The choice seemed obvious: Burger A was the real meat, Burger B the one made from plants. Glenn Beck was sure of it. During a broadcast of his radio show last May, he took a big bite of the first burger, and knew. He should have: When he’s not whipping his fans into a lather over those meddling Democrats, he’s a cattle rancher, after all. Then a colleague revealed that Burger A was none other than the Impossible Burger 2.0, a plant-based imposter made with protein from soy, not cows.

“That is amazing,” Beck exclaimed. “I am expecting my cows to be taking their little hooves and pushing plates of this towards me.”

Impossible Foods, the Redwood City, California-based creator of these remarkably beef-like patties, is just one of the rising stars in the faux-meat market. Beyond Meat, another maker of plant-based meat, had one of the most successful initial public offerings on Wall Street last year. At the same time, alchemists at startups like Memphis Meats and Just Inc. are pioneering “clean meat” grown in labs from an amalgam of animal cells and other products, no slaughterhouse required.

This explosion of alternative meat is driven by a mix of environmental consciousness — raising livestock is a major contributor to climate change — and economic opportunity. From 2015 to 2019, sales of alt-meat in the U.S. reached almost $1 billion, a growth of 56 percent. One survey calculated that close to 75 percent of Millennials, this country’s largest demographic, eat meat alternatives. (Add beef as another casualty of my generation, along with napkins and homeownership.)

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“We plan to take a double-digit portion of the beef market within five years,” Impossible Foods CEO Pat Brown told the New Yorker in a lengthy profile published in September. “[T]hen we can push that industry … into a death spiral.”

But despite its recent success, faux meat currently makes up less than 1 percent of the U.S. market. Getting to where Brown wants to go will take more than just a burger that can fool Glenn Beck. Alt-meat companies will need to perfect their production and processing systems, scale up massively, and figure out how to get all that fake meat to the masses.

To do that, they’ll need friends in high places — friends, perhaps, in the very industry they’re trying to disrupt.

Grist / Jennifer Luxton

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Every year, 9 billion chickens, 240 million turkeys, 2 million sheep, and 120 million hogs find their way into the butcher shops and grocery-store cases of America. Where’s the beef? In 2018, slaughterhouses carved up more than 33 million cows, producing 19 billion pounds of beef. Add up the jobs on farms and in processing facilities, and the distribution and sales, and you have an industry that contributes $894 billion to America’s GDP, according to the North American Meat Institute.

We’ve gotten really, really good at turning crops into livestock, and livestock into meat. Breeders now use data from animal geneticists to grow larger cattle. And in contrast to the free-ranging days of the past, most cows today spend the final third of their lives on feedlots consuming corn and soy, beefing up (as it were) for their burger-patty swan songs.

Ranchers are so good at raising cattle that the number of cows needed to produce the same amount of beef has declined by a third since the 1970s, according to Mandy Carr Johnson, senior executive director for science and product solutions at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

Mechanization dating back to the 1960s has also increased the efficiency of how cattle and other animal livestock are processed and sent to market. Meatpacking plants are even incorporating robots that use machine-learning algorithms to understand where to slice pieces of beef.

“Automating the killing, processing, and deconstruction of animals into other products has been an engineering effort that has only really been rivaled in the car industry,” said Christie Lagally, founder and CEO of Rebellyous Foods, a Seattle-based food-tech company creating meatless chicken nuggets. (Disclosure: Grist CEO Brady Walkinshaw is an investor in Rebellyous Foods.)

This mass production of meat isn’t without its downsides. The Washington Post reported in December that a rising number of consumer complaints about plastic, rubber and metal fragments found in meat products led to at least 34 product recalls in 2019, involving 17 million pounds of processed meat. Industry representatives blamed the rise in contamination on aging and overworked machinery.

What’s more, producing billions of pounds of animal flesh annually has a huge impact on the environment. To produce one calorie of beef, for instance, it takes 100 calories of feed. Growing feed, shipping it, shipping the animals to the feedlots, then fattening, slaughtering, processing, distributing — it’s an elaborate undertaking that contributes about 4 percent to this country’s total greenhouse-gas emissions.

That’s before getting into questions about land-use. In the U.S. alone, the land for grazing amounts to almost 800 million acres, more than 40 percent of the country’s landmass, which includes millions of acres of public land. Every acre of land devoted to grazing cows is just another acre that could be put toward storing more carbon.

And the problem is monumentally worse when you zoom out and look at the whole world. If you count all the forests cleared to provide pasture, along with other emissions, livestock produces more carbon dioxide than all the world’s transportation combined, according to a massive report published this July.

“Most strategies for solving climate change require that we either reforest or take a lot of that grazing land out of production and use it for something else,” said the lead author of the report, Princeton University research scholar Tim Searchinger.

Searchinger is hardly alone: Another panel of 50 scientists and academics recently reported that if the livestock sector continues to grow, it will single-handedly drive us halfway to the critical warming threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius. The U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said that shifting the bulk of our diets to plant-based food is “key to the climate change fight.”

Over the last year, alternative proteins burst into the popular American consciousness in a way that tofu burgers and vegetable-based substitutes never have. There’s one major reason for that: Compared to the black-bean burgers of yore, the new plant-based and lab-grown meats taste like the real deal.

That meaty taste is huge. Upstarts like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are going after the people who are not only reluctant to trade beef for an imitator, but also think a meat-mimicking product can’t be as good as the real thing. (Think of the Burger King commercials where an unsuspecting, self-styled beef-lover is duped like Glenn Beck was.) In other words: They’re coming for the carnivores.

Even meat industry bigwigs acknowledge that shifting to plant-based and cell-based alternatives could be a good thing. They know better than anyone how much it costs to produce animal-based protein — and how cheap and energy-efficient it could be, some day, to make imitations. Tom Hayes, the former CEO of Tyson Foods, the second largest meat-producer on the planet, is on record saying, “If we can make the meat without the animal, why wouldn’t we do that?”

For now, though, that’s still a big “if.” Using protein derived either from soy or peas as the backbone, Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat can create patties that come close to the texture and juiciness of ground beef. But creating full cuts of “clean meat” — the lab-grown stuff — is much trickier. Steak is hard to fake.

Getting cells in the lab to behave like animal muscle and connective tissue is pricey, too. In stores, plant-based meat from Beyond or Impossible costs roughly twice as much as the real thing. Don’t even ask about clean meat. For the industry pioneers, the cost of production for a pound of chicken is about $150; for a pound of beef, it’s around $200. Just Inc. still spends $50 to make one chicken nugget.

The interest (or lack thereof) from investors says it all: While Impossible Foods on its own has raised more than $700 million to develop plant-based burgers, the few dozen active clean-meat startups have raised only about $70 million combined. (Although rumor has it that Memphis Meats is expected to announce a new round of financing in the $250 million range.)

“Plant-protein technology is already quite good, but it’s probably about 10 to 12 years until we get any kind of structured product,” or clean meat, said Kate Krueger, the research director at New Harvest, a research nonprofit focused on cellular agriculture.

Then comes the matter of scaling up.

“There are all these various market reports that plant-based meat will reach 8 percent to 35 percent market penetration by 2030 or 2035,” said Liz Specht, associate director of science and technology at the Good Food Institute, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that advocates for plant-based protein and clean meat. “Where are you going to make all this plant meat?

“We’re not talking about scaling an iPhone app,” added Specht, who was on the 2018 Grist 50. “We’re talking about massive physical volumes of things in the real world.”

Into this conundrum walks Michael McCain, the uber wealthy heir of a Canadian meat empire. McCain, who reportedly has a taste for fine wine, world travel, and yachts, is the head of Maple Leaf Foods, Canada’s largest food-processing company — and he has a surprising take on the future of meat.

Over the phone, McCain delivers the usual business rhetoric about manufacturing whatever protein his consumers want. But it’s more like a side dish to his main entree: declaring that the world is in a “crisis” and “on fire,” and that meat producers have to be the ones to change it.

“The future, the path forward, is to find a way to make the meat-protein industry more sustainable in its footprint,” he said. “Rather than trying to defend those practices of generations that built up that animal production system, we focus our energies on what’s required to change that system.”

McCain’s company was investing in plant-based product lines several years before men in 10-gallon hats were eating Impossible Whoppers in Burger King commercials. In 2017, Maple Leaf Foods acquired Lightlife, a leading manufacturer of alternative protein. (Its plant-based hot dogs are No. 1 in retail sales in the U.S.) That same year Maple Leaf announced its goal to become the “most sustainable protein company on earth.”

Now the company is pouring $310 million into a facility in Shelbyville, Indiana, that McCain said will be the largest alt-meat production factory in North America. The goal: Expand Maple Leaf’s plant-based business to $3 billion in sales over the next 10 years.

Maple Leaf Foods isn’t the only traditional meat processor turning time and resources to a budding plant-based protein market. Tyson Foods has invested in several alt-meat startups, including Beyond Meat and Memphis Meats, and recently launched its own plant-based product line. Smithfield, Kellogg, and Nestle all have their own plant-based protein offerings. Cargill — one of the “Big Four” meatpackers — recently invested an additional $75 million in Puris, the company that supplies Beyond Meat with pea protein.

Conagra, which offers a line of plant-based foods derived from pea and wheat proteins, expanded its alt-protein options this year by adding meatless chicken nuggets, sausage patties, and Italian sausage links. An analysis the company recently put together estimated that its alternative meat business might one day be worth roughly $30 billion.

“I think the meat companies see the writing on the wall,” said Caroline Bushnell, associate director of corporate engagement for the Good Food Institute. “Consumers are hungry for meat that’s produced in a better way.”

For the industry, the calculation goes beyond just making alt-meat. These are the companies with the huge production facilities, distribution networks, and retail connections. They’re the world’s meat movers. And who better to get alt-meat out to the masses than the folks who already know how to mass-produce protein and ship it to the far corners of the globe?

“Food is an industry of scale,” said Jacy Reese, author of the 2018 book, The End of Animal Farming. “What matters is whether you have the large production, the economies of scale, the distribution channels, the connections with grocery stores. All these things are needed to really get a product off the ground.”

In other words, Specht suggests, Big Meat could be the linchpin in the whole operation: Large meatpacking companies are uniquely positioned to distribute alternative protein in a way the startups developing new products can’t, at least right now.

“There’s a critical difference between some of the early startups and Tyson Foods and how we’re able to respond: scale,” a Tyson spokesperson wrote in an email. “Our capabilities … will enable us to meet growing demand.”

Case in point: In order to get plant-based Whoppers in all 7,200 Burger King restaurants across America, Impossible Foods struck an agreement in July with OSI Group, the Illinois-based meat supplier that has produced burger patties for McDonald’s since the middle of last century.

Still, meatpackers aren’t exactly stampeding toward this alternative future, and might not even have the tools to do so.

“It is really possible to make these products and even scale these products to a certain degree on traditional meat-processing equipment, especially if all you’re doing is making burgers,” said Lagally at Rebellyous. “But if we are to create a global transition … we have to invest in the manufacturing capability. We have to develop the infrastructure to support a global transition to a plant-based diet.”

Rebellyous, she said, is focused on building and scaling the equipment and production facilities for automating the production of plant-based poultry, beef, and pork. But that’s still a work in progress — and fake steaks, as we’ve said, are still a decade or more from the dinner table.

Beyond that, Big Meat’s ambitions fall well short of the kind of transformation that will be necessary to avert the worst of climate change. Lagally points to Tyson, which has said that its sales of plant-based foods could one day reach $1 billion per year, a paltry sum compared to the company’s $40 billion in overall sales. Even McCain, at Maple Leaf, said the answer is “not to find a way not to eat meat protein.”

Pat Brown of Impossible Foods may talk about sending the meat industry into a death spiral, but, no surprise, this hasn’t exactly become a rallying cry for folks in the business.

And while some traditional food-processing companies are readying themselves for a potential economic boom in the field of plant-based and cellular meat replacements, the U.S. beef industry is staking a position in a widening cultural showdown by waging a campaign against the likes of Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods, and other alt-meat startups.

The labels alt-meat products carry in grocery stores are of particular concern to the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. Both groups have worked with state and federal lawmakers to craft legislation that either restricts terms like “meat” strictly to products made from cultivated livestock, or requires alt-protein packaging to carry modifiers. (If your bacon is made from plants, the label has to say so.)

“As a beef industry, there’s always been competition for a place on a consumer’s plate or in their grocery carts,” said Johnson, at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. “Our concern is that it’s a fair and level playing field and there’s truth in marketing.”

On one hand, the beef industry has little reason to be worried. One industry insider, who spoke on background, said that most meat-processing companies don’t see alt-meat as much of a threat. Most of the value from beef comes from the whole-muscle cuts — the thick pieces of meat, not minced or ground, that cellular agriculture has so far been unable to successfully replicate.

Some biotechnology experts, moreover, argue that statistics outlining the environmental impact of livestock production tend to be exaggerated. At least one research paper projects that jettisoning all animals from American agriculture would reduce our greenhouse-gas emissions by less than 3 percent.

On the other hand, recent stories of disruption suggest that cattle ranchers should pay attention. A decade ago, almond, soy, and other plant-based milks were just beginning to make their way into grocery stores and freezer cases full of cows’ milk and ice cream. Today, 40 percent of U.S. households purchase plant-based milk, which accounts for 13 percent of all retail sales — “and it’s still growing,” said Bushnell of the Good Food Institute.

One market report estimates that plant-based milk will be a $38 billion business by the middle of next decade. (Don’t blame the Millennials for this one: According to a study from October, it’s the Baby Boomers driving the plant-based dairy market.)

Look a little further back, and there are plenty of products that once enjoyed massive popularity that are now effectively extinct: whale-oil lamps and vacuum-tube TV sets come to mind.

What the shift ultimately looks like for the meat industry will take time to suss out. Reese, the End of Animal Farming author, predicts that full displacement of animal meat won’t happen until closer to the end of the century. From now until the middle of the 2020s, he said, we’ll see a series of low-stakes “taste tests.”

“You’re going to have more adoption of cheap, plant-based foods … [which] is going to show the public that the protein at the center of the plate doesn’t need to come from animal slaughter or animal agriculture,” he said.

And, no doubt, livestock cultivation will continue in some corners of the world into the foreseeable future. It’s going to be a cold day in Kenya when the Maasai abandon their cattle herds.

But a transformation is already underway. Plant-based meat produced by Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat is now on the menu at Dunkin’, White Castle, and about two-dozen McDonald’s restaurants in Ontario, in addition to Burger King. Just this month, Burger King announced that it is testing Impossible Sausage in its Croissan’wich, while Hooters rolled out meat-free chicken wings.

Big Meat may just be watching quietly for now, waiting for the startups to test the taste buds of America — and then the world. Once the market has been proven, the big guys could jump into the game in force. Which means there might come a day when all the protein on our plates comes from plants or cells. Chances are, we won’t taste any difference at all.