Don’t be Cowed. Meat Just Might be About to Get Disrupted..

April 27, 2021

Jokes about meat-beer aside, this week’s snickering about meat consumption as some kind of third rail issue in the climate discussion might be premature.

There may be a surprise in store, in fact, in a store near you, soon.

Food Dive:

  • The COVID-19 pandemic has largely proven — and in some ways accelerated — think tank RethinkX’s 2019 report saying the beef and dairy industries will collapse by 2030, James Arbib, RethinkX’s founder, said at the virtual New Food Invest conference last week.
  • For the most part, Arbib said, the pandemic has brought to light many of the problems with the current animal-based industry. Before meat companies could put precautions in place, COVID-19 outbreaks in meat processing facilities brought attention to the way that meat gets to consumers — and issues with shortages due to shuttered plants showed consumers could find alternatives. Also, he said, the fact that the pandemic began as an animal virus transmitted to humans brought another danger using animals for food to light. 
  • RethinkX is an independent think tank that forecasts the speed of technology-driven disruption. Its Food & Agriculture Report projected demand for cow-associated products would be down 70% by 2030. Beef and dairy companies will be decimated, with revenues down 90%, the report said, but about a quarter of the continental U.S. now dedicated to livestock and feed production will be available for other uses, and greenhouse gas emissions from the food industry would be down 45% in 2030.

While many analysts have predicted a shift away from using animals for food for a wealth of reasons, the RethinkX report seemed a bit shocking when it was first published. It was projecting an entire transformation of the food system in a bit longer than a decade — using technology that at the time was still in the R&D phase.

Consumer preference, financing and advances for alternatives to animal agriculture have moved more in the last year than any previous one. Not only has the pandemic upended food supply chains and traditional meat production, but it’s also had the effect of accelerating growth in plant-based meatplant-based dairy and plant-based cheese. Cell-based meat is not just an idea companies are working on. Regulatory approval in Singapore has made it an actual product, and it can be close to price parity with chicken meat from an animal. Plant-based and fermented substitute companies have grown in both product availability and portfolios, but they’ve also received record-setting investment. A recent analysis from the Good Food Institute found that $3.1 billion was invested in alternative proteins in 2020.

However, the method by which RethinkX says the food system will be run still seems somewhat unlikely in the next nine years. Report authors talk about a “food-as-software” model, in which scientists would engineer food at a molecular level and upload it to databases that are accessible to food designers worldwide. The report states this can geographically spread out food production and high quality food that is not subject to price volatility or threats posed by weather, disease or trade.

While there are companies in the alternatives space that plan to primarily produce ingredients that came from animals — Perfect Day for dairy, Meat-Tech 3D for meat and New Culture Foods for cheese — these companies are all in business for themselves, filing for patents and closely guarding trade secrets. These companies, however, are willing to work with others. Perfect Day has a partnership with ADM, and Meat-Tech, which recently had an IPO on the NASDAQ exchange, has said it seeks to sell its manufacturing technology. But their research and work is probably not likely to be made available to the world for free. The specialized equipment and expertise needed to produce each type of food also makes it unlikely to turn into a simple download — at least in the near term.

At the virtual conference session last week, Arbib didn’t talk too much about the “food as software” model or the advancements in technology and scope the last year and a half have brought. He said the change really comes down to consumers’ bottom line and what is better for people and the environment.

“The real driver of this disruption, the real reason why we’re going to get off animal agriculture and the use of animals in our economy is economics,” he said. “It’s the fact that the new technologies are both cheaper and better than the old ones. But they’re a subsidiary. They’re kind of secondary drivers of disruption. Everything from climate change to human health to animal welfare — and those are definitely been strengthened through this pandemic — we’re seeing a much greater pressure, which will affect both consumer demand for these products, but also governments and regulators who will look to move.”

New York Times:

The pleasures of a bloomy-rind cheese begin before you slice into it — the softly wrinkled wheel, dappled and dimpled like the face of the moon. The promising stink, getting stronger by the minute.

But I considered the velvety rind of a two-pound Barn Cat with more than a glint of skepticism. This cheese was made of cashews and coconut, run through with a dark line of vegetable ash, and I doubted these ingredients could undergo any kind of meaningful transformation.

I was wrong. I was unprepared for the mellow, pleasingly dank flavors of a soft-ripened goat cheese, for the mildly peppery tang, for the dense, luxurious creaminess.

When I was a vegetarian, in college, cheese was the final boss for everyone I knew considering veganism, the last and most difficult food to relinquish. And it seemed no one could win — cheese made from milk was too powerfully delicious, and the vegan cheeses available in specialty stores were bland, pale simulacra.

In the last few years, as the national demand for vegan foods has increased, the vegan cheese industry has boomed. Competition is fierce, and the best slices, shreds and other mass-produced vegan cheeses are nothing like the disappointing, often repulsive, starchy goop that I remember from the early 2000s.

This newer generation of packaged cheese is more convincing, in part, because it’s produced in roughly the same way as dairy cheeses, made from cultured plant-based milks that develop texture and flavor through fermentation, rather than solely through additives.


23 Responses to “Don’t be Cowed. Meat Just Might be About to Get Disrupted..”

  1. Jim Hunt Says:

    Afternoon Peter (UTC),

    Apart from attempted distractions to “the climate discussion” from all the usual suspects regarding the consumption of meat, I’m looking forward (Not!) to many more such diversions in the run up to the G7 Summit here in Cornwall and then COP26 in Glasgow.

    The forces of darkness are stirring already:

    Climate change is top of the G7 agenda along with Covid-19, and you can rest assured that vested interests will not miss any opportunity to promote those interests over the next two months and beyond.


  2. Donald Hnatowich Says:

    we have no right to suffer animals for our pleasure

    • Gingerbaker Says:


      You think a plant-based diet doesn’t make animals suffer? Billions of animals are killed and maimed every year in the US alone by vegetable agriculture.

      All creatures have the right to eat.

  3. jimbills Says:

    As someone who avoids beef (unless it is placed before me at friend’s home, for instance), and who uses oat milk in cereal, I think this prediction is nonsense.

    Seriously, people like this are so isolated in their own bubbles. They should go out into the backwaters a few days, talk to the people there, and reconsider how long it will take them to start buying Impossible Foods, a Tesla, or Oatly.

    On prices, I do think at some point these products will become cheaper than real beef, milk, and so on. But less than 10 years for a 90% replacement in the market (for beef and milk)? We aren’t really close to even price parity as of now in 2021. But let’s say in 2025 a faux meat burger somehow plummets to half the price of a beef burger. Even then, a hefty percentage of the population wouldn’t want to switch even if it was far cheaper to do so. It will be a point of pride for many to stick with real beef and milk.

    • talies Says:

      The videos address these points. Consumers won’t know that the ingredients in their food have changed.

      • jimbills Says:

        Won’t marketers point out real beef or milk as a selling point? Or wouldn’t consumers figure out which product has bones in it and which doesn’t? Or that local and small farmer meat and dairy produce would be completely wiped out in favor of mass produced in 8.5 years, and consumers wouldn’t object? Or that the meat and dairy industries would just accept the change without fighting for their livelihoods (and by extension, corn growers)? Or that Congress is functional enough to cut the subsidies that buoy those industries?

        What’s happening with predictions like this is these are people isolated in small groups of like-minded people theorizing with only their experience, knowledge, and beliefs. But, if that pool of experience, knowledge, and beliefs don’t completely (or mostly) encompass the full realities on the ground, it will have issues. Almost no one calculates for human nature when theorizing about vast market changes.

        I hadn’t watched the videos before this comment. I prefer reading instead, and responded to that part. I barely made it when watching the videos due to the soundtrack, but I’ll say there nothing there I don’t agree with personally. But, and it’s a big one, there are a LOT of people who would – and that’s the problem.

        The second video does address your point. Insulin and chymosin are different than a steak in terms of complexity. Milk is less complex than a steak for that matter, so it’d make sense that we’d see that before a beef replacement. I also think a milk replacement is more likely as far as public acceptance.

        The first video doesn’t mention one current product that makes faux meat completely out of the precision fermentation method – a whole steak grown from scratch not using the Impossible or cell methods. It took cell phones decades to dominate the market, and they still aren’t at 90% of total phones. And yet, when there is no product out yet, somehow it will get to 90% market share in 8.5 years? It took chymosin over two decades to replace rennet in milk.

        I don’t doubt that changes will happen, but the time frame for the 2030 prediction, especially regarding beef, is nutty. I also now see that the RethinkX report (from 2019) is a Tony Seba creation, so that explains a lot.

  4. talies Says:

    This is huge! Could combat climate change and safeguard the world’s food supply.

    • Gingerbaker Says:

      This will do almost nothing at all for climate change. Indeed, it would probably make it worse.

      Take beef, for example. The vast majority of even grain-finished beef cows is made from renewable grass and rainfall only. Compare that with what it takes to make an ultra-processed beef burger which has dozens of ingredients, all of which require manufacture. There has never been an independent analysis of the environmental impact of fake meats, as far as I know.

      A large part of the diet of livestock are the wastage products of vegetable agriculture. Right now, the CO2 and methane from the decomposition of this huge amount of biomass ( 90% of the biomass of vegetable agriculture is wastage) is attributed against the carbon footprint of livestock. Get rid of livestock, and that carbon footprint will be attributed to vegetable farming. Ooops.

      And there will have to be a very large increase in the amount of vegetable agriculture to replace livestock, which can provide up to 60% of a nation’s protein and about 40% of total calories. It may not even be possible to do so, as it will require much more arable land. And then you will also have to supplement everyone’s food with essential fats.

      Right now the best estimate of how much AGW forcing would be reduced by complete elimination of livestock is a fraction of one percent. And that is being generous.

      • jimbills Says:

        GB – the thing you’ve never grasped is that the majority of U.S. agriculture goes towards animal feed and ethanol – a minority goes directly towards human consumption.

        About 67% of U.S. agriculture goes towards animal feed. Even though cows are often fed in pastures for most of their lives, most are grain fed before slaughter. They are over 90 million cows in the U.S., 500 million chickens, and 70 million pigs at any one time. They eat A LOT.

        What you think of as wastage product is the difference between what’s called ‘field corn’ and ‘sweet corn’. They are different species. Field corn is used for livestock feed, ethanol, and corn syrup. It’s not digestible to humans, unlike sweet corn. Sweet corn makes up 1% of the corn grown in the United States:

        Yes, cows are fed the stalks (as well as the ears) of field corn. But the point is that vast stretches of U.S. farmland are devoted entirely to field corn, not sweet corn – depleting the soils and aquifers, swallowing enormous amounts of pesticides and herbicides, and contributing the vast amounts of nitrogen runoff – when they don’t have to be.

        • Gingerbaker Says:

          JB – the thing you’ve never grasped is that that statistic you quote is not true. They are counting crop wastage as if it is grain consumable by humans.

          For example, globally, 86% of what a cow eats is not consumable by humans. That figure for developed nations is not known, but it MUST be quite significantly higher.

          Livestock are simply not usually eating human-consumable grains, unless the spot market for, say, corn, plunges. They eat “feed”, which is cheaper than grain because it is made using huge amounts of crop wastage.

          This paper lists components of “feed” – its mindboggling (and it shows how vegetable and livestock ag are interdependent:

          Click to access CAST_Issue_Paper_53_Feed_vs_1FAEEE311471D.pdf

        • Gingerbaker Says:

          “But the point is that vast stretches of U.S. farmland are devoted entirely to field corn, not sweet corn… – when they don’t have to be.”

          They don’t have to be? That field corn ( and other grains and wastages) becomes high-quality protein and fat that supplies 65% of the protein consumed by Americans, 45% of their saturated fats, and 23% of their total calories. It is healthy food that people will not give up.

          It is food at least as valuable as vegetable agriculture. Your argument is like me saying that vegetable agriculture is wasting gigantic amounts of land, soils, water, herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers that would better be spent growing livestock.

          It is an exercise in framing, brought to us by the global manufacturers of oils, starches and highly-processed foods who are literally attempting to shove some very bad science down everyone’s throats. Our obesity and diabetic syndrome epidemic is highly correlative and likely causative to changes in the food pyramid which placed carbohydrates at the base.

          This whole right-wing brouhaha about Biden and burgers? It comes about because those huge multinational processed-foods manufacturers have been successfully waging a propaganda campaign against meat, so they will sell more of their product. I can tell you there a LOT of food scientists very upset about this demonization of livestock using environmental arguments and the demonization of the health effects of red meat, as they claim the science about that is actually quite poor and agenda-driven. See:

          Some interesting presentations on that sort of thing here:

          • jimbills Says:

            How about this as a suggestion – why not mandate that all or most of U.S. cattle not be grain fed at all? They don’t have to eat a product that isn’t natural to them. We don’t have to be producing ethanol. We don’t need corn syrup. Because you are so obsessed with defending meat eating itself, you are justifying a massive industrial farming system that is wasting a majority of our prime agricultural land, polluting our ecosystems, and slashing biodiversity – and not just for the present, but for future use as well.

          • Gingerbaker Says:

            “why not mandate that all or most of U.S. cattle not be grain fed at all?”


            Have we run out of grain?

            Are people starving because we can’t produce enough food?

            Why the obsession about cattle?

          • jimbills Says:

            I’ve explained why. You’re just not listening.

            We’re WASTING our resources and degrading our ecosystems, and we’re stealing from future generations because of those issues, just to create fatter cows and produce ethanol and corn syrup for ourselves – and to line the pockets of a handful of people that own the multi-national corporations that run these industries – when it’s not even necessary for us to do so as a society. I’m obsessed by that more than cattle per se.

            We could be using that land to sequester carbon, or give that land and groundwater some chance to regenerate (which it desperately needs) by letting it rest, or by planting other things that aren’t as environmentally destructive.

            Because we use massive feedlots for cows (to fatten them up using field corn, soybeans, candy -yep-, and so on, just before slaughter), we also have to inject them with tons of antibiotics, creating serious potential future issues. We COULD just have them pasture-fed their entire lives. It’s healthier beef that way, anyway.

            I know none of these things will actually happen. We live in an insane world. But, I don’t have to like what we’re doing in the meantime.

          • Gingerbaker Says:

            “I’ve explained why. You’re just not listening.”

            That’s so weird – it’s exactly how I feel about you, too.

            You keep coming back to cattle and grain. What percent of our nations grain is going to cattle – do you know? Cause I don’t. My impression is that number would be in the minority.

            The US produces double the amount of poultry meat tonnage as it does beef. It produces the same tonnage of pigmeat as it does beef. And those animals eat it their whole lives – beef are finished on grains and feeds only for about 25% of their lives.

            So your “beef” with cattle seems misplaced to me on a percentage basis – I think, tho I don’t know, that ~3/4 of the grain which concerns you doesn’t go to cattle at all.

            And then we really should talk about the fact that meat is not the only product produced by livestock. They actually make about 500 important industrial materials from them. So perhaps we should remove another significant percentage of concern from cattle.

            And maybe redirect that concern toward things that actually produce more greenhouse gases than do livestock. Like fossil fuels. And crop agriculture. To name two.

          • jimbills Says:

            The vast majority of our crop agriculture isn’t used to feed humans directly:

            I don’t know how else to explain this.

            I’m concerned about all human-created environmental impacts. They are all important. If we ignore agricultural problems like aquifer depletion and soil degradation, we’ll be screwed by that as well as by by climate change. But, regarding climate change and cows, a lot has been said about cows and methane, and I won’t go into that. But not as discussed is nitrous oxide, and most of that comes from agriculture, and most agriculture isn’t used for humans directly, but for animal feed, ethanol, and industrial products:

            That’s NOT a problem?

  5. mboli Says:

    For heaven’s sake, the bread-and-butter of futurists is to “predict” stuff which seems outlandish or unlikely.
    If they predict the obvious, or predict something which looks like a normal extrapolation, then nobody is interested.

    • jimbills Says:

      My problem with techno-utopians like Seba is that their ‘promises’ of a glorious and care-free future blind the public to the urgent need for real action now. Why worry about climate change when it’ll be solved by technology by 2030?

      It’s a massive disservice – a blind and blinding faith in a fictional future.

  6. Keith Omelvena Says:

    I grow a few beef cattle every year. They aren’t fed corn. No forest was felled in their production. Very low input, and yet my small business will be the first to suffer, in favour of the industrial giants, if any squeeze goes on profitability. Small low input producers need to be protected from industrialist monopolies, which should be the first to go. It’s odd that a decade or two back, naturally produced food was the moral, ethical and healthy thing to support. Now that’s been turned on it’s head and the more processed and the bigger the business, the better. I must be getting old? Or maybe the marketers have managed own the space, after years of observation and planning, for their corporate paymasters?

    • greenman3610 Says:

      I’m wondering if small producers of grass fed beef like yourself might be winners, like microbreweries?
      I’m thinking the mass application of the new techniques will, if successful, create large volumes of low priced protein that will find a large, generic market, while there will still be a demand for higher quality, more ‘natural” product.

  7. neilrieck Says:

    FWIW, this whole thing is based upon some stuff “made up” by FOX NEWS with the headline “If you signup with the Biden agenda then say goodbye to hamburgers”. FOX had lots of charts and graphs then, when called out on it, they published a retraction that went something like this: “the charts were saying this” but there was no retraction about mentioning “the Biden agenda”. Of course, people that consume that kind of news tune-out retractions 🙂

  8. Frank Price Says:

    Many of these comments seem to ignore what ecologists have know for 50+ years. The net ecological efficiency (transfer of energy from one trophic level to the next) is about 10%. Consider 2 food chains:
    • 100 units of plant => 10 units of animal => 1 units of human
    • 100 units of plant => 10 units of humans
    (These of course vary. Insects & other ‘cold blooded’ animals are more efficient than ‘warm blooded’ animals like cows.)
    An order of magnitude increase in efficiency makes a big difference & difficult for animal farmers to overcome.

    I don’t expect the proverbial family farm to become extinct. They’re resilient & intelligent — they’ll switch from growing cattle to growing some sort of photosynthetic organism.

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