Skip to main content

Author: Sarabeth Davis

Sarabeth is a writer with extensive SEO, digital marketing, and content creation experience in the plant based and wellness spaces. She analyzes the market success of vegan brands and industries, and—in her kitchen—she analyzes their taste. A baker by day, she wakes before dawn to make breads and pastries for the people of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, US, where she lives with her rescue dog, houseplants, kombucha SCOBY, and ginger bug. Sarabeth believes in feeding the vegan movement with delicious food and unwavering compassion.

What Does ‘Peak Meat’ Mean For Plant-Based?

When plant-based meats first came to market, many speculated that an eventual shift from meat sales to alternative meat would be possible, even likely. Research indicates this overtake might be closer than once thought.  

In economic terms, ‘peak meat’ describes the “observed and projected long-term decline in meat consumption following an extended period of growth.” Meat production and consumption do not cease when we reach peak meat, but they cease to continue their excessive growth. While meat intake differs greatly across the globe, on average, global meat production has nearly quadrupled over the past 50 years. Each passing year witnesses humans consume approximately 350 million tons worth of meat. However, an increasing interest in sustainability and nutrition has generated momentum for plant-based meats to take up higher percentages of peoples’ plates. Conservatively, Boston Consulting Group predicts that 11% of all meat, seafood, eggs, and dairy will be plant-based by 2035.    

Are We There Yet? 

The past century constituted a period of extensive growth in modern animal meat consumption. Highly correlated with GDP per capita, meat consumption seems to have increased as countries have become richer. That being said, the OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2021-2030 reports weakening meat demand in high income countries and a shift to poultry. It seems that there’s a point at which having more expendable income increases an individual’s drive to purchase meat, however, OECD analysis suggests that “at a GDP per capita exceeding about USD $40,000, growth of GDP is no longer a driver of growth in meat consumption.” Those above this bracket do not consume more meat proportionate to their income, in contrast, they are more attuned to environmental, health, and animal welfare concerns, which thus drive their meat consumption down on the whole. People with financial means and value-based incentives to consume plant-based foods are poised to fill the gap in decreased meat consumption with plant-based foods. The US, the UK, Canada, Australia, Germany, and many other countries have an average GDP per capita above $40,000, so this income threshold has already been reached. Accordingly, depending on which market or country you examine, ‘peak meat’ is either actively occurring, or is on track to occur. 

Chicken and white meat represent an exception and one area where stagnation at higher income levels does not occur. Consumers find poultry appealing for its lower fat content and generally lower price tag than beef and pork. Accordingly, poultry meat is a key driver of growth in global meat production. Because beef and pork consumption has been consistently decreasing per capita since the mid 2000s, poultry being on the rise makes it a primary barrier impeding markets from reaching peak meat. This should signal to plant-based meat brands a need for plant-based poultry research and development to fulfil consumer demand beyond the commonplace breaded vegan chicken nuggets. 

Role of Plant-Based 

In these critical years to come, the role of plant-based in the ‘peak meat’ equation should not be underestimated. But when it comes to plant-based options, oftentimes people find themselves choosing between a black bean burger and a less-healthy vegan chicken nugget. Those preparing meals at home crave something more wholesome than the fast-food nature of frozen nuggets and patties that “bleed” beet juice, all things quick and delicious. Category Manager of frozen foods for Kroger, Meghan Barton, said succinctly in a recent Food Business News article, “I want to see the vegetables.” Many conventional vegan foods aim to replicate the fried and breaded nature of their meat analogues. While there’s a time and place for these products, Barton’s comment hints at the need for plant-based to diversify offerings. Consumers want accessible, delicious, less-processed meat alternatives that they can incorporate into weeknight meals: faux chicken breast, faux ground turkey, faux steak, etc. The milk transformation has successfully poised plant-based milks in this way: accessible and easy to substitute in most home cooking. Plant-based meat options must continue to innovate for parity with meat-based products. 

Future of Food, a 2019 USB research study that surveyed consumers and restaurants in the US, UK, and Germany showed that 11% of people were very interested in alternative proteins, 66% were somewhat interested, indifferent, or somewhat not interested, and only 23% were not interested at all. The seeds have been sowed, but the public requires nurturing for plant-based meats to grow into their full potential. Namely, lower prices and taste innovation will be key.  

Hurdles and Recalibration 

Plant-based brands have a clear opportunity with peak meat and its decline in meat production and consumption. Unfortunately, higher prices, un-renewed restaurant contracts, and bad press have made this opportunity less easy.  

Big brands such as Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have come under fire and experienced record lows this year. The novelty of plant-based meat alternatives sparked consumer interest and surged sales for several years. And while most people are interested in trying something once or twice, creating long-term buy-in has proved more difficult. Although with notable exceptions and shifting trends, plant-based options, on average, are less affordable than meat.  

For the first time, and in contrast with recent years of exponential growth, plant-based alternatives did not sell at an increased rate this year. Restaurants and retailers are also dropping Beyond and Impossible as suppliers, including US taco stronghold Del Taco. Although our white paper suggests that slumping sales from bellwether brands could due to more brands and own labels taking market share.  

In short, humans consume a lot of meat, but this number is approaching its peak, from which it will decline. Hiccups in the world of plant-based meat sales are not a catastrophe in what is a stabilizing plant-based industry. Current vegan frontrunners and emerging plant-based brands alike can be strengthened with increased affordability and equivalence to meat alternatives. This will recapture and nurture consumer and retail interest in plant-based, capitalizing on the market opportunity of peak meat.  

The Life Cycle of Beyond Burger vs. Beef Burger

The environmental burden of differing dietary choices and practices is highly debated. Most consumers are familiar with the journey of a burger patty to their plate: someone purchases the raw patty at a grocery store, prepares it at home, then places it (usually) between two buns and adds whatever toppings and condiments they so choose. However, the process that comes before–everything leading up to the patty being placed on grocery shelves–and after–the disposal and breakdown of packaging–is lesser known.  

Many people agree that plant-based protein is less burdensome on the environment than animal protein. But this might obscure the possibility in many consumers’ minds that their favorite plant-based brands engage in unsustainable practices, for example, in the form of packaging or farming methods. That is not to dispute the impressive climate impact difference between producing 100 grams of peas versus 100 grams of beef, but rather, to underscore the need to relentlessly examine the full picture of plant-based brands and their sustainability efforts. 

Beyond Meat’s Beyond Burger Life Cycle Assessment 

Well-known plant-based brand Beyond Meat has an impressive life cycle assessment under its belt. Life cycle assessment (LCA) is an internationally recognized tool for evaluating a given product’s environmental load from said product’s “cradle to grave.” In the world of research, life cycle assessments comparing vegetable foods and animal foods tend to find consensus that, on average, vegetable foods are less polluting. That being said, the science is more inconclusive than one might expect. While advocates of plant-based eating would love to point to the literature that says, conclusively, that plant-based foods have categorically less burdensome life cycles than animal foods, it’s usually not that straightforward. Dozens of factors, such as soil quality and agricultural processes, post-processing, transportation, and more, all contribute to a food’s environmental impact. For example, a banana that traveled from Costa Rica to London might have a more polluting total life cycle than yogurt produced in Surrey and consumed by local residents.   

Thus, the peer-reviewed life cycle assessment from the University of Michigan comparing Beyond Meat’s original burger to a ¼ of U.S. beef stands out in its stark win for the Beyond Burger. Beyond Meat’s website boasts the results, and their product came out on top in every category analyzed. The numbers speak for themselves: compared to a ¼ pound U.S. beef burger, Beyond Burgers generate 90% less greenhouse gas emissions (GHGE), require 46% less energy, have 99% less impact on water scarcity and 93% less impact on land use. 

Unseized Opportunities for Improvement 

The study, commissioned by Beyond Meat itself, compared the LCA of Beyond Burgers to that of meat burgers as informed by a 2017 life cycle assessment of meat burgers commissioned by the National Cattleman’s Beef Association, Sustainability Assessment of U.S. Beef Production Systems. The University of Michigan study’s abstract explains their goals to compare the life cycles of these burgers from cradle to distribution (retail outlets). Secondarily, the researchers state that they aim to reveal opportunities for Beyond Meat to improve upon environmental sustainability in their product and process.  

The main ingredients in a Beyond Burger, including pea protein, canola oil, and coconut oil, each constitute considerable parts of the burger’s GHGE, but packaging is an even larger contributor. Namely, the plastic tray that holds each patty is a significant driver of a Beyond Burger’s GHGE. The scientists suggest an upgrade to the tray and estimate “that switching to a 8 polypropylene tray made of 100% post consumer recycled content could reduce the overall GHGE of the BB life cycle by 2% and reduce energy use by 10%.” As such, this 2017 study highlighted an opportunity that Beyond Meat has yet to take in 2022. Beyond continues to use the same packaging method for burger patties, although they did begin using a compostable tray for their line of sausages. 

Value-Aligned Decisions in the Burger Aisle 

When compared to scientific research, brand marketing tends to focus more on eye-catching numbers that generate sales. For example, the Beyond Meat marketing team obviously chooses phrasing that portrays their product as indisputably better than beef, even if consumers should be wary of extrapolating too much from such bold claims. And in light of recent reporting on Beyond’s “plummeting” stock and mold-contaminated US factory, damage control for the brand must be in the works. Focusing on life-cycle environmental impact can help recenter the conversation to sustainability. Doing just that, Beyond Meat’s scientists posted a December 16th TikTok video wherein one researcher pours the amount of water required to produce a Beyond burger on their head, after which another pours the equivalent amount required for a beef burger. In a striking visual display, the employee who poured the amount of water required to produce the beef burger got significantly–99% to be exact–more drenched.  

It remains as important as ever to acknowledge the developing nature of research in the sphere of plant-based foods and climate change. Rather than harp on totally negative or totally positive portrayals of plant-based and animal foods, businesses and science alike must strive for greater transparency and collective action to produce more peer-reviewed, unbiased studies. This offers benchmarking and contributes to consumer knowledge so that brands can be encouraged toward the highest levels of sustainability. In the case of the University of Michigan LCA study, the plant-based option does reign superior for environmental impact. That should not stagnate Beyond Meat’s sustainability efforts, though, but instead serve to encourage further innovation in the space.  

Human Food Choices and Environmental Burden: The Science

Human food consumption poses an immense burden on the environment, many people adhere to certain diets as a method of lowering their personal impact. For example, one might eat organic, eat local, or eat more plant-based foods. As the research confirms, these choices can have a big influence. Thus, a first step in remediating human environmental burden is to understand the impact of human dietary practices. Likely, it’s not as straightforward as cutting out red meat or eating more plant-based. Rather, we must aim to refine our strategies–heeding the latest environmental research–for best practice with food and climate.  

 Life-Cycle Assessment Tool 

To study the dietary burden of specific food choices, many scientists use the life-cycle assessment (LCA). An internationally standardized procedure, the LCA evaluates a given product, process, or service’s environmental impacts from the generation of resources to its final disposal. Unfortunately, LCA findings can be misleading without context, which results in an audience poised to make conclusions that may or may not be true. In one prominent example, despite sweeping claims from some researchers on the superiority of vegetarian or vegan diets, other researchers find that vegetable food may be more polluting than non-vegetable food.  

The disagreement originates from misrepresentation of data, in which case a distinction between food matter and its production and processing provides clarity. Consistently, scholars have concluded that food’s environmental impact is more practice-dependent than matter-dependent. In other words, when agricultural practices are organic and post-production processing is minimal, meat-based diets are inferior to plant-based diets with respect to environmental burden.  

It makes sense why people espouse plant-based eating as a means of lessening human environmental burden upon reading such headlines as “pork production emits nine times more greenhouse gasses compared to dry peas.” However, this fact only accounts for the matter of a given product, neglecting production and processing findings that are equally essential pieces of the puzzle. While it’s true that vegetable foods produced under the same pre and post production conditions as animal foods have less environmental burden, such is not always the case when, for example, transportation enters the equation. Processing can add carbon footprints to vegetables that would be higher than those of locally produced meats or dairy. For this reason, many researchers agree that more insight can be gleaned when looking at complete diets and meals rather than single foods.  

So, How Do We Proceed? 

Understandably, the scholars who go into this line of research share a common love and concern for the environment, core values that lead to a larger conversation on environmental sustainability throughout their literature. In consolidating their findings, researchers recurrently discuss veganism and locavorism as dietary changes that seem to improve the efficiency of peoples’ meals. Respectively, these approaches to eating denote when one abstains from consumption of all animal products, or only consumes food produced only within a 100 mile radius of home. And the research suggests that significant change arises at the overlap of the two eating habits, choosing both vegan and local foods.  

A 2017 literature review titled Dietary Strategies to Reduce Environmental Impact: A Critical Review of the Evidence Base concluded, “Taking all of the available evidence, there is little that can be concluded, at this time, about dietary strategies to reduce environmental impact.” This is not to say that scientists have no clue what foods pollute more than others–generally speaking, plant-based diets are better for the earth–but without context on factors such as regional food system differences, global patterns of trade, and regional land management practice, compilations of LCA data are difficult to obtain, interpret, and disseminate judiciously. 

Unbiased Communication and Human Behavior  

The implementation of change requires prompting people to think about the future. Particularly, the presentation of raw data about global warming in conjunction with some level of fear might be an effective tactic that urges the public to change their behaviors. As such, education has the power to encourage a worldwide shift in eating habits. Forward-thinking collaboration between research and the public eye could change the trajectory of human food consumption.  

For many reasons, reducing meat consumption and opting for plant-based foods can be a powerful way to affect environmental change with diet. However, doing so does not universally lower one’s carbon footprint, a phenomenon so powerfully showcased in the transportation and post-processing phases of LCAs.  

In order to communicate the most accurate, unbiased conclusions to the public, the global narrative on plant-based eating and climate change demands more nuanced interpretation, which will garner legitimacy and portray a more holistic story. 

The Meat Industry’s Stake in Plant-Based

First Name Basis  

You’ve heard of Beyond Meat, the plant-based brand that produces McDonalds’ infamous McPlant patty in the UK, but have you heard of Vivera, Raised & Rooted, or Plant Ever? Plant-based meat brands other than familiar innovators Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have increasingly entered the scene, many from an unlikely origin: the meat giants themselves. While name recognition has yet to solidify, consumers are well on their way to a first-name basis with the plant-based subsidiaries of the global meat trade. It will take time, but new plant-based brands are here to stay. Whatever the reasoning–diversifying selection, simply seeing what sticks, or capitalizing on a market opportunity–meat giants understand the potential for plant-based and are actively creating new subdivisions to explore the demand.  

The Meat Giants Themselves 

Many consumers don’t even know who the meat giants are. While major distributors of global meat products (McDonald’s, Wal-Mart Stores, Kentucky Fried Chicken, etc.) exist proudly and in plain daylight, their suppliers (Keystone Meats, WH Group, Vion Food Group, to name a few) are behind the curtains. People don’t seek out a Lopez Foods burger (a key McDonald’s supplier). Rather, they want a McDonald’s Big Mac. On the other hand, vegan meat remains more closely tied with its branding, as seen in the example of the Impossible Whopper at Burger King. 

 The biggest meat companies include Keystone Meats, Tyson Foods, JBS Group, Cargill, Vion Food Group, Smithfield, Hormel, Sino Agro Food, WH Group, Danish Crown, and BRF, among others. They supply grocery stores, school cafeterias, airlines, restaurants, and more. And all of them operate a subsidiary brand or invest in research initiatives in the plant-based space.   

“Happy Little Plants” 

It makes sense that meat companies would want to satisfy the growing demand for plant-based meat. And with fun, lighthearted names–Happy Little Plants, Incogmeato, Raised and Rooted–they are playfulling securing their spot. Both Hormel and Tyson opted to innovate from the inside rather than acquire a preexisting plant-based meat technology, a conservative approach that has proven lucrative. Hormel Foods brought an in-house plant-based meat line called Happy Little Plants to market in 2019 to “celebrate the power of plant protein.” Tyson similarly began Raised and Rooted in 2019, throwing its hat in the ring via 10,000+ US retail locations and an expansion to the European market in 2020. David Ervin, Vice President of Alternative Protein at Tyson, describes Tyson’s global offerings as a “multi-protein portfolio that spans animal protein, alternative protein, and other exciting emerging protein formats through the ventures arm such as lab-grown.” The last comment refers to Tyson’s investment in lab-grown research companies Future Meat Technologies and Memphis Meats.  

Another approach has been for meat companies to acquire smaller companies that have already done the groundwork research and creation of plant-based meat products. The largest global meat company–JBS Group–did so in its purchase of Dutch plant-based meat company Vivera in 2021. This expanded their plant-based offerings to important markets such as the Netherlands, the UK, and Germany. They already operate plant-based brand Incrível Seara in Latin America. Most recently, however, JBS pulled their US plant-based meat initiative–Planterra foods–after 2 years of operation. In a conversation with FoodNavigator, head of communications Nikki Richardson said “JBS will focus its efforts on its plant-based operations in Brazil and Europe, which continue to gain market share and expand in their respective customer bases.” In May 2022, The Guardian reported that four companies own nearly 80% of the plant-based meat market: Kellogg Company, Maple Leaf Foods, Beyond Meat, and Conagra Brands. Even though JBS controls a huge portion of the US meat market, the prowess of Kellogg, Maple Leaf, and Conagra–which own, respectively, the plant-based brands Incogmeato, Lightlife, and Gardein–maintains a hold on the plant-based meat market, pushing JBS to innovate overseas.  

Going all-in on plant-based for Cargill has looked like investment in lab-grown meat with Aleph Farms and operation of plant-based chicken and beef alternative company PlantEver in China. Jackson Chan, Managing Director of Cargill Protein China, describes the intention behind this move as “taking an inclusive approach to the future of protein by investing in both animal and alternative protein.” Vion Foods went the extra mile and actually shut down one of its Netherlands slaughterhouses and meat processing plants to become a vegan meat factory. Their brand, ME-AT, sells primarily in the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, Denmark, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Austria, Hungary, Serbia, Italy, and Bulgaria. Though the strategies and fallout of these companies’ moves differ, everyone is searching for a market share in plant-based meat. 

The More the Merrier? 

Unlike the plant-based meat space, animal meat companies have a network of brands far too extensive to be on a first-name basis with anyone. But increasingly, plant-based meat brands are also growing branches beyond the familiar innovators. Just as we could never keep track of the hundreds of global animal meat brands, the growth of meat giants’ plant-based subsidiaries suggests a future in which plant-based brands are similarly sprawling and omnipresent. In this future, you might order a plant-based burger at Burger King, not knowing which plant-based meat brand made your patty, but only that it’s plant-based. Accordingly, retailers such as Burger King and Carl’s Junior will not need to refer to their plant-based burgers as the Impossible Whopper at Burger King or the Beyond Famous Star burger at Carl’s Junior.  

 For now, many major retailers have approximately 3-year respective contracts with the plant-based burger frontrunners. However, a more competitive landscape for plant-based meat options lends itself to more stable financial longevity, as these retailers won’t be wed to exclusive contracts. Of course, the current landscape enables big meat conglomerates to push out smaller plant-based meat innovators, which feeds a trend wherein a few giants control the majority of a market. Nevertheless, continued plant-based offerings from both meat giants and smaller standalone efforts might well make “plant-based meat” a concept of its own, without need of a brand name to back its public image. 

The Meat Industry’s Fight Against Plant Based: A Classic Disruption Story?

Despite its economic and political muscle, the meat industry has not been able to fully control the narrative or public policy around plant-based meat alternatives. Unlike its UK dairy counterpart, which successfully lobbied to prevent the use of “milk” to describe non-dairy milk alternatives, the UK meat industry tried and failed to pass legislation that would have prevented alternative meats from being called “burgers” or “sausages.” In the U.S. neither Big Dairy nor Big Meat have been able to prohibit the use of “milk” or “meat” for their plant-based alternatives.  

Managing Director of the Federation of Belgian Meat (FEBEV) Michael Gore explains, “We are the only sector in the food industry that has so many controls,” lamenting the fact that meat in the EU must fulfill a specific set of rules regarding rearing and feeding conditions, processing, and even final product composition. Plant-based meats do not have such strict guidelines, yet still use words such as ‘sausage’ or ‘burger’ to promote their products. Many meat industry leaders share Gore’s sentiment and want industry verbiage to be codified and prevented from being used to market plant-based meats. On the other hand, Camille Perrin, Senior Food Policy Officer at the European Consumer Organization (BEUC), contends that “Terms such as ‘burger’ or ‘steak’ on plant-based items simply makes it much easier to know how to integrate these products within a meal.”  

Big Meat has gained ground elsewhere, however, including in France, where the farming lobby succeeded in banning “meat” from describing plant-based meat products as of October 2022. Similarly, the Johannesburg high Court in South Africa granted a ban on terminology such as ‘meatball’, ‘sausage’, or ‘biltong’ to market plant-based foods.   

The Meat Lobby 

Notorious for cozying up to governments and political campaigns, the meat industry has big steaks–and even bigger stakes–in the plant-based meat game. Lobbyists spend considerable amounts to bankroll candidates and back pro-agriculture, anti-climate change policies around the world.  

The much-debated United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) nutritional guidelines reflect less what one’s doctor might recommend, and more what drives revenue for animal agriculture corporations. Informed by USDA research, a 1977 US Senate Committee Report concluded that “benefits would be shared by all” if the population decreased consumption of meat, sugar, salt, and other animal products (eggs, butter, milk, etc.). The meat industry objected, however, and successfully pressured the report’s second edition to change its recommendation to suggest that consumers merely “decrease consumption of animal fat, and choose meats, poultry, and fish which will reduce saturated fat intake”. Public debate on which foods are most healthful, ethical, and sustainable has increased tenfold since this. Regardless, Big Meat’s financial power and political strength continue to influence that public debate as well as public policy and USDA guidelines.   

Consumer Confusions and Perceptions 

In the US, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) conducted a 2019 survey that revealed shocking consumer confusion about ingredients in plant-based meat products. Out of over 1,800 people surveyed, fewer than 50% of respondents understood that ‘plant-based beef’ indicated a completely vegetarian or vegan product. In fact, out of those surveyed 31% thought that ‘plant-based beef’ contained at least some animal product. Unsurprisingly, as plant-based meats become increasingly mainstream, the global meat industry are taking even greater issue with the terminology confusion. 

Further confusion arises in the fact that plant-based eaters and meat eaters alike enjoy the taste of plant-based burgers, while mistakenly thinking the patties ‘better-for-you’. How people perceive the healthfulness of their food matters for product and industry revenue, as well as for individual and population-level health. Research shows that diets high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are good for the human body and the environment, so leveraging the term ‘plant-based’ on a food label may falsely insinuate the healthfulness of its product. That being said, the nutritional differences between a plant-based burger and one derived from cows–even ones composed of 85% lean ground beef–are compelling. Beyond Meat burgers have fewer overall calories and less saturated fat and Impossible Foods burgers have less overall fat compared to beef burgers. 

The food industry’s marketing tactics are notorious for misleading consumers with health claims such as ‘high in calcium’ and ‘low in sugar’. This is an industry-wide issue that goes far beyond plant-based burgers. Meat industry leaders nevertheless argue that consumers are being duped on the health benefits of plant-based meat. A 2021 campaign from the US nonprofit Center for Consumer Freedom that ran online on TV, and in print media harped on the untrustworthiness of so-called ‘fake’ meats. Specifically, ingredient lists for meat-based sausage and bacon were juxtaposed with those for plant-based alternatives. The latter included many difficult-to-pronounce preservatives, whereas the meat ingredients were short, implying that real meat is superior in its simplicity and ‘cleanliness’. 

A ‘Complement’ Food Product  

The North American Meat Institute (NAMI) approximates that the US economy receives roughly $894 billion annually from the meat industry. Boston Consulting Group (BCG) predicts that plant-based alternatives for meat, eggs, dairy, and seafood will reach at least $290 billion globally by 2035. Given that disparity, the meat industry does not need to feel threatened, nor should those who benefit from or rely on the economies of the meat industry. The plant-based meat industry will continue to grow and refine its market, but current data shows that plant-based products are not a significant threat to meat’s market share. Rather than a competitor, or ‘alternative’, plant-based meats are actually ‘complements’ to many omnivores’ diets, a product to add to one’s grocery rotation.  

 Supply chain problems drove up prices for meat during the 2020 pandemic, which encouraged many consumers to opt for less expensive plant-based options. As a subsidized industry, meat prices have since stabilized and reversed this trend. Nowadays, plant-based meat sales for some brands are stagnating in the US after years of exponential growth. While global demand remains strong, US sales for Beyond Meat have been lackluster this year, though sales for McDonald Corp’s McPlant are soaring in Ireland 

If You Can’t Beat Them, Be Them? 

Yes, you read that correctly. Many of the meat giants have their own subdivisions focusing on plant-based meat or are investing in other plant-based food and research companies. Tyson, Cargill, and WH Group all own plant-based meat brands including Vivera, Raised & Rooted, Plant Ever, Pure Farmland, and more. Time will tell if this becomes a classic disruption story with plant-based meats overtaking the incumbent meat industry. For now, the two industries seem poised to coexist in a competitive marketplace. 

The Dairy Industry’s Fight Against Plant-Based

Since the explosion of non-dairy milk, definitions of milk have been in flux and highly debated. The dairy industry has seen a decrease in cow milk consumption for decades, and Big Dairy blames the rise of plant-based products for this trend. But plant-based milks alone do not explain dairy’s decline. Nevertheless, lobbyists and dairy farmers across the world have honed in on verbiage as a central place of combat. They take specific issue with plant-based dairy analogues referring to themselves as milks.

Historically, milk is the white liquid produced by mammals to nourish their young. But it has also become common vernacular to describe the white liquid produced as milk from vegetable sources such as oats or soybeans. In 2017, pressure from the dairy industry caused the European Court of Justice (ECJ) to hold that the term “milk” and other milk product names cannot be used to describe or market plant-based products. In a 2019 letter to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), The National Federation of Milk Producers argued that “almond milk” was misleading consumers, and in turn “causing harm to our nation’s children and, potentially, other consumers.” In April, FDA Commissioner Robert Califf publicly agreed and said (of banning plant-based milk alternatives from using the word milk), “We’re moving along quickly and it’s a priority to get this done, so I can assure you it will get done.”  

 Hence, the advent of products such as almond or coconut “beverage.” US grocery store Trader Joe’s circumvented this issue from the beginning, opting to call its oat-derived milk an “oat beverage” since it first came to market. For other key players in plant-based milk alternatives–grocers and brands alike–a wave of rebranding might soon be in store. 

Not a Primary Driver  

Before plant-based milks entered the scene, dairy farmers were already experiencing decreased sales in fluid milk. Since the latter part of the 20th century, the USDA has recorded a decline in per capita consumption of milk, from roughly 1 cup to 0.6 cups per day. The steepest downward trend occurred between 2010 and 2019 when consumption fell at a rate of 20.7%. According to the UK Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs Family Food Survey, per capita consumption in the UK has also dropped by just under 50% since 1974. Rather than something to drink as a standalone, milk has increasingly become a grocery product purchased expressly for one’s morning cup of caffeine, or perhaps to be added over cereal or in a recipe for pancakes.

USDA researchers published a 2020 study noting that the “increase in sales over 2013 to 2017 of plant-based options is one-fifth the size of the decrease in Americans’ purchases of cow’s milk.” In other words, the rise of plant-based products is not a primary driver of the decline in dairy milk consumption. Plant-based milk is merely a piece in the dairy milk consumption puzzle. What more accurately explains the decline? For starters, people’s dietary preferences have changed, heeding debate about dairy’s health benefits, as well as years of bad policy, subsidies, and overproduction. And yet, the dairy industry has focused its efforts on blaming plant-based milk.  

 Nutritional Breakdown 

The same Federation of Milk Producers pushing the FDA on milk terminology legislation specifically argues that using the term milk on plant-based milk labels will create a “nutritional crisis.” Is there any credence to that? Well, dairy milk has eight grams of protein per glass, compared to almond milk’s one gram, oat milk’s 4 grams, and coconut milk’s 0.3 grams. That being said, soy milk packs a punch of protein on par with dairy milk’s 8 grams. Protein aside, some cite calcium and vitamin D as benefits to cow’s milk. However, most plant-based milks are fortified with calcium and vitamin D at comparable if not higher levels found naturally in cow’s milk. Meanwhile, as reported by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, it remains unclear whether or not calcium actually prevents bone weakening or osteoporosis. For those watching their carbohydrate intake, oat milk and rice milk rank at 24g and 23g respectively, higher than cow milk’s 13g.

All in all, there are notable differences between dairy milk and plant-based alternatives, though nothing that would trigger a “nutritional crisis” for someone who consumes a generally balanced diet and can read nutrition labels. That being said, for a population convinced by marketing that children need milk as an essential part of their growth and health, it might seem like a crisis in spite of the fact that such claims have been disproven. 

A Global Industry 

Because dairy is a global industry, it does not do the conversation justice to focus on any one country. The global supply and demand chain has witnessed milk supplies tightening since the end of 2021 as prices for manufactured dairy have surged higher. The latest USDA World Markets and Trade report notes that among the major dairy exporting countries through May 2022, “only Argentina has seen milk output grow year-over-year (+1 percent) while Australia (-6 percent), the European Union (-1 percent), New Zealand (-6 percent), and United States (-1 percent) have all seen supplies come under pressure.” Dwindling supply combined with declining consumption is a recipe for economic turmoil for Big Dairy. The global dairy industry is scrambling to maintain its grip on the market for dairy milk products by way of the aforementioned legislation and lobbying against the term milk 

A Waste of Time 

Plant-based demand is skyrocketing. Specifically, Facts and Factors predicts that the global market for plant-based milk alternatives is projected to grow above a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of around 10.5% between 2022 and 2028. But the debate over verbiage begs an important question: does anyone actually believe that oat milk comes from cows? Indiana state Rep. Justin Moed contends that “Most consumers are intelligent enough to know it’s coming from plants, not a cow.” He went on, “Is peanut butter coming from a cow? Valvoline could be mad [that] olive oil is called oil. Who’s to say what oil is? I don’t know where this ends.” Danielle Nierenberg of the non-profit Food Tank adds, “The push to make sure oat milk and almond milk are called ‘beverages’ instead of ‘milk’ is a waste of time and resources and is a distraction from the real matters our policymakers and institutions like [the] FDA should be addressing.”  

Alternatives to Big Dairy 

Dairy sales are down, period, regardless of and preceding the exponential growth in plant-based alternatives. Rather than fight the plant-based industry, the dairy industry could perhaps better direct their efforts at innovating a new niche for dairy milk products. On average, people are not drinking as much milk as they once did, but there is still a strong market for dairy milk products. A possible avenue for the industry could include fermented proteins (such as the technology perfected by Perfect Day Foods) to move towards sustainable, innovative R&D, and a focus on carbon emissions reduction. Though less “Big,” this could be a way for the dairy industry to meet the needs of consumers while ensuring long-term viability.