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Why Aren’t More People Swapping Meat & Dairy For Plant-Based Alternatives?

Higher beef prices are becoming a reality for meat eaters in the US as ranchers are reducing their cattle herds due to drought and lofty feed costs. Can plant-based substitutes take the place of a juicy beef burger?

It’s clear that a transition toward a primarily plant-based diet would benefit public health, food security, the conservation of biodiversity, the climate, and animal welfare. The current food system in the US seems to hide its factories and feedlots, its bacteria-harboring production systems, its responsibility for one-third of all global GHS emissions, and its ecosystems’ destruction. Swapping meat for plant-based food seems to be an easy way to accomplish lots of food goals — so why aren’t more meat eaters making the conversion to veggie burgers and other healthy, colorful, and tasty plant-based cuisine offerings?

What do we know about the difference between a plant-based and animal-based diet, according to a recent meta-review in Future Foods?

  • Plant protein intake offers corollary health benefits such as reduced mortality and cardiovascular disease risk.
  • Consumption of red and processed meat has a companion of increased risk of several major chronic diseases.
  • Compared to beef burgers, plant-based burgers were associated with up to 98% less greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Replacing 5% of German beef consumption with pea protein could reduce CO2 emissions by up to 8 million tons a year.
  • Environmentally, animal agriculture is estimated to demand 2–25 times more natural resources than plant agriculture and 20–100 times more for ruminant animals such as cattle.
  • Plant-based products generally require much less agricultural land, need less water, and cause less pollution than animal products.
  • It is widely accepted that factory farming causes severe, extensive, and potentially unethical animal suffering.

“We get most of our protein-rich and fat-rich foods from animal farming,” George Monbiot, an ecologist and journalist, told the New York Times. “And animal farming is arguably the most destructive of all industries on Earth.” He added that the industry as a whole is “the primary cause of habitat destruction, wildlife loss, extinction, land use, soil degradation, water use, and one of the major causes of climate breakdown.”

Several pop culture texts over the last few years have illuminated the benefits of plant-based eating.

  • The Game Changers documentary showcased elite athletes, special ops soldiers, visionary scientists, cultural icons, and everyday heroes to alter cultural understanding of food and sources of nutritional strength.
  • The Food, Inc. documentary examined how corporate agriculture has subsumed all aspects of the US food chain so that agribusiness produces food that is unhealthy, environmentally harmful, and abusive of both animals and employees.
  • Matt Frazier’s The Plant-Based Athlete non-fiction book connects a plant-based diet with peak athletic performance, featuring interviews with professional athletes who’ve made the switch from meat to plants.
  • The classic China Study by T. Colin Campbell is the most comprehensive study of health and nutrition ever conducted and points to the benefits of plant-based eating.

Food visionaries and scientists spent decades working to develop high protein meat alternatives from plants. What seemed a very slow beginning to mass market acceptance of plant-based foods grew exponentially over the past few years. Partially, that’s because they became more precisely formulated to replicate the taste, texture, and overall eating experience of animal products.

Today, popular plant-based alternatives, like those from Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, appear on menus of restaurants around the country. Even cultural favorites like pasta dinners are getting a facelift from companies like ZENB — its new spaghetti and pasta products are pea-based and gluten-free, enhancing keto and diet-conscious consumers to consider infusing more plant-based selections as they visit the local grocer.

The entrance of different plant-based choices to the marketplace is definitely a move in the right direction. But it is definitely only a start.

“There’s relatively little evidence that plant-based meat alternatives are currently displacing conventional meat,” says Dan Blaustein-Rejto, director of food and agriculture at the Breakthrough Institute. Global meat consumption is expected to increase 14% by 2030. However, there’s some hope. Blaustein-Rejto argues that a mere 10% reduction in the cost of plant-based alternatives would mean a bit more swapping meat and dairy.

  • Plant-based beef consumption would increase by 23%
  • US cattle production would fall by only 0.15% or by about 49,000 head of cattle
  • International cattle production would fall by about 34,000 head of cattle heads
  • US cattle producer economic welfare, or the prosperity of all cattle producers in the US, would fall by about $300 million, which is equivalent to 0.6% of average cattle revenue in recent years
  • US consumer welfare, or the benefits to all US consumers, would increase by about $513 million, which is equivalent to 0.45% of average expenditures on beef in recent years

With the goal to reduce demand for meat and dairy, people like vegan chefs, nutritionists, scientists, and climate activists are encouraging people to substitute plant-based foods for animal product foods in their diets. But it’s been difficult to get lifelong meat eaters to give up their medium rare favorites, and changing the food habits of millions of people has been complicated.

What did the Future Food study tell us about who’s swapping meat and dairy?

  • Almost 90% of consumers who eat plant-based meat and dairy are meat eaters or flexitarians. That’s a start.
  • Then again, most people in the US are using plant-based meats as an extra source of protein rather than a direct replacement for meat.
  • In Europe, plant-based meat sales increased by 19% in 2021, which could reflect higher meat prices or suggest a greater willingness on the part of European people — who on average eat much less beef than people in the US — to try plant-based alternatives.
  • Plant-based meat and dairy are good for weight loss and building muscle mass and can be used to help people with specific health conditions.
  • Plant-based products with a similar taste, texture, and price to processed meat have the best chance of replacing meat.

“Displacing beef is a major goal for plant-based meat,” Emily Cassidy, a research associate at the World Resources Institute’s Food Program, told Wired. “In terms of agricultural emissions, beef is the elephant in the room.”

71% of US consumers have tried a plant-based burger or other meat alternatives. “Replacing the milk, meat and, one day, even the eggs that we eat would massively take pressure off the planet,” Monbiot said. “It could also develop a whole new cuisine that we can’t even imagine at the moment. Just as the first farmers to capture a wild cow weren’t thinking about Camembert.”

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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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