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Are Alternative Proteins Worrying The Meat Industry?

Plant-based products are a key driver of sales increases at grocery retailers nationwide, growing almost twice as fast as overall food purchases. Major meat producers are paying close attention.

In the US, 98% of people who buy plant-based meat also purchase conventional meat. It’s clear now that production of animal-based proteins has many limitations — environmental degradation, animal welfare, cultural considerations, and health constraints. The replacement of meat by alternative ingredients is fast becoming a norm in many countries around the world, with the numbers and varieties of alternative meat products expanding annually. The rapid growth of the alternative protein market is posing a threat to the conventional meat industry.

The global population is projected to increase to about 10 billion people by 2050. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), nearly half of the worldwide grain harvest is required to feed the livestock population, which amounts to 1.4 billion bovines, 1 billion pigs, 20 billion poultry, and 1.9 billion sheep/lamb/goats.

Agricultural production explicitly directed to human consumption accounts for just 37%.

Alternative meat is one of the biggest trends in food technologies, and it is proposed as an opportunity to address some of the problems created by conventional meat production and consumption. A market for animal-free and manufactured food items to substitute for the meat industry has been driven by the latter’s high GHG emissions, the land and water used for production, and the desire to reduce or eliminate animal agriculture.

Different from legumes, meat alternatives are foodstuffs made to smell, look, and/or taste like meat to fulfill similar functions in diets. Plant-based meats:

  • can replace traditional meat as a good protein source from the perspective of nutritional value
  • have less cholesterol and more dietary fiber, which can be appealing to consumers
  • can be made available to a wide range of consumers, such as those who rely on vegetarian, halal, or flexitarian diets

Considering the increasing environmental awareness and the rise of meat alternatives as substitute products, a question arises. What kind of threat do alternative meats pose to the meat industry?

Traditionally, most plant-based meat alternatives were manufactured by small businesses. What does the entrance into the emerging alternative meat market of large agri-food companies like meat processor Tyson Foods and food multinational Nestlé say about the future of the meat industry? (Author’s note: I found it slightly unnerving to see Jimmy Dean Plant-Based Breakfast Sandwiches in my local grocer’s freezer case recently.)

According to CB Insights, JBS, one of the world’s largest meat companies, launched its own meatless protein in June, 2020 and acquired Dutch plant-based meat manufacturer Vivera, Europe’s third-largest plant-based foods producer, for $408M (€341M) in April, 2021. Other meat packers offering their own lines of plant-based alternatives include Smithfield, Hormel, and Cargill.

Projections for Replacing the Meat Industry with Plant-Based Alternatives

If the Center for Consumer Freedom’s “informational” campaign targeting plant-based meats is any indication, the meat industry is nervous. The nonprofit advocacy group launched scathing ads titled “Fake Meat, Real Chemicals” that demonized plant-based meat. “So-called plant-based meats don’t grow on a vine,” the ads stated. “They ‘grow’ in factories.”

An editorial from the LA Times debunked the ad’s controversial premise over whether meat alternatives are wise choices or not. “A plant-based meat that satisfies meat cravings and delivers protein but with a smaller climate footprint is a potential environmental game changer and the reason Impossible Foods was one of the recipients of the UN Global Climate Action Award in 2019,” the editorial summarized. “No wonder the meat industry is on guard.”

Texturized vegetable protein produced using various ingredients led to the original development of plant-based meats. Currently, it occupies the biggest market among the different meat alternatives, and researchers calculate that the market will increase to over $21.23 billion by 2025. Fortune estimates that plant-based food sales will increase five-fold by 2030.

IFF Nutrition & Biosciences reveals the following stats about plant-based consumers.

  • More than half — 52% — of US consumers are eating more plant-based foods and beverages.
  • The number rises to two-thirds — 65% — globally.
  • Almost 60% of respondents said that their change to plant-based food was permanent, or they hoped it was permanent.
  • Taste was cited as the top response as a barrier to consuming plant-based food.
  • All consumer segments in the model – Health Helpers, Weight Strugglers, Health Wise, Taste Driven, Good Life, and Just Food – cite that eating plant-based food makes them feel healthier.

NielsenIQ says that plant-based proteins have a strong (and growing) presence in the dairy case and frozen dessert aisles. During the 52 weeks ending July 3, 2021, plant-based alternative milk products accounted for 15.5% of all milk dollar sales. Dollar sales reached $2.4 billion, a one-year increase of 9.8% and a two-year jump of 27%. Plant-based cheese grew 19.8% for the year and 65% for the 2 full years.

Taken in aggregate, these trends signal that plant-based protein foods remain a prime growth opportunity for retailers and brands.

Indeed, the emergence of alt-meat sectors alongside animal agriculture may offer more choices for rural producers in terms of which markets they sell to and what forms of production they adopt or pursue. The most urgent challenge could possibly be the development and optimization of mass production processes with reasonable pricing.

Is a Vegan or Vegetarian Diet Too Exclusive?

Sure, lots of people from both sides of the aisle acknowledge that adoption of healthy and sustainable diets is essential for safe-guarding the Earth’s natural resources and reducing diet-related mortality. But, often, people also qualify that position by saying that vegan or vegetarian diets are too expensive for lots of people within populations.

The Lancet Planetary Health journal recognized the importance of that distinction between desired  versus affordable plant-based eating, and they conducted an extensive study to estimate the costs of healthy and sustainable diets around the world. What were the study’s parameters? The researchers:

  • Examined regionally comparable food prices from the International Comparison Program for 150 countries.
  • Paired those prices with estimates of food demand for different dietary patterns that, in modelling studies, have been associated with reductions in premature mortality and environmental resource demand, including nutritionally balanced flexitarian, pescatarian, vegetarian, and vegan diets.
  • Used estimates of food waste and projections of food demand and prices to specify food system and socioeconomic change scenarios up to 2050.
  • Estimated diet-related health-care costs by pairing a comparative risk assessment of dietary risks with cost-of-illness estimates.
  • Assessed climate change costs by pairing the diet scenarios with greenhouse gas emission footprints and estimates of the social cost of carbon.

What were their findings?

  • Compared with the cost of current diets, the healthy and sustainable dietary patterns were, depending on the pattern, up to 22–34% lower in cost in upper-middle-income to high-income countries on average
  • The diets were also at least 18–29% more expensive in lower-middle-income to low-income countries.
  • Reductions in food waste and a fuller cost accounting that included the diet-related costs of climate change and health care in the cost of diets increased the affordability of the dietary patterns in future projections.
  • When these measures were combined, the healthy and sustainable dietary patterns were up to 25–29% lower in cost in low-income to lower-middle-income countries, and up to 37% lower in cost on average for the year 2050.
  • Variants of vegetarian and vegan dietary patterns were generally most affordable, and pescatarian diets were least affordable.

Image by Carolyn Fortuna, CleanTechnica

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Written By

Carolyn Fortuna (they, them), Ph.D., is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavy Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.


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