At Consensus we know a thing or two about meat, we’ve covered everything from chicken farmers to barbecue joints, but not all of us eat meat. The meat substitute section of grocery stores used to be a sliver of unrecognizable brands sandwiched between things like sauerkraut and kimchi. Veggie burgers were half-hidden on restaurant menus near the words “gluten-free buns available upon request.” Now even the most staunch vegans can fire up the grill and slap down some patties, or strut into a KFC and order a bucket to go. The vegetarian aisle is not only bigger, but you might even know brands like Beyond Meat, Impossible, or Tofurky. So what’s the secret to the plant-based protein industry’s unprecedented growth?
One of the major factors that led people to pick up their first pack of Impossible patties or Morningstar meatballs is the coronavirus pandemic. When the meat industry buckled last spring, restaurants and grocery stores found it difficult to keep up with the market demand for pork and beef products. Meanwhile, the sales of plant-based proteins surged across the country. Wired reported that in the nine weeks leading up to May, grocery stores sold 264% more meat alternatives than usual. Executives at Impossible Foods indicated their retail distribution multiplied by 18 times since the beginning of 2020, according to Wired.
Unlike the meat industry, which relies on animals, farmers, slaughterhouses, packing plants, and distribution centers, the process of getting a meat alternative to the market is much simpler. Where farmers have to wait years for a cow or pig to grow to the appropriate size, most meat alternative factories can find the vegetables for their products all year long. Wired highlighted that meat alternative producers have the flexibility to ramp up production to meet market demands because their products aren’t dependent on animals. However, sales of plant-based proteins began slowly increasing long before the pandemic stressed the meat supply.
Most people making the switch to plant-based protein believe it is a healthful alternative to red meat or pork products. As Michele Simon, executive director at Plant-Based Foods Association, shared with The Hill, “We knew that people were turning towards plant-based for a number of reasons but mostly for health reasons. I think now we can safely say that’s still the number one driver, but there might also be the perception of meat shortages.” Many people are skipping meat simply because they want to be healthier, but with fast-food chains like White Castle cranking out veggie sliders are they actually healthier than the real thing? Well, a new study by Stanford Medicine concluded that “Plant-based meat lowers some cardiovascular risk factors compared with red meat.” That’s not to say you can eat all the Impossible burgers you want and never gain a pound, but there is scientific evidence suggesting that a plant-based diet will lower the risk of heart disease.
Another reason people are making the choice to eat less meat is that it’s kinder to the environment. “About 30% of all cropland is dedicated to growing feed for livestock, meat and dairy production is a leading cause of deforestation,” Forbes shared, “Bovine emissions (through belches and manure) produce methane at a rate that’s almost as polluting as the natural gas industry in the US.” The majority of the meat sold in the United States comes from factory farms that produce large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGE). However, producing plant-based protein generates a fraction of the GHGEs and requires a small percentage of the land necessary to produce the same quantity of beef. The New York Times reports that “Beyond Burger generated 90 percent less greenhouse gas emissions, required 46 percent less energy and had far less impact on water and land use than the beef burger.”
That’s not to say you need to completely give up meat. Campaigns like Meatless Monday provide recipes, educational resources, and support for making small changes to weekly eating habits. Whether you’re curious about trying a meat-free Monday or you’ve been vegetarian your entire life, you have more options in the grocery store and you don’t have to eat at that same vegetarian restaurant for the fourth time in a month. There’s never been so many choices.