When one of the biggest meat companies in the world says the future is plants, it’s time to sit up and take notice.
U.S. company Tyson Foods has been churning out processed meat and chickens for more than 80 years. But speaking earlier this year, CEO Tom Hayes said growth in plant-based protein could well outpace animal-based products before long.
He’s put his money where his mouth is, recently boosting the company’s financial stake in the California-based startup Beyond Meat, which touts a former McDonald’s CEO among its investors.
In the past week, Beyond Meat has said it would use the money it has raised from backers to triple its production, with TGI Fridays expected to roll out the company’s plant-based burger in its restaurants in 2018. Meanwhile, fellow West Coast startup Impossible Foods has recently opened a new plant in Oakland, California, capable of producing 4 million plant-based burgers a month.
“We are embarking on one of the most ambitious scale-ups of any startup in the food industry,” Impossible Foods CEO and founder Patrick Brown said in a statement, adding that his ultimate goal is for all animal-based products to be replaced by plant products.
Others in the meat industry are responding. In the past year, Cargill, the third-largest U.S. meat packer, has taken a stake in the lab-meat startup Memphis Meats, while Canadian meat giant Maple Leaf Foods has snapped up plant-based newcomers Field Roast and Lightlife Foods.
The boom in demand has been driven to some extent by the availability of new and better alternatives like plant-based burgers, but also the championing of more plant-based diets by chefs and celebrities. Actor and environmental activist Leonardo DiCaprio made headlines in the fall when his investment in Beyond Meat was announced.
There are also ethical concerns. Major changes in livestock production, including the spread of so-called mega-farms where large numbers of animals are reared in close confinement, has led to criticisms over what some see as unacceptable levels of animal welfare.
Beyond Meat CEO Ethan Brown told HuffPost he believes health concerns are the main motivation for reducing meat consumption. The World Health Organization has said eating processed red meat like burgers and sausages is linked to cancer, with 50 grams (about 1.7 ounces) of processed meat a day ― less than two slices of bacon ― increasing the chance of developing colorectal cancer by 18 percent.
The environmental impact of meat production is also huge. Meat and dairy production is said to account for 14.5 percent of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions ― slightly more than the emissions produced by every car, train, aircraft and ship on the planet.
Without cutting the overconsumption of meat, it will be almost impossible to prevent global warming from passing the danger level of 2 degrees Celsius, according to international affairs think tank Chatham House.
Likewise, meat production is resource intense. Producing 1 kilogram, or 2.2 pounds, of fresh beef may need about 29 pounds of grain and 66 pounds of hay, research suggests, which in turn requires more than 26,000 gallons of water to produce.
Then there’s the fact that feeding crops to animals to produce food is just not very efficient. Globally, one-third of the calories produced by the world’s crops are used for animal feed, but only 12 percent of those feed calories contribute to the human diet, in the form of meat and other animal products.
It is these types of planetary costs, as well as potential human health risks such as antibiotic use in livestock operations, that have prompted calls for meat products to be taxed and the ”true costs” of meat production to be accounted for.
“Nearly all other carcinogens are regulated, so why not meat?” asks Marco Springmann, a researcher into sustainability and public health at the University of Oxford. “I think the evidence of the environmental and health consequences of meat shows there is a good, clear case for taxation.”
The idea of a tax on meat has already been floated in Germany this year, with officials in the country saying it could generate the equivalent of $6.1 billion per year in revenue, to be used to cut the tax on other food products.
An investor report produced earlier this month stated a tax on meat was now “increasingly probable.” It said meat was already headed down the path followed previously by tobacco, carbon and sugar, with health and environmental effects and financial costs swaying a number of countries to impose taxes.
“If policymakers are to cover the true cost of livestock epidemics like avian flu and human epidemics like obesity, diabetes and cancer, while also tackling the twin challenges of climate change and antibiotic resistance, then a shift from subsidization to taxation of the meat industry looks inevitable,” said Jeremy Coller, founder of the Farm Animal Investment Risk & Return Initiative that produced the report.
For much of the last century, it seemed the world was heading full steam toward ever-increasing amounts of meat consumption. Recent shifts in consumption patterns, the rise of alternatives and the likelihood of tougher regulation of the meat sector have now given real impetus to turn the 21st century into a plant-based century.
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