Ten years ago, your local waiter would scoff at your lunch order of an oat milk latte and a seitan breakfast bowl: “We only serve real food here,” he’d say. Only the health food store six miles away would have any sort of milk or meat substitute available, and they’d probably be overpriced and bland. The opportunity cost of living your eco-friendly, detox-filled life exceeded that of living typically-in other words, eating “real” meat and dairy.
It’s 2018 and times have changed. A combination of factors have rendered the vegan, alternative food lifestyle one of great appeal, especially to its largest audience: millennials.
The idea of meat-avoidance has existed since the founding of ancient Indian and eastern Mediterranean societies for ethical, health, and religious reasons. Yet, it truly is within these last 10 years that people have noticed a drastic reclaiming of these age-old habits. A simple walk down Spruce Street on Penn’s campus is enough to demonstrate the extreme culture shift towards plant-based foods as one chooses between smoothie bowls, a to-go salad, and vegan Chinese food. The sudden shift in the international paradigm against meat and towards substitutes is most heavily linked to three main ideas: increased concern for the sustainability and the environmental impact of the meat industry, new innovations and enhanced scientific exploration in the realm of fake meat products, and the global movement towards healthy eating as a response to high levels of obesity, diabetes, and new concerns regarding the carcinogenicity of red meat. Simply put, the world is serious about its sustainability efforts, so there’s suddenly an incentive to actually make those age-old, cardboard-esque veggie burgers appeal to the public.
Research from GlobalData showed that in 2014, only 0.8% of the British population would categorize themselves as vegan, whereas that number in the first quarter of 2017 rose to 3%. GlobalData consumer analyst Ronan Stafford claimed that companies are beginning to notice the rise in vegan consumers and are adjusting their food stocks to increase the number of vegan options in restaurants and supermarkets. Also in 2017, 44% of German consumers were reported to follow low-meat diets, an 18% increase from 26% in 2014. Nationally speaking, the amount of US consumers who currently claim to follow a vegan diet is roughly 6%, a whopping increase since 2014 when only 1% of our population reported as such. Grubhub, the top food delivery marketplace in America reports that vegan food orders increased by 19% from the first half of 2016 to 2017.
Although millennials seem to be the drivers for this shift, companies as prominent as Google, and countries with as much capital as China have all shown preference towards plant-based diets. In fact, Richard Branson and Bill Gates, two major figures in the fight against climate change, are active investors in the alternative meat industry. Branson’s reasoning follows the national rhetoric, “I believe that in 30 years or so we will no longer need to kill any animals and that all meat will either be clean or plant-based, taste the same and also be much healthier for everyone.” Even Tyson Foods, one of the most prominent processors of meat, has accepted the future of meat-substitutes and has purchased a 5% stake of Beyond Meat, the leading sustainable/alternative meat company.
Although the market seems to have just opened, several alternative meat industries are competing for bidders. The two most prominent pseudo-meat companies include Beyond Burger and Impossible Foods, both claiming to produce plant-based meats that taste, feel, and smell like real meat.
Beyond Burger prides itself in its pea-protein base that has more grams of protein per serving, relative to a normal piece of meat, and even “bleeds” via red beets. The Impossible Burger, on the other hand, uses “heme,” the biological molecule responsible for giving meat its distinctive taste, to construct its product.
Beyond Burger and Impossible Foods have taken different approaches to try to win over the sustainable meat market, with the former having entered the Whole Foods Market in 2016. It’s placement in the “regular meat” section of all 470 stores has certainly increased its value, along with its 2017 decision to sign with Safeway. As of 2018, the Beyond Burger is now available across 5,000 restaurants, college campus dining halls, hospitals, and hotels, and chefs are now incorporating meat “crumbles” into subs and tacos. Their business model seems to have been so effective at attracting consumers that the company is now even scrambling to meet demand as it begins to outsell beef in certain regions. As of June 2018, Beyond Burger CEO Ethan Brown claims that the startup will in fact be increasing production by 200% as it plans to expand globally to 50 different countries.
The Impossible Burger, on the other hand, gained its fame by first striking deals with restauranteurs, beginning at Momofuku Nishi with David Chang in 2016. The burger itself is currently available in 3,000 locations across the US, Hong Kong, and Macao, with a revenue of $6.5 million annually. Bill Gates raised another $114 million this past April to support the Impossible Foods industry, which has also been compelled to hire a second shift of employees to match the market demand, now producing 500,000 pounds of meat monthly.
The success of the industry certainly adds to the demand elasticity of “meat,” a once inelastic sector.
Although production costs and technological shortcomings have limited its development, Memphis Meats is another sustainable meat startup, which uses animal tissue cells to construct its ethically sound burgers. The benefit of this model lies in its ability to “bypass the process where animals are raised, kept, and slaughtered.” Despite this intricate design, Memphis Meats is really only marketable to carnivores looking to save the planet rather than vegans or vegetarians.
That’s just it. The target audience is essential to the progress of the sustainable meat market for several key reasons. From a supportive outlook, the fact that 70% of the Beyond Burger consumers are flexitarians–carnivores consciously cutting their meat consumption–rather than vegans or vegetarians suggests that the market for alternative meats is a lot bigger than the 6% of Americans who self-identify as vegans.
Aside from the dietary preferences of its consumers, the sustainable meat industry is also focused on targeting people of all economic backgrounds. Impossible Foods has responded by striking up a deal with White Castle, which now serves the “Impossible Slider” for $1.99, whereas TGI Fridays now sells the “Beyond Meat Cheeseburger” for $4 more than its classic cheeseburger. However, the question that continues to pervade the plant-based narrative is the likelihood that the global demand for lab meat will actually surpass that of animal meat.
According to Grand View Research, “The global market value of plant-based alternatives is expected to reach $ 5.81 billion USD and an annual growth rate of up to 7.5% by 2022.” Despite these exciting figures, 2018 is still the year where our globe is projected to eat the most meat it ever has and researchers continue to predict that global meat consumption will rise by more than 4% per person by 2024.
These numbers lead to some conflicting predictions for the future, and also opens up a question regarding human ethics: does every person benefit from cutting down meat consumption? Are these products accessible to those in the low income areas of the world?
As Carlos Sere, a writer for BBC News claims, “While meat is all too abundant in the rich North, it is very often a life-saving source of protein in the developing South.” The article continues by claiming that while “concern for the environment is legitimate, it should not override concern for the livelihoods of 1.2 billion poor people.” Essentially, the argument stands for a reduction in meat consumption in wealthy nations, which are currently over-consuming and thus leading to 18% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. However, producing livestock continues to be necessary for poverty reduction as increased consumption lowers mass malnutrition. So, meat substitutes may not be sustainable for all classes of people.
The main factor that hinders the meat-substitute market’s overtaking of the meat industry is the fact that the actual meat production process has yet to be industrialized: much is done by hand through individualized tissue engineering. As a result, the prices still outweigh those of typical beef products: Beyond Burgers costs $11.98 per pound, a significant $5 premium over the average organic grass-fed beef sold at Whole Foods for $6.99 per pound. Until the industry mechanizes its process to the degree where it can compete with real meat prices, plant-based meats will remain a luxury good whose benefits may not outweigh the high production costs. Nevertheless, it is clear that this shift in consumer behavior is here to stay, and it is only a matter of time before all food industries adapt to the new demand for plant-based meat alternatives.
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