How Will Alternative Meat Impact Rural Farmers?
It is easy to imagine a future in which cultured and plant-based meat (alt-meat) are produced at a scale and price that could displace animal meat. Some of the benefits of this scenario have been explored in research, such as the reduction in greenhouse gasses, animal suffering, and health problems associated with eating meat. However, the economic and social impacts of this market switch have received less attention, although they could heavily impact rural communities. To facilitate the transition to alt-meat, researchers recognize the importance of identifying the challenges and opportunities facing rural farmers and community members.
In this study, researchers conducted interviews with expert stakeholders to identify the opportunities and challenges facing rural U.S. farmers in the wake of alt-meat, as well as the best ways to aid farmers as society shifts toward an alt-meat food system. The respondents included farmers, researchers, representatives of cultured meat and plant-based meat companies, nonprofits, funding agencies, government, and other representatives of the meat and plant agricultural sectors.
While most respondents said that alt-meat wouldn’t be able to replace animal agriculture in the foreseeable future, they identified a number of opportunities for crop-growing farmers. For example, most expected the demand for plant proteins to increase, benefiting farmers willing to diversify their production by producing higher-value plant protein crops such as legumes (which also are environmentally preferable). Additionally, growing feedstock ingredients for cultured meat could be possible, since alternative sources of culture medium will be required as the industry continues to upscale. Some interviewees believe these ingredients could be produced using traditional crops, but informants belonging to the cultured meat industry said that algae, fungi, seaweed, yeast, and fermentation processes will provide the necessary feedstock ingredients.
Since cultured meat relies on using a small number of cells sourced from an animal, animal farmers could benefit from the industry by keeping a small herd of animals as a cellular source. However, probably only a small fraction of animal farmers could benefit from this, because a single animal can be used as a source for many years. Furthermore, many cell-based agriculture companies are trying to eliminate the need for animals altogether. Other opportunities for animal farmers include housing bioreactors on their farms and transitioning into new sectors.
Regarding identifying risks for farmers, most respondents believed that the fear that farmers will suffer losses in the face of alt-meat is not well-founded. Any transition would be gradual, giving farmers time to adjust. However, crop farmers may be tied to growing plants for animal feed, which means that transitioning into growing alternative plants for the alt-meat industry may be challenging. Similarly, if alt-meat grows, society may require fewer crops, less land, and a smaller number of crop farmers to feed the global population.
Regarding animal farmers, the interviewees considered that any decline in the demand for meat could affect the sector. Still, they believed a serious switch in the market is far in the future. The risks were considered higher for chicken and pig farmers, because most farmers are locked in unfavorable contracts with huge corporations which already invest in alt-meat. These corporations could easily shift their business model if desired, leaving contract farmers without viable alternatives. This presents an opportunity for animal advocates to build relationships now to support farming transitions later on.
Finally, the respondents identified potential actions that different players outside the private sector could take to maximize the benefits and minimize the threats to rural farmers. For example, government agencies could facilitate the transition to alt-meat by reallocating subsidies and incentivizing companies to install production facilities where they support disadvantaged communities. Nonprofits could help navigate political discussions, facilitate rural farming transitions, promote education, and advocate for the interests of rural workers. Animal advocates should make sure to balance their mission with the needs and concerns of vulnerable rural farmers and communities. Researchers could help alt-meat scale up and investigate the impacts of these transitions to support farmers.
It’s important to remember that farmers aren’t the only rural stakeholder groups impacted by alt-meat. Vulnerable rural community members may benefit through job opportunities, food security, and a healthier quality of life. However, these communities may easily be overlooked as the industry continues to grow. With this study, the researchers hope that understanding the biggest risks and opportunities will enable alt-meat decision-makers to ensure the best possible outcomes for people living and working in rural communities.