For decades, family farmers were the backbone of the livestock industry in the United States. Now, most small farmers find themselves on their own, competing against the large corporations they formerly partnered with and the growing popularity of plant-based foods. Some farmers hope that the meatless market will be a way out of financial hardship. Most of them, however, see it as another sector for Big Meat to dominate.
Major food companies like Tyson, Smithfield, Perdue, Hormel, and Nestle have started expanding their non-meat enterprises, advertising their growing assortment of meatless meats including plant-based burgers, meatballs, and ‘chicken’ nuggets.
Mike Weaver has also decided to call it quits with meat – just not in the dietary sense. With the rise of corporate agriculture, the 69-year-old West Virginian is part of a small but increasing movement of farmers looking to get out of meat production and take advantage of the new plant-based economy, an industry some experts say could be worth $85 billion by the year 2030.
Now, Weaver is using his old chicken barns to grow industrial hemp, which removes more CO2 per acre than any other crop. Though, Weaver says his decision to transition his coops and sell CBD oil products had more to do with rising farmer debt and corporate greed and less to do with sustainability.
Weaver explained that large production corporations, citing Tyson and Perdue as examples, ignited small farmer hardships long before the plant-based push, often entering economically depressed areas and recruiting farmers to invest in poultry complexes that can cost upwards of $1.5 million.
“Many of these farmers end up not being able to pay their bills, feed their families, and sometimes have to get additional jobs to supplement their chicken habit,” Weaver said.
Big Ag’s response? Often, they exploit a contractual loophole that allows them to move on to the next farmer.
Weaver added that large-scale corporate plant misfires such as the Tyson Holcomb fires and the Perdue big rig accident, diminish family farmers’ integrity and leave lasting financial burdens on small producers. He hoped to free himself of this cycle before reaching economic ruin and shift into plant-related production, predicting that in 5 years, meat substitutes will maintain 15-20 percent of the market share. He is not that far off, and research points to a potentially poor economic future for traditional meat.
Yet, other data disagrees with plant-based power, and many farmers cite the overall rise in meat consumption as a sign that the industry is here to stay.
Although meat alternatives continue to appeal to American diners and hamburger lovers—animal farming, specifically beef production, is not under threat, according to a 2021 report conducted for the lobbying group Cattlemen’s Beef Promotion and Research Board. In fact, since the 1960s, global meat production has more than quadrupled, from 71 million tons to more than 340 million tons of meat.
However, with hefty government subsidies that provided more than $50 billion dollars to farmers in 2020, it is hard to know the true value of animal products—let alone their socioeconomic, environmental, and human cost.
Methane is one of the gasses believed to have the largest impact on climate change and cows, sheep, and goats are estimated to expel 14 percent of all the gasses that contribute to global warming.
This pollution is also disastrous for the health and wellbeing of those who live near factory farms, often low-income minority populations. It is estimated that the feces-laden air breathed in by those neighboring these corporate farms leads to about 17,900 U.S. deaths per year, according to The Washington Post.
These factory farms and ranches are currently not required to report their emissions or warn the surrounding community. Yet a new study published in Science reveals just how important it is to tackle food-related emissions to mitigate the climate crisis. This research showed that isolated food system emissions alone will most likely put the Paris Agreement climate targets out of reach and outlines potential government and public health strategies for meat reduction.
The most effective model this report found in cutting food emissions is the global adoption of a plant-rich diet. Yet, governments seem reluctant to address meat and dairy consumption or elicit taxes similar to those on alcohol and tobacco. For now, it seems that traditional farming’s fate and plant-based popularity are largely in the hands of consumers and the federal government .
To others in the ag industry, the beef with animal farming and traditional meat stems from misunderstood practices rather than corporate greed or bureaucratic mishandlings.
“There is a lot of misinformation around the impact that cattle have on the environment,” Brandi Buzzard Frobose, the Director of Communications for the industry lobbying group Red Angus Association of America and Kansas rancher said. “But there is always going to be a demand for livestock and animal products.”
Mike Schultz, owner of Schultz Farms in Brewster, Kansas, who has worked as a cattle rancher since 1975 when he bought his first cow—a heffer that he remembers costing exactly $287.56—agreed. A self-proclaimed ‘semi-cowboy,’ Schultz is skeptical about plant-based meats.
“I think [plant-based] meat can be worse for the environment over time,” Schultz said. “You can’t live on grass alone and I don’t know that you can get an adequate amount of protein from just eating Beyond Meats.”
But, just last month, Beyond Meat announced the development of a new “3.0” version of its plant-based burger. The patty’s formulation offers less fat, saturated fat, and calories than both its predecessor and 80/20 ground beef made from animals. Its protein content also remains higher than traditional ground beef. This summer, plant-based chicken will also be on the Beyond Meat menu.
For now, plant-based meat does not seem to cause the same amount of environmental destruction as animal farming, nor do its protein portions appear insufficient. But Schultz is correct in that it may represent a looming form of industrial agriculture whose power we do not know quite yet.
Holly is the Digital Strategies Director of The Outlaw Ocean Project.