The media has been rife with debate in recent weeks over the fortunes of the plant-based meat category, which some commentators have suggested overestimated its ability to convert consumers and, at worst, is turning out to be “a flop”. An impassioned defense has ensued, rallying many voices from the alt-protein industry and beyond. As the conversation continues, we give a platform to different perspectives in a special two-part series that considers the current state-of-play in the market and what it will take for plant-based meat to realise its ambitions on the global protein stage.
Carlotte Lucas, senior corporate engagement manager at the Good Food Institute (GFI)
© Barbara Evripidou/FirstAvenuePhotography.com
Opinion writers who claim plant-based meat is “just a fad” may do well to look back at what their newspapers were saying about solar power or electric vehicles in the past.
They might be surprised to learn – as I was – that solar energy only reached 1% of the global electricity mix in 2015, while it took electric vehicles until 2021 to account for 1.4% of all vehicles on the planet.
Writing off plant-based meat now would be like writing off solar energy in the 90s or electric vehicles in the 2000s.
Right now, sustainable proteins are at a similar phase of their development. They exist, and are available for eco-conscious consumers willing to pay a premium, but until we see more research to make them as delicious and accessible as conventional meat, they won’t deliver on their full potential to feed a growing population while meeting climate targets.
Even despite these challenges, consumer appetite for these foods is growing, especially in Europe.
Euromonitor data shows an 8% increase in sales of plant-based meat and seafood across Western Europe – from £2.33 billion ($2.83 billion) in 2021 to £2.53 billion ($3.07 billion) last year. Meanwhile, a study GFI Europe carried out across France, Germany, Italy and Spain last year found more than half of consumers had reduced their intake of conventional meat, with large numbers opting instead for plant-based meat.
And I found plenty of evidence that the private sector was excited about the possibilities of plant-based meat when I visited IFFA, the world’s largest trade fair for the conventional meat industry. Representatives from a wide range of companies told me that sustainable proteins – also including cultivated meat and fermentation – were the growth areas.
But, just as early 2000s solar power and electric vehicles needed huge investment to make them more efficient, affordable and appealing, we’re going to need serious investment in research and development, as well as in infrastructure, from businesses and governments around the world to improve plant-based meat.
These products will only take a large portion of the global market – or even 1% – when they can compete with conventional meat on taste, price and convenience.
And, just like with renewables, it is essential that governments invest in research and development for sustainable proteins to stand a chance of meeting their climate targets.
Research shows that – even if fossil fuel emissions were eliminated overnight – the world wouldn’t meet its Paris Agreement targets without shifting away from conventional animal agriculture. Just as renewable energy and electric vehicles provide the energy and transportation people want, sustainable proteins can deliver the meat they want with a fraction of the emissions.
These foods are not a perfect solution to our broken food system, but they do significantly mitigate climate change, antibiotic resistance, pandemic risk, biodiversity loss and more. And trying to tackle these issues without them would be like cutting out coal without any other source of energy.
Right now, plant-based meat is far from mainstream. But with governments around the world starting to invest in sustainable proteins and consumer demand continuing to grow, its story is only just beginning.
© FoodBev Media Ltd 2022
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