But they still require employees to run the equipment. So as a precaution during the pandemic, Beyond Meat’s spokesperson says, they’ve implemented social distancing, for instance putting temporary limits on the number of people who occupy common areas at a given time. An Impossible Foods spokesperson says the company is also enforcing social distancing, as well as tracking Covid-19 transmission rates around its production facility in the Bay Area. Meatpackers are taking precautions too, including doing employee temperature screenings and boosting their cleaning schedules. But, says Bushnell, “It’s much easier to social distance in a plant-based meat manufacturing plant, which is significantly more automated than a slaughterhouse.”
Their facilities may be better equipped to ride out the pandemic, but alternative meat companies face their own challenges in the months, even years, ahead. “There’s just absolutely enormous potential in these sectors, and they’ve reached major milestones, especially in recent years,” says Saloni Shah, a food and agriculture analyst at the Breakthrough Institute, an environmental research center. “However, Covid-19 and economic crisis sort of threatens to impede the industry’s rapid development.”
After all, the meat industry has been at this for a long while now. The pandemic may be exposing serious weaknesses in its supply chain, but it doesn’t have to rely on research and development teams to create products and improve on formulas, like these food tech companies do. The technology behind lab-grown meat in particular is so new, much of the research is coming from university labs, which may now be shuttered during the pandemic.
The coronavirus shutdown, Shah says, “comes at a really important and critical turning point as companies are starting to launch new products and large production capacity and establish themselves. This industry is still in its early days; this is the important thing to remember.”
It’s also important to put this all in a global context. Americans may be frustrated by the lack of meat in supermarkets, and may be turning more readily to alternative proteins, but for the billions of smallholding livestock keepers in the economically developing world, animals are much more than meat—they’re beasts of burden, milk producers, and even currency. These people can’t get by on Impossible or Beyond burgers. In Africa, in particular, smallholding livestock keepers are facing an unprecedented confluence of threats. Just as Covid-19 is spreading throughout the continent, so are massive swarms of locusts. The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that millions in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia are already facing dire circumstances, and that the pandemic could further devastate food production and distribution in the region.
“We are in a very fortunate position of producing enough food,” says Alison Van Eenennaam, an animal geneticist at UC Davis, speaking of the US. But in Africa, she continues, “I think the projections that you’re seeing from the FAO is truly biblical starvation in these countries. And I think we haven’t even begun to see what Covid is going to do to their food supply.”
In America, now that the industrial meat supply chain is floundering, its uncanny imitators might be primed for success. Consumers who were introduced to the products in fast food restaurants over the last few years seem to be seeking them out in grocery stores, now that everyone is cooking at home more. And the dinosaurs of the industry have certainly taken notice. “We’re really happy to see that most of the big meat companies have now launched plant-based options in the past year, and are increasingly active in alternative proteins,” says Bushnell, “which we actually believe is also good for industry incumbents, like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, as it further mainstreams plant-based meat. A rising tide lifts all boats.”
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