‘Lab Meat’ Industry is Big Ag in Disguise

New research shows that plant-based meat props up industrial farm system

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Food System

The ‘lab meat’ industry is dominated by many of the same corporate powerhouses that exert substantial control over the processed foods and meat industries, according to new research from the national advocacy organization Food & Water Watch.

The group’s report (“Lab Meat Won’t End Factory Farms — But Could Entrench Them”) shows that the plant-based meat sector is dominated by just four companies, including Kellogg and  Conagra. Kellogg alone accounts for nearly half of all sales of plant-based meat alternatives, thanks to its acquisition of Morningstar Farms. 

The industry is also seeing substantial investments from meat giants such as JBS, Smithfield and Tyson. This is not surprising; U.S. sales of plant-based meat rose 37 percent between 2017 and 2019, and plant-based dairy has seen even more impressive growth.

As a whole, the lab meat industry (plant-based meat and so-called ‘cultured meat’) seeks to attract health conscious consumers by closely mimicking meat products while promising substantial environmental benefits. But on the whole, the marketing of plant-based meats deserves further scrutiny. Many products are ultra-processed and rely on additives like saturated fats to mimic the flavors and textures of meat. And government oversight can range from inconsistent to non-existent, and often relies on industry-supplied safety studies. And the ecological and climate benefits touted by the industry remain dubious, given the reliance on processed materials and inputs like corn and soy. 

The report finds that so far, lab meat seems to be complementing — not replacing — meat consumption, which raises questions about whether Americans can truly ‘shop their way’ to a more sustainable food system. This is all the more true when considering the array of federal policies and economic incentives that support the heavily polluting factory farm model. 

“Consumers may think they are ’voting with their dollar’ by choosing plant-based meats, but most of that dollar lines the pockets of agribusiness giants, including the largest meat companies,” says Amanda Starbuck, Food & Water Watch Research Director. “Plant-based meats are not true alternatives if they prop up the existing system that fuels climate change and ecological degradation.” 

The report calls for sweeping changes to U.S. farm policy, including banning factory farms and boosting support for organic, regenerative farming. This will only be achieved if we fight back against corporate power that currently holds a stranglehold on our food system.