Plant-based meat might never be cheap enough to offset meat production

April 20, 2022, 10:34 AM UTC

Plant-based meats, like the beef imitators developed by Impossible and Beyond, were once the darlings of ESG investors.

In a few short years, pioneers in the industry made tremendous advances in synthesizing the taste, smell, and texture of real meats, promising a protein package that could provide a significantly lower-carbon alternative to rearing cattle and other animals for slaughter.

Investors piled into the space, helping hammer the cost of plant-based meats from extortionate rates to something more palatable. Meatless burgers went from a novelty item on a gourmet menu to a premium product in the supermarket freezer. But even that drop in cost hasn’t been enough to convince consumers to ditch meat, and sales of plant-based alternatives have hit a slump.

But, according to research funded by the U.S.-based nonprofit Food System Research Fund, plant-based meat might never be cheap enough to really offset meat production.

According to the report, a 10% reduction in the cost of plant-based meats would likely result in only a 0.15% drop in the number of cattle slaughtered in the U.S., ultimately equating to less than a 0.5% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from beef production.

The report authors suggest that even though a 10% cut in cost could boost plant-based meat consumption 25% in the U.S., domestic farmers would simply switch to exporting meat rather than reduce the level of production.

“Even substantial reductions in prices of [plant-based meat] alternatives are unlikely to have substantive impacts on the U.S. cattle population and emissions, suggesting the need to also pursue alternative mitigation strategies, such as innovations to reduce the methane emissions per [cattle] head,” the authors said.

Those “alternative mitigation strategies” include using cattle feed that has been enhanced to reduce the volume of methane cows belch out as they digest.

But—if I can take a moment to out myself as vegetarian—a greater alternative mitigation strategy would be to just reduce beef consumption directly, without relying on a plant-based alternative. The U.S., as an example, already produces way more meat than it needs.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 26% of U.S. meat production is thrown out as waste at the retail and consumer level, leaving ample room for consumers and distributors to reduce agricultural greenhouse gas emissions by changing their purchasing habits.

But change is hard won. In 2015, the USDA set a goal of halving American food waste by 2030 but, as of December, said “the nation has not yet made significant progress.”

One of the issues in cutting waste might be a lack of dedicated marketing towards reducing meat consumption. After all, an advertising campaign that encourages consumers to buy less is never going to get the same level of investment as one that encourages consumers to buy more.

Eamon Barrett


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