Where is Plant-Based Meat Going?
5 Mins Read
The idea that plant-based meat is over is ridiculous. Sure, too many mediocre brands launched too fast and too early. But amidst a burning planet and worsening climate crisis, the category is just getting started.
Over the past few months, media headlines decrying plant-based meat’s demise have dominated US airwaves. These headlines are grossly misleading. First of all, it’s a very North America-centric view of the world- around the world, there is evidence that consumers are decreasing their animal meat consumption and embracing plant-based meat. In fact, we published an entire report on the growing alt protein industry across Asia Pacific. Secondly, a lot of these headlines use Beyond Meat as the industry avatar by which to judge a sector that has over 1,000 companies. This is a misguided way to look at things, as I write about here.
The idea that plant-based meat is over is ridiculous. Did too many brands launch too fast? Sure. Did a lot of mediocre products end up on grocery shelves? Absolutely. Does that mean we should pack up our plant-based leather bags and go home? Heck no.
Reality check: in the US, plant-based meat sales are down or flat. Investment into the space has more than halved according to Crunchbase data (from $ 2 billion in 2021 to $800 million in 2022). And anecdotally, I used to get dozens of new product pitches and funding announcements in my Green Queen inbox every week and now we are down to less than five. Across the world, plant-based meat is taking a beating. For a deeper look at what’s going on with plant-based meat sales in the US and abroad, I recommend this alt protein investor’s analysis.
I am in no way suggesting that the industry does not have its problems. There are too many plant-based products that simply don’t taste great – vegan commercial cheese is a particularly disappointing area. A number of consumers find the products overly processed (though let’s get real about what’s in our meat and remind ourselves that it’s carcinogenic!). Investors absolutely got caught up in the hype and didn’t always do their DD, backing companies that were undeserving. The products are often more expensive than their animal counterparts, which is highly problematic, especially when regular folks are battling skyrocketing food inflation due to an uneven economy, rising interest rates and supply chain chaos.
All that said, Impossible Foods just reported a 50% increase in retail sales in 2022, which shows that good governance + good branding + good product R&D (over the past 18 months, the company debuted chicken nuggets, meal bowls, sausage links and more) is still a recipe for success and repeat consumers. Hot take: Beyond Meat is having a bad year because the company could be run better, not because plant-based meat is done and dusted.
If anything, the justification for the sector has never been clearer. Here are some of them. 1) Gen Z is hyper climate aware and they are ditching meat, and their friends and families are becoming social omnivores. 2) Our global food supply is increasingly interrupted by climate change-related extreme weather- your pantry will not look the same in five years- many of your favorite foods will be too expensive or impossible to source. 3) Food insecurity continues to be a major problem and governments are turning to alternative protein as a solution – Singapore’s 30 by 2030 plan is a good case study. 4) Industrial meat production requires too heavy a GHG emissions price. 5) Industrial meat consumption is linked to a slew of diet-related diseases. That means sick folks, skyrocketing healthcare costs, and a less productive population. 6) Industrial meat requires more land, more water and more energy than we have to give if we are being realistic about our resource allocation. 7) It also produces more methane and demands more antibiotics than we (humanity) can afford. Cue the superbug resistance crisis. 8) Demand for animal protein keeps growing, particularly in Asia, where hundreds of millions of people are becoming middle class and looking to increase their dietary status via meat consumption.
I could go on and on (I haven’t even touched upon the ethical case against eating meat- here are the best books to get you started if you learn more) but you get the gist. Animal protein production is broken and the status quo needs to be upended. Hence, the case for plant-based meat.
Are you an advocate of organic, whole food, plant-based diets who can’t understand why folks need beef replacements? Good for you! Keep on enjoying the healthiest diet around.
For everyone else, we need lower emission options. The world’s largest fast-food chain, McDonald’s, sells over 2.36 billion burgers a year (this is a 2021 stat). That’s the industrial meat we desperately need to convert to plant-based.
Some back-of-the-napkin climate math. The average burger is responsible for around 2.84 kg of CO2. So that’s approximately 6.7 million tonnes of CO2 in McDonald’s burgers alone (excuse my crappy, back-of-the-napkin math). According to tree offsetting data, you’d have to plant 300+ billion trees* to offset the carbon cost of the burgers, not to mention everything else on the menu. And all the other fast food chains. And all the industrial supermarket meat. For perspective, we currently plant 1.9 billion trees a year.
And no, we can’t feed the world’s animal protein appetite using 100% grass-fed, regeneratively-grown beef, sorry. That type of meat will remain a tiny proportion of total meat production and only be eaten by an elite, privileged (mostly Global North-dwelling) sliver of our global population.
So, onwards for plant-based meat! Tomorrow, I will share my 2023 alt protein trend predictions, and they include plenty of suggestions and ideas for the industry on how we can better serve our customers and our purpose. Stay tuned.
*According to the agency Encon, “to compensate 1 tonne of CO2, 31 to 46 trees are needed.” So 6.7 million tonnes x 46 trees is how I got to the 300+ billion trees needed.