Plant-Based Burgers Aren’t Denting Our Beef Addiction

There are some signs that this dynamic could start to play out, however. In the Netherlands, rising meat prices mean that vegan meat is now slightly cheaper than its animal counterparts. In Europe, plant-based meat sales increased by 19 percent in 2021, which could reflect higher meat prices or suggest a greater willingness on the part of European people—who on average eat more less beef than Americans—to try plant-based alternatives.

Focusing on taste and price are the main priorities for the plant-based meat industry, says Celia Homyak, codirector of the Alt:Meat Lab at the University of California, Berkeley, but more work needs to be done to make people aware of the environmental benefits of these foods. “Ultimately people’s taste buds lead them in a certain direction, but until they are informed or guided in that way, they won’t get there.” Because people who eat plant-based meats are the minority in the US, survey data suggests that on the whole, people view vegan meats much less favorably than beef burgers across a broad range of categories, including taste, protein content, and environmental impact.

And there might be an even bigger factor threatening the success of plant-based meat in the US: chicken. Over the past 50 years, the dominant trend in meat-eating has been a shift from beef to chicken. Americans now eat more than two and a half times as much of the stuff as they did in 1971. Some of that increase has come at the expense of beef, and some has been part of an overall increase in meat consumption per capita. Switching from beef to chicken is a net win in terms of emissions, but chicken still has a higher environmental impact than plant-based meats, and chickens tend to live much worse lives than cattle (plus you need to eat a lot of chickens to add up to one cow). “The popularity of chicken is a huge barrier for the growth of plant-based meats,” says Blaustin-Rejto. Chicken is cheap, nutritious, and growing in popularity, and it’s not clear that plant-based meats will change this trajectory.

But maybe we shouldn’t set such a high bar for meatless meats. Global meat consumption is expected to increase 14 percent by 2030. Even slowing this growth by a fraction would be a step in the right direction in terms of emissions and animal welfare. And the plant-based meat industry is still in its infancy. “Plant-based meat sales grew faster than anyone could have imagined over the past few years,” says Blaustin-Rejto, so it’s not surprising that the industry is currently seeing a cooldown. Meatless meat brands have proven that people are willing to give these products a chance when they are still expensive and novel—now it’s time to show that hungry customers will keep returning once they’re cheap.

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