just spitting in the wind.

On a farm like ours, the compelling story is already in place. We can demonstrate the regenerative effects of animals in making a landscape more robust and resilient. I can grab a shovel and show you on the farm how pasture raised, grass fed, and organic approaches have improved the carbon cycle by increasing my soil organic matter. Or how they have improved the water cycle with new springs opening up as our land has increased its subsoil water holding capacity. All of this happens on hilly terrain that is unsuited for grain and crop production, so we are producing food on acreage that would not otherwise be providing for human nutrition. We could produce and sell food right through a pandemic when large meat producers couldn’t keep up. And as we distribute this meat, the sales support our family and the various small businesses and butchers we work with, not the big four meat packers. I think we have a great story to tell. I hope there will be people to hear it.

Grass fed beef cattle grazing in our pastures.

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