Plant-based alternatives aren't making us eat less meat

Plant-based alternatives aren't making us eat less meat

Over the past two years, the sale of vegetable meat has skyrocketed. When Beyond Meat went public in May 2019, its share price jumped 163 percent on opening day, the best result for a company since 2008. A year later, when the pandemic destabilized the country. 'business of the slaughterhouses, in the United States the sale of vegetable meat has increased significantly. By the end of 2020, the market for vegetable alternatives to meat and fish had increased by 46 percent. At the same time, several fast food brands have started to ride the trend, announcing the launch of plant-based products.

After the peak, however, the situation has stabilized. In 2021, retail sales in the United States were at 2020 levels. Beyond Meat's share price tumbled to about 14 percent from its mid-2019 peak, and the company accumulated net losses of 182. 1 million dollars. McDonald's experiment in the United States of a sandwich with a Beyond Meat veggie burger inside ended without any confirmation that the fast food giant intends to continue the collaboration. The sharp turnaround in terms of industry enthusiasm is causing some people to question whether the vegetable meat revolution has already lost momentum.

That's a great question. But perhaps we should first answer an even more elementary question: what are vegetable meats for? It's easy to imagine many possible futures for food, says Glynn Tonsor, an agricultural economist at Kansas State University. People, for example, may start replacing vegetables with soy protein-based burgers, or conventional meat consumption may remain unchanged - and even increase - as people supplement their diets by adding vegetable meat. In these scenarios, the retail market for plant-based alternatives to meat could expand, without necessarily delivering on the promise of reducing carbon dioxide (CO 2) emissions or alleviating animal suffering.

If you are interested in emissions and animal welfare - and the founders of Beyond Meat certainly are - then you should look beyond the size of the vegetable meat market and ask yourself another question. Are consumers replacing animal-based products with plant-based alternatives? Since beef produces far more emissions than other types of meat, it makes even more sense to wonder if people are swapping their beef burgers for pea and soy protein-based meatballs. "Replacing beef is the big goal of plant-based meat," explains Emily Cassidy, research associate in charge of the World Food Program at the World Resources Institute.

What the data shows This is where things get complicated . It's not possible to tell if vegetable meats are really replacing beef by looking at stock prices or total sales. Instead, we need to rely on survey data and supermarket trolley analysis. The evidence we have suggests that substitution is not (yet) happening: "There is relatively little evidence that plant-based meat alternatives are currently replacing conventional meat," confirms Dan Blaustein-Rejto, director of the food and agriculture department of the Breakthrough Institute.

A recent study followed the shopping habits of nearly 38,000 US households for two years. It was found that people who bought plant-based meat at least once during that time ended up buying slightly more ground beef after the first purchase of a meat alternative, even though these families tended to spend less on meat. minced meat compared to those who had never bought vegetable meat. Furthermore, most of the people who bought plant-based meats also bought ground beef, suggesting that the demand for plant-based meat came from so-called "flexitarian" families [people who follow a predominantly vegetarian diet but they occasionally consume animal protein, ed.] or by meat consumers eager to experiment with alternative protein sources.

Another way to understand the impact of vegetable meats is to observe how changes in prices affect demand for various types of meat. A study of retail sales data from a couple of years ago showed that the demand for vegetable meats increased as the price fell; however, when there were fluctuations in the price of animal meat, the demand for these products was not affected in a similar way. The study also found that, rather than replacing red meat, vegetable meats tended to be bought alongside beef and pork and usually appeared to replace chicken, turkey and fish, which have a much lower ecological footprint than beef. All of this suggests that, on the whole, people see beef as an essential element of their dishes, unlike other forms of protein that may come and go instead.

For Blaustein-Rejto, the data indicate that most people consume plant-based meats as a supplemental source of protein, rather than as a direct substitute for meat: "It seems people who don't eat a lot of meat are turning to these products," he says.

Future prospects Blaustein-Rejto, however, remains optimistic regarding the long-term prospects. In the United States, more plant-based burgers cost 65 percent more than their animal-based equivalents. Survey data suggests that if the price of a beef burger and a plant-based burger were the same, about 20-30 percent of consumers would choose the plant-based option. If the trend continues into the future, the number of people switching from red meat to plant-based alternatives could increase dramatically. Tonsor, however, points out that there is a tendency to over-respond when it comes to hypothetical situations, and that therefore the number of consumers who decide to switch to meat alternatives may not be as high in reality.

However , there are some signs that this dynamic could indeed be realized. In the Netherlands, the increase in the price of meat has meant that vegan meat is now slightly cheaper than its animal counterparts. In Europe, sales of vegetable meat increased by 19 percent in 2021, a figure that could reflect rising meat prices or suggest greater availability by Europeans - who on average eat far less beef than Americans. - to try plant-based alternatives.

Even if attention to taste and price are the two priority aspects for the vegetable meat industry - explains Celia Homyak, co-director of Alt: Meat Lab University of California - more needs to be done to raise awareness of the environmental benefits of these foods. Since people who eat plant-based meats are a minority in the United States, survey data suggests that, overall, consumers view vegan meats far less favorably than beef burgers in several respects, including taste, content. protein and environmental impact.

In the United States, moreover, there may be an even more relevant factor that threatens the success of vegetable meat: chicken meat. Over the past fifty years, the dominant trend in meat consumption in the country has been the shift from beef to chicken. Americans now eat more than two and a half times as much as in 1971. Part of this increase came at the expense of red meat, while another part is attributable to the general increase in per capita meat consumption. Although switching from beef to chicken represents a net improvement in terms of emissions, chicken still has a greater environmental impact than plant-based meats, and animals usually live in much worse conditions than cattle (not to mention that it takes a lot of chickens to get the amount of meat produced with a cow). "The popularity of chicken is a huge barrier to the growth of plant-based meats," says Blaustein-Rejto. Chicken is cheap, nutritious, and its popularity is growing, and it's unclear whether vegetable meats will change that trajectory. But perhaps we shouldn't set such an ambitious target for non-animal meats. Global meat consumption is projected to increase by 14 percent by 2030. Just slowing down this growth would be a step in the right direction in terms of emissions and animal welfare. After all, the vegetable meat industry is still in its infancy: "In recent years, sales of vegetable meat have grown faster than anyone could have imagined," says Blaustein-Rejto, so it's no surprise that the industry is experiencing a slowdown phase. Companies that produce vegetable meat have shown that people are willing to give these products a chance when they are still new and the price is high. Now is the time to prove that customers will keep coming back once they get cheap.

This article originally appeared on UK.

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