Plant-based alternatives see huge surge, in part driven by nationwide meat shortages

Only a few years ago, the idea that a plant-based alternative could disrupt the meat industry seemed impossible. Sales are now up over 200%. Industry leaders say the trend can benefit the environment.
5:47 | 07/02/20

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Transcript for Plant-based alternatives see huge surge, in part driven by nationwide meat shortages
Reporter: It may look like raw beef. Literally at this point you could scoop your hand in, take a bunch of it and eat it. Reporter: But the stainless steel machinery is churning out a popular meat alternative, which you don't even have to cook to eat. I guess it's a significant difference when you're dealing with a product like soybeans rather than live animals. Reporter: Our team was granted exclusive access into impossible foods. Plant-based alternative companies like impossible foods and beyond meat are seeing a huge surge in demand right now. In part, prompted by nationwide shortages in meat, caused by covid outbreaks in meat plants. Slaughterhouses often employ thousands of workers, elbow to elbow. Soybeans? That's a lot less messy and certainly a lot safer for workers. Impossible foods CEO pat brown says employee safety has been one of the company's top priorities. How has covid affected production? Production has been kept pretty well. As you saw, we were able to create a very safe environment. Obviously, with this big space and the handful of people, social distancing is not a challenge. Reporter: This spring, meat packing plants suffered some of their biggest disruptions in decades due to covid outbreaks, an stores afraid of meat shortages put limits on the number of packages consumers could buy. But sales of meat alternatives were up, nearly 250% in just the 12 weeks ending on may 23rd. We're expanding our production. We're selling everything we can produce. Reporter: Brown's vision for the future of this industry is ambitious. Your goal is to kill the meat industry? I would say yes. It falls on our shoulders to create foods that do a better job of serving meat-loving consumers than the ones that are made from animals. Reporter: You know, when we think of things that are destructive to the environment and planet, we think fossil fuels. Yeah. Reporter: Airplanes, cars, motorcycles, anything like that. We don't think meat. I think more and more people are now becoming aware of this. I would say pretty much all serious environmentalists realize the number one environmental threat is the use of animals to produce food. Reporter: Just a few years ago, even the idea that a plant-based alternative could disrupt the meat industry seemed impossible. Today brown insists it's not only possible, it's probable. The key, he says, is taste. And while turning legumes into meat involves some modern-day alchemy, the end result? Well, it tastes exactly like a burger, like any other burger. Plant-based meats even reaching the final frontier of American fast food like burger king. Even Dunkin' donuts and snoop Dogg lending their star power. But some critics warn that both impossible and beyond burgers are heavily processed. In general, what we understand about the human diet and about the way that humans are evolved, ultra processed food tends to be much less good for you than the whole foods alternatives. Reporter: But it may not matter to Americans who are increasingly consuming meat alternatives, not because they're vegetarians, but because of the environmental impact of meat consumption. If you replace a pound of cow-derived beef with a pound of impossible beef, you reduce your greenhouse gas footprint by the equivalent of the daily average commute in the U.S. We're all becoming much more aware as a society. But our lifestyle is unsustainable. Many of the movements of young people who are interested in this are saying, yes, we need to address sustainability but we need to address labor rights, immigration. And the problems involved in the food system are very, very big. Reporter: But plant-based alternatives are on average more expensive than regular ground beef. They average $8.99, $11.99 a pound, as much as a rib eye. And with unemployment for many Americans, the added cost could be a deal breaker. Is there a way to reduce the price? Yes, absolutely a way to reduce the price. The one thing they have that we don't have is they're a mature industry. When we get to scale, our economics are structurally better than the incumbent industry, and we'll be able to compete on price. Reporter: But, when brown surveys the future of his company, he see it is interconnected with the future of the planet. Our mission is to completely replace animals as a food technology by 2035. The rate of climate change and possibly worse, the collapse of biodiversity, which is almost entirely due to the use of animals in the food system, if we don't stop and reverse those things very soon we're going to be passing on a dismal world to future generations. Reporter: For "Nightline," Matt Gutman in Oakland, California.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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