What’s it going to take to make meat alternatives a viable solution to address climate change?

By Christie Lagally, Founder & CEO of Rebellyous Foods

Chicken shortages have made headlines across the U.S. in recent weeks. While Americans may be afraid of having less chicken available, it may help to know we eat more than twice as much chicken than we did in the 1970’s. The chicken industry blames a number of supply chain factors for the shortage, but there are some reports that consumers simply ate their way into it and chicken companies are responding with large expansions in infrastructure to increase production. The Thomas Index is even advising plant-based meat producers to step up their game. It seems there is actually little cause for concern.

The chicken industry is the largest segment of the US meat industry, which topped out at 107B pounds per year in 2020, with chicken production accounting for roughly 40–50 percent. Although meat production continues to climb year over year, its growth has slowed somewhat due to disruptions from the pandemic, which had dire consequences for those workers who died from COVID-19 after being forced back to work in chicken processing plants.

What has not made a measurable impact on meat production, at least not yet, is the rise of plant-based meat alternatives. A recent study out of the University of Oregon found no impact on beef consumption from the explosion in popularity of plant-based beef alternatives. Despite alarmist statements by meat industry professionals, the conclusion from this paper, funded by the Beef Council, stated:

“Changes in chicken breast prices have a larger impact on beef demand than plant-based price adjustments.”

While consumers and beef producers are sometimes distracted by the ups and downs of the chicken industry, those whose focus is on addressing climate change, such as environmental policy makers and especially climate investors, should take notice of this important moment. Large scale chicken production is a significant and growing threat to addressing climate change (while also continuing to expose our communities to the added threat and financial burden of bird flu). While the beef industry continues to be the single biggest threat to the climate, with U.S. market emissions at around 800 Billion KgCO2eq, pork, chicken, and turkey emissions add up to over 700 Billion KgCO2eq annually. If consumers think eating chicken is the solution to replacing beef, they are simply shifting emissions sources from one sector of the industry to another.

Few environmentalists these days need to be convinced that the transition to a more plant-based diet is an important part of large-scale environmental policy. While some people are willing to make the shift, for the majority, not eating meat is a huge ask; convincing people to do so requires not only a good product, but costly marketing to induce widespread trial. So, to encourage that transition and address climate change and public health concerns, investors are rightfully directing billions of dollars to meat alternatives.

But there’s a catch. In the 10+ years since Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat were founded (2011 and 2009 respectively), the alt meat industry has barely made any in-roads to compete with the massive volumes of animal-meat production, as they have been unable to offer products at a price most consumers can afford. And this is not a new problem. Kellogg and other food companies have been making meat alternatives since the early 1900s, pre-dating industrialized meat production. In fact, in the decade from 2010 to 2020, despite all the hype regarding the plant-based-meat industry, it achieved just one-third the growth of the U.S. meat industry over the same time frame.

This is not a weakness of the alt meat industry, in fact quite the opposite. Beyond Meat, Morningstar, Tofurky, Gardein, and Impossible Foods are making delicious products, helping consumers purchase more plant-based foods. However, the numbers suggest we need to invest differently in this sector if we are to catch up with the out-sized, industrialized, automated and efficient animal meat industry. Over the last 70 years, as both industries grew, the plant-based meat sector has made great products and developed strong brands, while the animal-meat industry has built infrastructure, equipment and processes to drive volumes up and prices down, making animal meat endlessly attractive to consumers along multiple dimensions: cost,taste, and convenience. But with a climate crisis upon us we cannot continue “business as usual.” To move the needle for the plant-based-meat industry it’s simply not enough to make great products or market them effectively. To achieve what’s necessary we must direct resources towards the critical factors that will reduce the cost of plant-based meat and make it competitive: production technology, automation and production infrastructure.

Rebellyous Foods’ engineers and scientists have spent the last three years working on this problem, and have created a solution. Meat industry engineers in the late 1950s designed and built machinery to automate the deconstruction of animal carcasses and streamline the production of processed meat into meat products like chicken nuggets and hamburger patties.

We’ve done the reverse. We’ve automated the “additive” plant-based meat processing system. This automated system correctly and efficiently combines plant proteins, oils, flavors and starches to make plant-based chicken products at a much lower manufacturing COGS (Cost of Goods Sold), in higher volumes for the same factory space, and with much better product consistency than can be achieved with conventional methods.

Rebellyous is also well into the design of the plant-based-meat manufacturing “facility of the future.” It consists of optimal heating, cooling, and material handling to dramatically lower costs, and to optimize the use of space so scaling production is not just possible, but standardized. It’s a new type of facility where our automated plant-based meat production system can be most effectively deployed for maximum cost and volume benefits.

Together, these focused engineering efforts will result in a real change to the alt-meat industry, allowing it to produce high volumes of quality products at much lower costs. This will in turn result in a public and environmental benefit, as plant-based alternatives will be more accessible, available, and affordable, and can become the healthy, high-quality choice for consumers to make.