Christie Lagally is founder and CEO of Rebellyous Foods, a plant-based poultry startup based in Seattle that uses novel production methods designed for scale, cost savings and product quality.
The poultry industry is a modern marvel and a portrait of efficiency that’s almost too big to fathom. In the U.S. alone, Big Chicken slaughters 9 billion birds every year. Today, there are nearly three times as many chickens as humans on the planet. Archeologists anticipate that the most prominent fossil marker of the Anthropocene epoch (that is, the age of human intervention) will be the overwhelming number of chicken skeletons littering the earth.
This astronomical scale and success is made possible, in large part, by the industry’s ability to avoid paying its own social and environmental costs. Today, these costs are at least as big as Big Chicken itself.
The poultry industry has garnered plenty of bad press these days, from news of immigrant exploitation and workers’ rights violations to its considerable contribution to antibiotic resistance and water pollution. And of course, there’s always a steady stream of exposés on the abysmal conditions that the chickens themselves experience on industrial farms.
Where tech, pharma, and other major industries are increasingly the subject of public outcry, poultry is more of a puzzler. We don’t quite know what to think about an industry that doesn’t seem to have one single Martin Shkreli type to malign. Plus, chicken is such an integral part of most Americans’ diets that any wrongdoing in the poultry industry can seem like a necessary evil.
A number of food startups are challenging this assumption. Innovators in plant-based chicken have their sights set on simultaneously reforming the industry and meeting consumer demand by creating chicken-free alternatives without all of the negative externalities. But their efforts pale in comparison to the behemoth of Big Chicken. The volume of plant-based poultry on the market is so small, it could fairly be classified as a rounding error.
While the plant-based meat industry has been chasing new protein sources to build a better product, it’s almost completely forgotten that the impressive efficiency of the process, not the popularity of the product alone, that gives poultry its edge. To make any sort of impact, plant-based companies can’t just compete at the very end of the supply chain. They have to outperform the poultry industry throughout the entire production process and strike at the roots of the negative externalities Big Chicken puts on the shoulders of its workers, the planet and public health.
The poultry industry can absorb a tremendous amount of waste. Approximately 450 million chickens die from stress and disease before they’re viable for slaughter. Converted to poundage, that means that Big Chicken can comfortably lose five times the amount of product that the entire plant-based industry produces in a year. On top of that, its market dominance means that it can sell at such a low cost that competitors can’t exactly be, well, competitive.
Chicken is a volume game. A failure to deliver sufficient volume will result in a high-cost product with limited availability and virtually zero chance at making a difference on the issues that motivate plant-based meat makers. All of this points to one thing: The need to create a plant-based poultry industry that actually has the capacity to rule the market.
This will require innovation in production technology to rival the well-oiled machinery of meat-making — something plant-based startups have left virtually unaddressed until now. Plant-based meat may taste better than it used to, but plant-based companies today are using virtually the same machinery they used to make your grandma’s veggie burger decades ago. This machinery was never designed to create plant-based meat, and certainly not at the volume and cost required to be competitive with the most ubiquitous animal protein in America.
It’s time to build a better poultry industry, beak to tail. Plant-based startups can only beat Big Chicken at its own game by designing and deploying optimized, novel machinery for high-volume, low-cost production methods for chicken-free alternatives. When the industry can make plant-based meat production twice as efficient — and twice as profitable — as chicken processing, we can remove the poultry industry’s incentives to pollute our planet, curtail human rights, and threaten public health.
At that point, I expect Big Chicken will embrace plant-based meat, because what’s better for its bottom line will finally align with its desire to do better.