Op-ed: Giant Meat and Dairy Companies Dominate Plant Protein Market
Almost every week a major media outlet publishes a headline announcing that a meat or dairy processing giant has acquired full or partial ownership of an ‘alternative protein’ company, such as JBS buying the Dutch company. Will live, which competes with Beyond meat on the European market earlier this year. These new companies are making plant-based meat, dairy or fish substitutes, working to market lab-grown meat, and incorporating insects into foods like pasta and energy bars.
What is driving these investments and what impacts will they have? The focus on protein – a single macronutrient, to the exclusion of all others – has been an effective strategy for larger companies to break down current barriers to growth, even though most people eat more protein. than their body needs.
In a recent research article, my colleagues and I have found that this trend is increasingly placing control of the food system in more hands, while also giving the illusion that there are many competing alternatives. In the case of products designed to present an alternative to factory farming and reduce damage to animals and the environment – or at least cultivate that appearance – this poses a complex dilemma for many consumers.
Break “property envelopesIs a key approach for companies looking to grow faster than their peers. Our stomachs are limited in size, so we can only eat a limited amount. Additionally, when a small number of firms dominate a particular market, such as the four firms that largely control 70 percent of beef processing in the United States, there are few buyout targets remaining. Strategies to increase the size of the company when organic growth is deemed too slow by senior executives therefore include acquisitions of upstream suppliers, downstream customers, related industries or companies in new geographies. .
The “protein” emerges as a justification for giant companies to combine in all these directions, creating larger and more centralized organizations. The largest companies that focus on higher protein foods in the world are shown in the figure below, with the size of the rectangles proportional to annual sales of food products.
Companies that initially focused on processing a single species of livestock, for example, are now dominant in multiple species, as well as plant-based alternatives to those products. Many leading meat companies now describe themselves as “protein” companies: JBS recently offered to acquire a salmon aquaculture company, Cargill has invested in Pea protein and insect production, and Tyson even has trademark the term “The Protein Company”. The largest dairy processors, such as Nestlé and Unilever, have also acquired brands of plant-based meat substitutes (Sweet earth, The Vegetarian Butcher).
Laboratory-grown or “cultured” meat and fish are currently sold in only a few outlets around the world, but start-ups are trying to market these products widely. Investors in these companies (see diagram above) include some of the world’s largest meat processors – Tyson and Cargill – as well as companies owned by many top billionaires including Bill Gates, Peter Thiel, Marc Benioff and Sergey Brin. These companies wouldn’t make these investments if they didn’t expect the intellectual property owned by these startups to lead to monopoly profits.
And while companies promoting lab-grown products claim that they will be consumed as food substitutes with greater environmental impacts, the the current energy needs – and carbon footprint – of laboratory-grown meat are substantial. The marketing of these products could even increase the consumption of meat and dairy products by reinforcing the perception that these foods should be “the center of the plate” rather than a potential ingredient.
As consumers have the appearance of more choice, the actual ownership of these brands is held by a decreasing number of companies behind the scenes. JBS, for example, has grown from a single beef processing plant in Brazil to the world’s largest meat processor, having bought out key competitors on almost every continent. This growth has resulted in the possession of a dizzying number of brands, nearly 100 of which are listed in the middle of the map below. These include several brands that focus on what might be seen as alternatives, such as organic meat (Organic Acres, Just NU, Spring crossing), grass-fed meat (Grass farms, Little Joe), and plant substitutes (OZO, Incrível).