Veggie burgers that bleed, perfectly formed fillet steaks grown in labs, vegan chicken wings. Welcome to a world where meat is no longer produced from animals.

Meat substitutes have exploded in the past year, with increasingly realistic alternatives coming to market. Take US based Impossible Foods, which launched a burger in 2016 that smells like meat and even ‘bleeds’. It’s picked up over $400 million in funding to launch its assault on the beef patty. Even 30-year-old UK based meat substitute Quorn saw it’s global sales soar in 2017 to £205 million, while McDonald’s launched a vegan burger in Sweden in the same year.

Globally sales of meat substitutes are set to hit £4bn by 2020, threatening to put traditional meat sales under pressure as environmental and animal welfare concerns become increasingly recognised by consumers.

It might be a prospect that has established meat producers running scared, but for Tyson Foods, the world’s second largest meat producer, the plan is to lead the charge and drive development, rather than defend against it.

The behemoth famous in the US for its chicken based products acquired a 5% stake in Impossible Foods’ main competitor Beyond Meat in 2016, raising its share the following year as part of a joint investment round of $55m. The company recently announced plans to launch its flagship burger product in 50 countries.

Founded in 2009 by Californian energy industry worker Ethan Brown, the first product, meatless chicken strips, was launched in 2012. Other investors include Bill Gates, Leonardo DiCaprio and the Twitter co-founders.

For Tyson, Beyond Meat was the first deal made by Tyson Ventures, a fund set up in 2016 to ‘invest in companies developing breakthrough technologies, business models and products to sustainably feed the growing world population’.

“No one knows exactly what the future of food will look like. That’s why we’re exploring new approaches." - Tom Hayes, President and CEO, Tyson Foods

The company has also created an internal innovation lab and is launching a product that doesn’t even pretend to be meat: a range of plant based protein bowls under new brand Green Street.

Explaining the decision, Tom Hayes, President and CEO of Tyson said: ‘A protein strategy inclusive of alternative forms is intuitive for Tyson Foods. It’s another step toward giving today’s consumers what they want…No one knows exactly what the future of food will look like. That’s why we’re exploring new approaches.’

This new approach has been taken a step further with Tyson Venture’s next two investments. In scenes straight out of a science fiction movie, startups Memphis Meats and Future Meat Technologies are both exploring growing meat in labs from animal cells, removing the need of raising or killing animals.

Tyson is keen to describe the ventures as ‘exploring additional opportunities for growth’ alongside continued investment in its core meat-based products – while interest in meat alternatives grows, so is global demand for meat, which is set to double by 2050 compared with 2000.

The duel strategy means Tyson is well placed whether the future of meat includes animals or not; it’s strong position within the meat industry brought improved earnings estimates for the current year, prompting Zacks Equity Research to stamp Tyson stock with a top ranking in March 2018.

That’s despite a slump of 17% between December 2017 and May 2018, since which the stock has began to launch a comeback, a move that’s convinced investment fund Gainsboro Capital to recommend Tyson, pointing out that the stock is trading at just just ten times forward earnings.

It’s also worth noting that 2017 saw Tyson stock grow by 30%, according to data from S&P Global Market Intelligence, partly buoyed by the purchase of AdvancePierre in June of that year, a move which enabled a push into the pre-packed sandwich industry. Likewise in May 2018, Tyson announced the purchase of two chicken blending operations, a move which the company says will allow it to also ‘expand its presence in the growing animal feed ingredient business’.