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What a meatless future could mean for farmers

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Vox

A farmer holds a baby chick in his hands at a large-scale poultry operation in Henderson, Maryland. | Edwin Remsberg/VWPics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

A plant-based food system would be a win for animals and the environment. How workers would fare is less clear.

The new generation of meatless meat companies has been vocal in its ambition to make animal farming a thing of the past. Beyond Meat CEO Ethan Brown wants to make meat from animals “obsolete,” and so does the CEO of Impossible Foods Pat Brown (no relation), and soon — by the year 2035.

As steep a climb as that might sound, it certainly isn’t unrealistic to think that by 2035, startups that make alternative proteins might start eating into the market share for meat and dairy products.

Early signs of such a shift are emerging. According to a USDA-funded report, rising plant-based milk sales could be a factor in the decline of cow’s milk consumption (though overall dairy consumption is on the rise, thanks to cheese). An Israeli startup that makes cell-based or “lab-grown” meat just opened a pilot facility to produce 5,000 slaughter-free burgers a day. And looking ahead, the CEO of beef giant Cargill recently said that plant-based meat could make up as much as 10 percent of the meat market within a few years.

A largely plant-based future would be a win for livestock, 99 percent of which is raised in factory farms, and the environment, as industrial animal agriculture is a major source of pollution. But it would also cause a massive shift in a huge part of the economy — one that could lead to dislocation and upheaval for the hundreds of thousands of farmers and meatpacking workers who make their livelihood from raising and slaughtering animals. What does the future look like for them?

A recent paper from the Breakthrough Institute, a nonprofit that advocates for technological solutions to environmental problems, tried to answer that question. The report surveyed 37 experts on the challenges ahead for a potential plant-based future and found three types of people whose livelihoods could be most vulnerable: farmers who grow soy and corn for animal feed, contract farmers who grow pork or poultry for Big Meat, and meatpacking plant workers.

Their position is not unlike what coal miners and oil workers faced a couple of decades ago before natural gas, wind energy, and solar power took over a big chunk of the market. In recent years, some have trained to become wind farm technicians or to install solar panels, while others have been unable to find work in the renewable energy sector.

Just as with the shift to green energy, there are potential opportunities for sectors of the meat industry. The Breakthrough report found that if the plant-based industry can scale up R&D and production in a big way, which it is resourced to do, a number of new domestic plant-based ingredient markets could emerge, like peas, oats, mung beans, and other legumes, which some animal feed farmers could conceivably transition into growing.

Meatpacking workers (although probably fewer of them) can pack plant-based burgers or nuggets.

And some hog and chicken contract farmers are already trying to transition their facilities to grow hemp and mushrooms. But there is no denying there will be displacement and upheaval — and the sooner policymakers wrap their heads around the depth and breadth of transition, the better equipped the country will be to make it.

Already there are a number of experimental projects underway to help animal farmers transition to crop production. So far, the results are mixed. There isn’t a clear path to financial viability, illustrating the opportunities that lie ahead and the obstacles faced by farmers looking to get out of Big Meat — and the need for innovative policy to address inevitable economic hardship if a plant-based future comes to pass.

Can soy and corn farmers switch to peas and oats?

Many of the farmers who make their living in the meat industry don’t actually raise animals — they grow the soy and corn used to feed livestock. These farms tend to be highly intensified operations, designed to get as much corn and soy as possible out of every acre.

And we’re talking about a lot of acres. According to USDA figures, around 95 million acres of Midwest agricultural land is used to grow corn and soybeans. Of that, about 38 percent of the corn crop goes to animal feed, while upward of 70 percent of the soybeans are used for that purpose.

The crops themselves aren’t all that profitable, but corn and soy farmers also receive billions of dollars in federal subsidies. All of that makes the corn and soy economy an especially difficult market to disrupt.

Whether these farmers could transition successfully in a plant-based future will depend in part on how the plant-based industry sources its ingredients. Historically, many plant-based companies have relied on soy and wheat to make their veggie burgers, a practice that continues to this day. Impossible Foods uses soy, for example, and the plant-based company Rebellyous Foods, a startup based in the Seattle area, also makes their plant-based nuggets with conventional wheat and soy.

Rebellyous CEO Christie Lagally says that was an intentional choice, meant to keep costs as low as possible to compete with meat. If companies like Impossible and Rebellyous continue to scale up their production and steal market share from Big Meat, that could mean a steady hold in demand for soy and wheat, which would be good news for growers.

But over the years as the plant-based industry has grown, so has the variety of ingredients. Beyond Meat is soy-free, for example, opting for pea protein to make their plant-based burgers, which has helped drive demand for field peas. Eat Just, a plant-based egg maker, uses mung beans. Both companies source most of their ingredients from overseas growers.

However, some companies and advocates are hoping to change that equation by creating more opportunities for US farmers to grow those proteins. Cargill has invested $100 million in Puris, a US pea protein producer that sources from around 400 US farmers.

Carl Jorgensen, an agricultural consultant with the Plant Based Foods Association, is working on a project to bring more plant-based opportunities to US farmers. Jorgensen has seen a few nimble farmers find new business opportunities, and he thinks their success could encourage other farmers to follow in their footsteps. “The early adopters in any new field are always the ones who are the most flexible,” he said.

Jorgensen points to Nebraska farmer Steve Tucker, who once grew commodity corn for animal feed. Agricultural commodities are any crop that can be traded at a financial marketplace, like the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, for example. Because the farmer has no say in the price, Tucker had been captive to the price set by the market. But one day at a farming conference, he was listening to a speaker talk about what grocery shoppers are looking for, and he had an epiphany.

“Why can’t I sell directly to companies?” he wondered. Most commodity corn and soy growers are selling massive amounts of crops that are basically identical to what their neighbor grows for a set price to industrial processors that will divvy up the crop for different uses, like ethanol or animal feed. But with a small plant-based company, Tucker figured, he might have more of an opportunity to negotiate. So he began approaching food companies directly to say, “I’m a farmer with x number of acres, what do you need?” Today he grows popcorn and chickpeas, among other crops, and he’s looking to start growing mung beans.

Tucker says he’ll get some curious farming neighbors asking what he’s growing. “I tell him it’s chickpeas, and I make more money off that deal with chickpeas than I do anything else, and then, you know, that kind of piques their interest,” he told me.

There are also a couple of experimental programs in the works from plant-based milk makers. In New York, for example, one dairy farmer has dedicated eight acres to growing oats for Halsa Foods (though he still has his dairy herd).

In Sweden, a livestock farmer who grew oats for animal feed is now selling them to Oatly, and 10 other farmers, including two dairy farmers, are taking part in a one-year pilot project to do the same.

Miyoko’s Creamery, a popular plant-based dairy company, has hired a program manager to lead its farm transition project and recruit dairy farmers to grow ingredients for its products.

But for most animal feed farmers, it won’t be a simple switch. There is a whole economy built up around soy and corn that isn’t matched by demand for, say, field peas. Soy and corn growers have an economic infrastructure in place that includes relationships with seed and pesticide sellers, and investments in expensive specialized harvest and planting equipment. There’s also the question of whether these farmers will want to grow for the plant-based industry at all. Farmers are an older population, as the Breakthrough report points out. Changing their entire business model isn’t going to sound too appealing.

Plus, farmers face geographical constraints. While field peas do grow in parts of the Midwest, they’re grown in very small amounts as compared to soy and corn. Water-intensive crops like almonds, the most popular base for plant-based milk, only grow in much warmer climates like Southern California and Florida.

If plant-based foods do start taking up market share, big meat companies may be in the best position to nudge their farmers to grow ingredients for their own lines of plant-based products. And if those small experiments from Halsa and Oatly continue to succeed, it’s not hard to imagine plant-based startups recruiting more and more farmers connected to the meat and dairy industries to work for them instead.

Fewer but safer jobs for processing-plant workers

Companies that produce plant-based foods like burgers and nuggets will still need factory workers to make those foods, and new plant-based facilities in suburban and rural areas would mean new jobs. In 2018, Beyond Meat opened its second production plant in Columbia, Missouri. The next year, Eat Just took over a facility in Appleton, Minnesota.

But as some of the experts pointed out in their interviews in the Breakthrough paper, alternative protein processing tends to be more automated. In particular, says Lagally of Rebellyous Foods, there’s no need for the most difficult and dangerous slaughterhouse work — that is, the initial process of removing the meat from an animal carcass.

 Courtesy of Rebellyous Foods
A Rebellyous Foods employee loads a packaging machine with the company’s plant-based chicken nuggets.

In Rebellyous’s production facility, which Lagally showed me over Zoom, the workers don’t need to break anything down. They’re doing the opposite — combining soy and wheat in an industrial stand mixer to form a nugget ready for breading and frying. And Lagally’s team has been working on a new system that automates the process even further.

The upshot of all that automation is that new plant-based facilities might mean fewer jobs, but there also could be new job opportunities in maintaining or servicing these more advanced machines — that is, if the industry is willing to invest in training programs.

The unclear path ahead for contract chicken and pig farmers

Much of the meat we eat is grown by contract farmers — around 60 percent of pork and close to 90 percent of poultry and eggs, according to USDA figures. Because it can be hard and risky to eke out a living as a contract farmer (more on this later), some are already trying to transition to growing plants. But transitioning out of contract farming presents its own risks.

Most contract farmers don’t have hundreds or thousands of acres of land like animal feed farmers, but instead own large, climate-controlled steel barns in which they raise their chickens or pigs. This severely limits what they can pivot to growing instead. One option could be to continue to raise animals but in higher-welfare conditions — sourcing “heritage” breed animals that weren’t bred to grow so big and fast, and retrofitting barns to give them sunlight, more space, and access to the outdoors.

Another is to turn away from animals altogether. Some growers have moved from meat, real and imitation, and started growing things like mushrooms, hydroponic microgreens, and industrial hemp plants.

But converting steel barns intended for growing chickens into places to grow hemp or mushrooms requires extensive planning to get right, explains Jeri Devereaux, a business consultant and vegan who works with farmers making that transition. Farmers can’t afford to have gaps in the concrete floors, for example, since these could interfere with the delicate climate conditions needed to grow mushrooms, she noted.

Another major challenge to such a pivot is that the plant-based industry just can’t match the predictability of the contract meat business. With chickens, you grow just one uniform product in the same way and sell it to one guaranteed buyer. The market for alternatives, be it hemp, mushrooms, or microgreens, is more volatile.

In the case of mushrooms, small growers might be able to sell to local restaurants and protein ingredient companies for smoothie mixes, according to Leah Garcés, head of the animal rights nonprofit Mercy For Animals, who started the Transfarmation Project in 2019 to help contract farmers switch to growing plants. Hemp farmers can grow for CBD products or for industrial uses like rope, she says, but they can also lose crops if federal inspectors determine the plants contain too much THC.

 Courtesy of Mercy For Animals/Shawn Bannon
The Halley family, located in Cookville, Texas, once raised over a million chickens per year. They recently worked with the Transfarmation Project to turn their poultry operation into a hemp farm.

But the biggest constraint contract farmers face in starting a new business is financial. In order to raise chickens for a company like Tyson, contract farmers take out loans worth hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions of dollars, to build the steel barns in which they raise them. Some struggle to ever pay off that debt, since every 10 years or so the big meat companies ask for costly upgrades. Plus, if they get one or two sick flocks, they can fall behind on their loans and get trapped in a cycle of debt.

“We’re going to need a big piece of policy”

That overhang of debt may end up being crucial in determining where today’s farmers land in the plant-based future. Garcés, for one, believes debt forgiveness is the critical first step. And to make that first step, she said, “we’re going to need a big piece of policy.”

That big piece of policy could be the Farm System Reform Act, which was first introduced in 2019 by Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), then in 2020 by Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA); they both reintroduced the legislation last month. The act would place a moratorium on new factory farm construction, phase out factory farms by 2040, and create a $10 billion annual fund to help factory farm operators transition to raising animals in higher-welfare settings, growing specialty crops, or pay off debt. It has no short-term prospect of passing, but it’s important for policymakers to start the discussion now.

There are other government incentives that could help, Newton and Blaustein-Rejto found, like subsidies and tax credits for land use conservation, including allowing some farmland to rewild.

While the prospect of breaking up the Big Meat economy in the US seems pretty daunting, history shows that big shifts are possible. When farmers left New England in the 19th century, some of that land returned to forest. Much more recently, the solar and wind industries experienced steady job growth while fossil fuels declined. Some former oil workers were able to switch to clean energy employment, and former coal workers are training for new jobs in sustainable agriculture and the clean energy sector.

The government can make or break the transition — the number of new jobs in the clean energy sector fell in 2020 for the first time since 2015, but the sector could pick back up with job-creating policies at the state and federal level. Nothing is certain at this point, but the important thing is that there are pathways for the factory farm workforce in a plant-based future — and there might be more that have yet to be uncovered, if policy sets its sights beyond the horizon.

Jenny Splitter is a freelance journalist covering food, agriculture, science, and climate change.

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