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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
-eamon.barrett@fortune.com
@eamonbarrett49

CARBON COPY

Australia retrains  

Australia is beginning the arduous task of retraining its sizeable fossil fuels workforce for roles in green energy. Lawmakers—once (and still) active lobbyists for fossil fuels—are beginning to support plans for financing training projects on renewables, as Australia risks losing 10,000 coal mine jobs by 2036. But, in the same timeframe, investment in renewables could create over 20,000 jobs. Bloomberg

Russia seeks new customers

Putin admitted that sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine have stymied the country’s energy industry, primarily by upending the “logistics of export deliveries.” Although EU leaders have avoided banning Russian oil and gas imports, many traders are declining to deal with Russia’s “blood oil,” and banking sanctions have made it difficult for exporters to receive payments. To keep the economic bloodline pumping, Putin says Russia will “reorient our exports to the fast-growing markets of the south and east,” eyeing countries like China and Indonesia. WSJ

Asia's nuclear turn

Yet, across Asia, the war in Ukraine and the subsequent disruption of Russian energy exports have prompted many Asian economies to reconsider investing in nuclear power. The 2011 Fukushima disaster tanked prospects for nuclear power generation across the region. But, as the world pushes to reach net-zero carbon emissions, even Japan is beginning to embrace nuclear as an alternative to fossil fuels and new technology, such as small modular reactors, are set to gain a windfall. Nikkei

Biden brings back climate reviews

The Biden administration is restoring federal regulations that require climate risk to be a consideration when planning major infrastructure projects, like highways, pipelines, and oil wells. The requirement, which forms part of the bedrock National Environmental Policy Act, had been scaled back by the Trump administration in 2020 in a bid to streamline investment and boost jobs. NPR

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

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Russian energy sanctions: The case for an escrow arrangement by Kenneth Stevens and Patrick Jenevein 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is pushing the world to find a new, greener recipe for fertilizer by Bernhard Warner

Hydrogen fuel cells are finally attracting VC interest by Jessica Mathews

Food giant ADM is tapping sustainable bonds to boost its ESG agenda by Nushin Huq 

Ford is ‘betting the company’ on a Tesla-style EV truck that could make or break its future by Marco Quiroz-Gutierrez

CLOSING NUMBER

29%

A survey of over 23,000 adults across 31 countries found that climate change is a ‘regular concern’ for half of people worldwide, although worry is higher in Latin American countries than elsewhere. According to market research firm Ipsos, which conducted the survey, 69% of Chileans, 63% of Argentinians, 59% of Peruvians and 53% of Brazilians worry “a great deal” about climate change. Meanwhile, the U.S. is the least concerned nation, with 29% of respondents saying they don’t worry about climate change “at all.” Australia, Canada and the U.K. aren’t far behind, with 27%, 27% and 26% of respondents completely unconcerned, respectively.

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