Longtime Forbes reporter Chloe Sorvino has been on the food finance beat for seven years. She's covered titans of the industry, farmers struggling with climate disaster and hopeful plant-based startups. As Covid created one crisis after the other across the American food supply chain, she kept a watchful eye on the monolith that is Big Meat, which stands accused of wage fixing, price gouging, worker-sickening, animal-abusing, and environment–polluting, even as it's recorded sky-high profits in 2022.
The all-powerful meat industry is also the focus of Sorvino's first book, "Raw Deal," which releases on December 6th. In it, Sorvino tracks how eight companies, including Tyson, JBS, Smithfield and Cargill, managed to gobble up 80 percent of the American beef sector, 70 percent of pork and 50 percent of chicken — then worked to drive up production. In the process, they consolidated the animals themselves, in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), and coopted millions of acres of chemical-intensive farmland for growing corn and soy feed. Those companies "are now rolling in it," Sorvino writes in the first chapter.
She goes on to lay out how the industry is driving climate change as well as poor human health and welfare yet managing to hold its own against calls for stronger regional agriculture systems and the alt-protein world's Big Plant movement. In fact, the final chapters of the book lay out how Beyond and Impossible have become part of the industrial juggernaut despite early missions to improve agriculture, and the "dumb money" fueling it both alt and lab-grown meat.
FoodPrint talked to Sorvino about her years reporting on the industry and some of the key takeaways to be gleaned from "Raw Deal." This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
After reporting in this space for a while, why did you decide it was time for a book?
In 2020, I was getting really worried that [readers weren't] going to make this connection that's so necessary [between] the billionaires who are calling me up and boasting about their profits, and the climate advocates sounding every alarm possible and the workers who are talking to me about their mistreatment. I've seen how much wealth and power and consolidation there has been in the food industry, particularly in meat. I realized [these companies] had carved out niches in a massive industry because of their power, their ability to lobby collectively, to amass profits, where smaller independents have not. This centralization has had ramifications, from harming especially communities of color and their health, to pollution and environmental degradation. I've come to these ideas about how the food system needs to change from doing stories [at Forbes] on billionaire profits growing and wanting to talk more about the externalities and the environmental ramifications. I wanted to flip the framing.
Why has it been so difficult to fight back against Big Meat?
There's all these farmers, all these producers, all these startups, getting investor money to take a bite out of industrial meat. At the end of the day, industrial meat packers are billionaires who have so much profit and have amassed so much power it's been very hard to take a significant amount of their market share away. The local food movement over the past decade has gotten lot of hype but still has barely amassed more than 1.5% of total volume. Then you have the alternative protein industry, which raised billions from investors for climate change solutions and yet it's still less than 1%. There's very little actual adoption and a lot of problems with how these alternatives have been erected.
What are some solutions?
There's a lot of private money going into some of the systems that have been touted as alternatives on the pasture-raised side of [meat], but there's also been so much co-opting of that language. I tried to focus on scientifically based, adaptive multi-paddock grazing which is proven [beneficial], especially given how much degradation there has been from industrialized farming and monoculture. There is land around the world that is so degraded that only livestock can bring it back so I think what we need to see is a balancing of actual revitalization that can support [some grazed] meat, and completely changing infrastructure to support plant-based in a regional way.
Do you think we should focus on local food systems?
Local farms are for sure amazing on every level compared to industrial, but there is something to be said for how big is able to leverage its scale for efficiency. I'm not sure that every single local small farm is better on emissions or better on soil health or less polluting, [although] they often are because there's a major incentive for those farmers if they own the land and it's generational and they want to be farming in the right ways. There's also not necessarily any guarantees that farmworkers on local farms are more protected than on big farms and in some cases, it might be even worse because there's not as much of a security net.
That said, supporting local is super important for everything I talk about in the book, in terms of making sure we're able to withstand this [climate] crisis with dignity. But I still would love to see better farmworker protections at local farms, and a lot else. It's been crazy to me to see how [more sustainable farms] essentially have to fight it out for funding and for changing how subsidies are given. It's been one of the biggest problems and also one of the biggest reasons I wanted to write this book because that fighting it out at the bottom is just a distraction. Big Meat has continued to stay super powerful, continued to amass billions of dollars in profits and been able to have control over how their assets are used in the climate crisis.
The pandemic showed the chinks in industrial food's armor. What are some important takeaways for you about Big Food's failures?
The climate clock is ticking. We only have a few harvests left to make significant, very needed change. The meat industry needs to completely overhaul itself. Confinement systems [CAFOs] that pollute need to come to an end, meat consumption needs to go down, but there also needs to be a revitalization of regional food systems. I outline ways that can happen, both by supporting plant-based [foods] and certain types of grazing livestock systems. If change doesn't happen by 2030, we're going to lose any chance to have collective support around regionally based solutions and infrastructure for food.
In the book you post out that with the climate crisis already upon us, there's no time to invest in the wrong things. Are we?
We don't have enough time to start from scratch. We also don't have enough time to waste resources. Billions have already been wasted in alternative protein. Impossible and Beyond, they've gotten billions and billions of dollars in funding. And this year, they've gone through massive of layoffs, their valuations have been chopped in half and their companies are struggling majorly. And those are the best-funded leaders in the industry.
Private equity-backed funds have been flowing into lab grown meat and other alternative proteins. But the problem is that investors are [funding] really young founders who don't understand what giving away pieces of these companies means. [Funders] are expecting 10 times returns on their investments, but also just as equally they are expecting half the time [the company's] going to fail completely. You're getting a lot of copycats, a lot of bankruptcies. In 2021 there were hundreds of startups trying to make plant-based chicken, plant-based beef, plant-based pork, plant-based shrimp, and now you're seeing a lot of them getting rolled up in mergers or entirely shutting down and getting written off by investors. That's not a way to sustainably fund a better food system.
A chapter in your book is titled "Will Meatless Meat Actually Help the Earth?" Will it?
There's a huge problem with the amount of monoculture and loss of biodiversity that the current alternatives [to meat] that are selling in grocery stores are supporting. Beyond, Impossible, they're all sourcing mainstream commodities. They had the scale where they could have gone the extra distance and tried to source organic, there is enough of the market for that. But they've chosen as-cheap-as-possible global sourcing, which also adds to emissions. There's a lot of problems when you're continuing to support a system where monoculture exists. Right now, these companies that are saying that they're going to transform the future of food, they're just working within this commodity system to continue to create a cheap, ultra-processed product. That is not creating meaningful change.
I will say that I think plant-based can get a certain amount of scale and do its sourcing in a way that is actually helping the earth. I worked with Richard Waite from the World Resource Institute for the book to figure out if plant-based meat was able to take out a chunk of the meat industry if that would even cause anything substantial or meaningful. If the plant-based industry was able to take out 15% of total volume from the meat industry, that would be around the same as a quarter of all cars in the U.S. coming off the road, which is a fair amount of emissions.
With lab-grown meat, I do have deep questions around the energy usage and how billionaires and other private investors are creating a new protein source that could be one of the only protein sources at a certain point, but they own the intellectual property of that entirely. But I would be open to seeing how lab-grown meat, if it could be open source, could have a place in a public food sector where every region has its own plans to distribute it in times of crisis. That's the only way that I'd be super happy to see it play out.
There's lots of room for the meat industry to grow with exports. Is a 15% cut in American meat consumption really all we need?
I think there is more interest than ever before in figuring out how we get corporations to responsibly do what we need them to do. There needs to be a moratorium on feedlots. In my dream world, there would be no food companies going public, and there would be regulations on companies that have already gone public. Otherwise, Tyson will continue to say, I have a duty to my shareholders to make more than I did last quarter, and that puts us on this downward spiral towards environmental degradation and so much worse.
Do you see hopeful movement toward improvement?
We're now in this space where [Tom] Vilsack is back as the chief of the USDA. He made significant accommodations to the meat packing industry to help the two Brazilian billionaire brothers [who own JBS] take over the American meat industry and become a huge driving force of consolidation in the past decade. History could repeat itself. I also wrote about how when you have Bill Gates owning the most farmland in the country then renting it out to corporations that aren't farming sustainably, it takes a significant power like government to counterbalance that mismatch. We really haven't had enough government intervention.
[But] the new farm bill is coming up and the Young Farmers Coalition is asking for [money] for better land access for Black, Indigenous, and other farmers of color, which would be huge. Overall, I think the more you can take an active role in how you get your food the better. There are billionaires and venture capitalists who have completely co-opted the system and made it hard to figure out if your dollar is getting where you want it to go. But there are ways for you to support farmers directly: Being a member of a CSA, getting a worker shift at a co-op. Otherwise, almost all restaurants and groceries are buying from the biggest players because that's what's [efficient]. The more you take yourself out of traditional mainstream economic systems in purchasing food, the more you're going to be directly supporting our farmers as opposed to supporting a food system you don't want to see in the future.