There’s been a groundswell of investor funding in plant-based proteins. It hasn’t led to decreased meat consumption.
Will the alt-meat investment boom change our food system if we don’t invest in eating less meat, too?
In mid-March, alternative-protein-promoting nonprofit Good Food Institute (GFI) released data showing that investment in the alt-meat market surged in 2020, hitting a record high of $3.1 billion. Companies focused on plant meats, eggs, and dairy (as opposed to fermentation and cell-based-meat ventures) accounted for the lion’s share of that windfall, taking in three times the amount of capital they raised in 2019. Hot on the heels of GFI’s report, Boston Consulting Group and Blue Horizon Corporation predicted that alt meat would comprise 11 percent of the protein market by 2035—climbing to 97 million metric tons annually from 13 million now. And several days after that revelation, Food Dive reported that self-identified meat eaters dropped from 85 percent in 2019 to 71 percent in 2020.
All this news gave alt-meat proponents lots of reason for optimism. GFI released a statement from senior investor engagement specialist Sharyn Murray, celebrating the investor community “waking up to the massive social and economic potential of food technology to radically remake our food system.” David Benzaquen, who runs plant-based-consumer research company Moonshot Collaborative, told The Counter that the uptick in funding—mostly by “traditional institutional investors” in Asia—is the “culmination of more people wanting to eat flexitarian and investors recognizing the massive risk from the animal farming industry.”
Still, sales of meat were up 19.2 percent over the past year—including beef from Brazil, a high offender when it comes to chopping down forests for ranching. And while food industry giants like Tyson and Cargill have entered the alt-meat space—and/or, like McDonald’s, which just signed a three-year “McPlant” deal with Beyond Meat—they have yet to declare a synchronous commitment to decreasing livestock production. (The Counter reached out to all three companies; all declined to comment.) In a space initially forged by eco-conscious vegans interested in animal welfare and sustainability goals like lower greenhouse gas emissions and a decreased water footprint, there remains the question of whether expanded investment is reshaping a problematic food system—or just building up a parallel one.
“People going to McDonald’s and Burger King and finding plant-based burgers starts to normalize them as an option and makes them more accessible.”
“I wish these big corporate names would dive in and make a commitment to reduce beef production—we’re in the midst of a climate and extinction crisis and it’s urgent,” said Stephanie Feldstein, population and sustainability director for the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, Arizona. Still, she sees investment in plant-based meat as a “first step. This is where [corporations] can see that plant-based burgers are profitable, and at the end of the day that’s what they care about.”
Profitability, she said, is predicated on Americans making a “massive cultural shift” that starts with them being able to sample inexpensive alternatives to beef and chicken. “People going to McDonald’s and Burger King and finding plant-based burgers starts to normalize them as an option and makes them more accessible,” she said.
Benzaquen said that the pandemic has helped speed this normalization process up. “No plant-based businesses had to [close] due to COVID,” he said (a reference to U.S. slaughterhouse shutdowns, which were also a factor in those increased Brazilian beef imports). As a result, he said, people were compelled to try veggie products when confronted with empty meat shelves at the supermarket. He insists this wasn’t an “Oh, this is cool, I will try it one time type of thing” but rather a “lightbulb moment” that goes hand-in-hand with consumer backlash against the meat industry and having the “extra time to be more conscientious about what you’re eating.”
“Alt meat is not getting scaled up in a bubble; it’s happening with an increase in demand for more protein. That could come from alt meat or it could come from meat.”
Benzaquen also pushed back against the idea that industry players are greenwashing their businesses with alternative proteins, pointing to Tyson’s initial trouble with its Raised and Rooted line. The products were not 100 percent vegan as advertised, forcing the company to remove eggs when there was backlash. Furthermore, he said, food service operations have limited money and “slots in the fryers to put forward food. Before the veggie burger there were 10 spots” on a fast food menu, each of which was for meat. “Now there are nine or eight, and plant-based products are displacing things.”
Feldstein is also loath to voice skepticism about corporate interest in fake meat. She believes “it’s always the industry” that benefits when doubt is expressed about whether their motives are pure enough. Feldstein thinks the importance of plant-based meats, no matter who is producing them, has to be considered in context. “Alt meat is not getting scaled up in a bubble; it’s happening with an increase in demand for more protein. That could come from alt meat or it could come from meat,” and the environmental impacts of the former are “negligible” compared to the latter, she claimed. (Although, plant-based diets can have a larger environmental footprint than someone choosing a vegan diet might realize, the BBC reported last year.)
To Feldstein, the larger issue of concern is that the industrialized food system that provides consumers with unsustainable beef is the same one that is locked into using “less-than-perfect ingredients like GMO soy that are destroying the Amazon—it’s the only source” companies like Impossible Foods have. “But the long-term ideal of getting to a more diversified regionally focused food system and away from our current model is a reason to support alt proteins now,” Feldstein added.
“It’s a balancing game between holistic political change and helping consumers make better [food] choices they actually enjoy.”
Linnea Laestadius, public health policy and administration professor at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, sees corporate greenwashing as potentially problematic in this sector. “People are noticing there’s a lot of money in [alt proteins] and as more money enters, the risk of actors [acting badly] increases exponentially,” she said. “We can never rely on corporations choosing to be good actors”—a proclivity she refers to as criminogenic, “where everyone is cutting corners and needs to stay competitive, and that will never change unless we see policy change.”
Merely focusing on plant-based meat replacements is too narrow a goal, Laestadius believes. She’d like to see institutional purchasers demanding transparency from both meat- and plant-based companies about sourcing, and for that sourcing to include more ethical ingredients and better labor standards—issues that even vegan companies can tend to gloss over. “Unfortunately, we’re on a really tight timeline to figure stuff out, which means it’s a balancing game between holistic political change and helping consumers make better [food] choices they actually enjoy,” Laestadius said.
How much such concerns will impact future funding streams is anyone’s guess. However, said Benzaquen, “Institutional investors recognize that consumer [interest] is not letting up, and this is far beyond a fad. Everyone who bet against it before made a mistake.”