As the climate crisis intensifies, many have been quick to blame raising animals and overall meat consumption as a large part of the problem. But what, exactly, makes much of our current meat industry “bad”? And can meat ever be “good?”
It’s a tough topic to dive into, in part because there isn’t just one answer. In her new book, Raw Deal: Hidden Corruption, Corporate Greed, and the Fight for the Future of Meat, Chloe Sorvino takes on the challenge. A journalist who has spent nearly a decade covering food and agriculture for Forbes, Sorvino lays bare the inner workings of the meat industry with clear-eyed practicality—from the scale of the environmental cost of meat to the depths of corporate greed and consolidation of power.
Sorvino spoke with Modern Farmer about why local movements challenging the status quo of meat have their limitations and why the pandemic was such a turning point for the industry. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Modern Farmer: Your book opens with the pandemic, but the problems that you delve into—including the environmental toll of meat and the consolidation in the packing industry—originated before 2020. What about the past three years was a turning point for meat?
Chloe Sorvino: I wanted to start out with the pandemic because it was such a catalyzing moment for so many American shoppers, who were seeing meat shortages play out in stores and restaurants in real time. The pandemic was a perfect storm, in terms of the corporatization and the hidden externalities of the meat industry that you don’t really see.
Factory workers were being forced to stay on the line because meat companies were exporting more than ever before and profits were as high as ever. At the same time, there are so many environmental consequences for that production. And then on top of that, there’s a lot of waste happening, because of shutdowns and supply chain backups.
I thought the pandemic could also help paint a picture of more crises to come. Climate change is going to make how we get our food so much harder.
MF: It does seem that COVID really brought a number of these issues to light and showed how they intersect.
CS: The pandemic opened up a lot of long-term questions about food access. I think some people didn’t realize how much they relied on meat in their supermarket carts and in their refrigerators until it became much harder or more expensive to purchase. At the same time, there was also this hoarding fear that was happening. I wanted to try to understand who was fearful and why, because I think there are long-term questions about access to meat.
MF: This book explores so many aspects of the meat industry, but one of the things that rightly gets a lot of attention is the consolidation that’s happening within the meatpacking industry. In efforts to prevent consolidation or at least temper its effects, we’ve seen executives from major companies sit before Congress, we have the Packers and Stockyards Act and competition executive orders and yet consolidation is still rife in the industry. Is this something that can be remedied?
CS: It’s hard for me to pick one policy or one legal change, because I think the consolidation has impacted every part of the supply chain. It’s been really hard, even before there was a split Congress, to get legislation with enforceable accountability to pass through.
But I think there are a lot of different ways that this power dynamic (between producers and packing companies) can be counterbalanced. There needs to be better regulations and more anti-trust enforcement—which is easier said than done. There also could be bills that require insider trading accountability or disclosures and transparency rules for purchases of meat or cattle feed that contractors are making with their long-term producers or growers. I think legislation could also do a way better job to support mobile slaughterhouses, which I write a lot about in the book, or other unique ways of slaughter.
You can’t really unscramble the eggs that have been scrambled. And so what you need to do is make the system more accountable, more transparent and give these power dynamics more levers.
MF: Do you see any of this coming in the Farm Bill?
CS: Well, what I’ve learned from all of my research and analysis is that there really needs to be a reshaping of how the $400 billion from the Farm Bill is spent. There’s a lot of money that is currently incentivizing really problematic systems. Why are the co-insurances and crop insurances supporting monoculture? Why can’t there be requirements for cover crops or even organic farming? At a bare minimum, cover cropping would do so much to shake out nitrogen fertilizer from the system. And that’s one of the biggest problems our waterways and soils really face.
On a fundamental level, though, it needs to be a rerouting of subsidies and funding towards regionalizing the food system. There’s been a loss of canneries, small plants and different types of infrastructure that local purveyors and artisans can use to make their products in more efficient ways, which support their communities. There’s infrastructure crumbling around us. Why not invest in super small scale local production?
MF: One of the things that struck me throughout the book is that there’s a sense of this whole industry being so big, but many of the players are so small—especially when it comes to fighting things like price fixing or worker’s rights in court. How did the people you spoke with for the book push back against that?
CS: Well, I came to a point where I was questioning whether or not people really understood how big the Goliath was in this instance.
However, the price-fixing cases that you mentioned have been, on some levels, like a legal reckoning. Those cases—and there’s been hundreds of them—are winning, and they’re going to keep playing out for years. Some of them have even been guilty pleas. While I wrote about some of these early, really big, wild settlements, there were even consent decrees with the Department of Justice over the summer, which acknowledged a lot of serious problems (including suppressing worker pay and deceptive practices with poultry producers).
I think to see the amount of money the government spent on the cases shows that they are trying to be a counterweight, in some ways, as much as they can be. They would have given up otherwise. It’s absolutely a David and Goliath situation. That’s why I wanted to end the book discussing how, at the end of the day, it’s really only your community that’s going to help you. Billionaires are never going to come and save you.
MF: You talk about the importance of local grocery stores and farmers, and you also explicitly say that you don’t expect everyone to be vegan. We are, however, due for a reckoning when it comes to how much meat we consume. What does that reckoning look like?
CS: In the book, I talk about how we wouldn’t really ever be able to do a one-for-one switchover to grass-fed or pasture-raised systems, because there’s not enough land that would work. There are areas where there was too much cropland degraded from monoculture and harsh chemicals over the generations, some lands that only manure is going to be able to rehabilitate and other areas around the world that are too rocky to grow vegetables from, but could be used for grazing.
I also think it’s wrong just to say that everyone should be vegan, but I wanted to be super clear that global demand for meat needs to decrease. Americans eat way too much meat overall; meat consumption has to go down. And when it comes to industrial meat, there’s confinement and systems that are making climate change worse. That all needs to come to an end.
MF: With all of that in mind, what is “good meat?” Does it even exist?
CS: I think it barely exists in America today because so much harm has been built into the meat industry for so long. But, I am optimistic that some meat is good.
I think good meat is something that does not harm the environment: It doesn’t cause pollution, it’s not harming workers or consumers. For those reasons, I think it’s very hard to say hunted meat is not ethical. You also can’t tell me that pasture-raised animals—like lamb, pork, chicken or maybe even beef—running over degraded cropland and grazing in a multi-adaptive, multi-paddock grazing method is a problem. But, so little of it exists right now. I do think there’s a place for meat in the future. I think there has to be. But it just has to look significantly different.