Reality Check: Making Plant-Based Efforts Bear Fruit

Seattle Food Tech aims to make plant-based chicken nuggets that compete on cost with actual chicken meat.

Before getting to the bad news, let’s start with the good.

Positive Signs

Plant-based milks are exploding in popularity, now comprising 13 percent of the fluid milk market in the U.S. Per capita consumption of cow’s milk in the US has been declining for decades, which is one reason the US dairy industry uses 13 million fewer cows today than it did in 1950, despite our population growth. Not only are dairy companies investing in plant-based milks, some are simply going entirely animal-free.

Plant-based meat sales are also on the rise, with brands like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods enjoying skyrocketing demand. Even fish-free seafood is catching on, and the plant-based JUST Scramble is making a big market debut, apparently even sometimes outselling liquid eggs.

The percentage of Americans who self-identify as vegetarians may be slowly inching up, and even countries like China now have official government policies aiming to reduce meat consumption.

So, doesn’t it seem like we’re on an irreversible trajectory toward a plant-based future?

Reality Check

The above is all true. So is the below.

There was a period of several years recently when American meat production and consumption was declining, but it’s since climbed back to historically high levels.

The percentage of Americans who are vegetarian hasn’t really changed much in decades. Compounding that, let’s also be real about those numbers: About 60 percent of self-identified vegetarians include meat when asked to list everything they ate during two non-consecutive 24-hour periods. And 84 percent of people who become vegetarian or vegan eventually abandon the diet.

But even if the percent of people who never eat meat remains very small, surely Americans are eating less meat per person, right? Sadly, no. In fact, Americans are now eating more meat per person than ever before. Same with China. Even in Israel, which has garnered headlines for its plant-based progress, per capita meat consumption is extremely high. And globally, meat production has exploded 400–500 percent over the past half-century.

Despite the decline in dairy cow herds mentioned above, we’re raising and slaughtering more animals for food today in the U.S. than ever before. (It’s helpful to keep in mind that cattle, both dairy and beef breeds, represent less than one percent of American farm animals. Statistically, virtually all animals we use for food are poultry and fish.)

Perceptions of vegans and veganism aren’t exactly helping, either. In one painful study (full text here), the only so-called “out-group” less popular than vegetarians and vegans is drug addicts. And herbivores motivated by animal rights reasons were viewed “especially negatively.” Ouch.

We also know that many plant-based food companies avoid using the word “vegan” and that the word performs terribly among consumers. See this recent eye-opening study as one example:

Source: Morning Consult May 2018 survey.

So What Does this Mean?

The purpose of enumerating these hard truths isn’t to suggest that progress can’t be made. Rather, it’s to shed some light on the narrative that we’re in the midst of inevitable plant-based progress. There is indeed progress, but it’s nowhere near sufficient.

Most people make their food choices based on taste, price, and convenience, not animal welfare, climate, or concern for the impoverished and hungry of the world. In other words, some of the claims that many vegans promote are unlikely to be effectively persuasive with a lot of people.

That said, many people experimenting with vegetarian eating are motivated by health or at least a desire to look and feel better, which actually does drive some portion of food-purchasing decisions for a sizeable segment of the population. This is one reason I’m such a huge fan of Dr. Michael Greger’s NutritionFacts.org (and of course his mega-bestseller How Not to Die).

Okay, So What to Do?

Investment in cellular agriculture technology (aka clean meat) is crucial. Allowing people to continue eating animal meat without the need to raise and slaughter animals would address many of the key problems associated with animal agribusiness. Yet even under the best-case scenario, clean meat is years away from meaningful commercialization, let alone being cost-competitive with commodity meat.

Plant-based meats have been commercialized for decades (really for centuries), and while they still comprise a tiny portion of the meat market, the trajectory of plant-based milks portends well for them. As noted above, many people have switched to plant-based milks, and the same motivation (health) is causing a spike in demand for plant-based meat right now. Will plant-based meat be where milk currently is (13 percent of the market) a decade from now?

To have any hope of making that happen, we must support — and in many cases become — the entrepreneurs founding and joining promising plant-based and cell ag start-ups. And we should especially support them when large meat and dairy companies work with, and even acquire, them. As author Colleen Patrick-Goudreau points out, having companies like Field Roast associated with major players in the meat business helps to expand their distribution while reducing their costs, making it easier for mainstream consumers to enjoy their products.

Yet even if plant-based meats reach the point that plant-based milks are at today, that would still mean that 87 percent of meat would be coming from animals. This is one reason blending plant-based proteins into animal meat can be such a promising strategy; it’s one that I’m personally pursuing right now.

This reality is also a compelling reminder to animal advocates that improving farm animal welfare is of huge importance, since billions of animals will be farmed for years to come. Passing public and corporate policies to reduce farm animal mistreatment must continue since these animals who will certainly be farmed need not endure the most detrimental practices.

What’s more, virtually none of today’s plant-based meats yet compete on cost with animal meat. This is one reason I’m so excited about Seattle Food Tech, a start-up founded by Christie Lagally aiming to produce plant-based chicken more affordably than actual chicken meat. (On that note: plug for my partner Toni Okamoto, whose brand Plant-Based on a Budget also helps consumers save money by choosing plant-based meals.)

On the nonprofit side, the Good Food Institute employs strategies — helping to foster and grow the world of plant-based and clean meat by focusing on science, entrepreneurship, policy, and corporate engagement — that seem among the most promising.

In this same vein, the stellar work of ProVeg International — working with meat companies and grocery chains to help them diversify their offerings with plant-based solutions and creating an accelerator to help launch new plant-based companies — seems both more innovative and very important. And speaking of plant-based solutions, I’ve also been very impressed by Plant-Based Solutions, the agency that helps new plant-based companies launch and market their products. The same is so with the World Resource Institute’s Better Buying Lab, which is publishing useful research on how to make it more likely that people will actually eat less meat and more plant-centric meals.

The amazing work to help major foodservice companies improve their plant-based offerings and marketing strategies is also producing strong results. For example, HSUS’s Ken Botts and Kristie Middleton have been leading an impressive team that partners with companies like Sodexo to help them reach their health and sustainability goals via plant-based innovation.

These types of for-profit-nonprofit partnerships can help drive the type of sustainable food future that’s so important to build.

In the End

The planet isn’t getting any bigger, but humanity’s footprint on it is. The problems posed by sky-high rates of meat consumption are very pressing. Whether for public health, the planet, or farm animal welfare, we simply can’t keep feeding ourselves this way. We’ve got to do better.

So far, efforts to persuade many millions of individuals to become vegetarian haven’t made any real dent. Far more likely is that people will eat less animal meat as efforts to produce institutional change of the kind mentioned above continue bearing fruit (pun intended). Even more, once people begin eating less meat they’re likelier to be more open to motivations like ethics and the environment, which is a key argument made by Tobias Leenaert in his compelling book.

Efforts to transition toward more sustainable forms of protein production will be far more successful if we can give people products they find to be delicious and affordable, underscoring the oversized role plant-based meats will play. And of course, products that are part-meat and part-plant could help without people even noticing a difference, and perhaps even preferring such hybrids over full-meat products.

There is still, of course, an important place for advocacy based on ethics and the environment, but we simply aren’t going to solve the issue without a revolution in technology and business that will help make the better decision the tastier, more affordable, and easier decision.

Only then are we likely to see the kind of progress that’s so critical to our future.