One thing I’ve been pretty upbeat about over the past year is the emergence of alternative proteins. Prices of lab-grown and plant-based meat are falling just as awareness of the climate impact of livestock is growing. That doesn’t bode well for the meat industry.
I’m now wondering if that analysis is a little gung-ho. Two recent developments suggest consumers may be less willing than I’d anticipated to switch to alternative proteins, and a third piece of news confirms governments are typically unwilling to nudge them in that direction.
Before I unpack the developments, a quick note on how I think about animal products. I’m not arguing everyone needs to go vegetarian or vegan. But the science is clear on two points: We need to dramatically cut food system emissions; and red meat is responsible for an outsized share of those emissions. So either ranchers figure out how to produce low-carbon beef — and it’s far from certain they can — or we eat less red meat.
That latter option, however, turns out to be unpopular. And not just here in the land of the burger, but pretty much everywhere in the world.
Last month, the United Nations Development Program released the results of the Peoples’ Climate Vote, a survey of 1.2 million people from 50 countries. The severity of the climate crisis was widely appreciated — almost two-thirds of respondents described it as an emergency. Some climate solutions, including forest conservation and renewable energy, also were supported by more than half of all respondents. But when people ranked 18 of those solutions, promotion of plant-based diets came out last, with just 30 percent support.
A survey of that size and geographic reach inevitably obscures important regional differences, but a new study of just over 3,200 U.S. consumers also contains sobering news for alternative proteins.
In one part of the study, researchers looked at how price affects consumer preference for a regular burger versus one with a Beyond Meat patty. Knocking $1 off the price of the Beyond burger dented sales of the regular version by just 0.5 percent. Yet the same cut in the price of the animal burger led to an almost 4 percent increase in sales for that product. The take-home is that consumers seem to be more sensitive to prices of animal meat, suggesting that the ongoing fall in prices of plant-based alternatives may have a smaller impact than you would expect.