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Plant-Based in Decline? Three Reasons Why the Mainstream Hyperbole Is Misleading

Recent months have seen the mainstream media take up against the plant-based sector, claiming it has had its moment and is now in significant decline. And while some statistics do indicate that buying has slowed, they are not an overarching indicator of a global food niche’s popularity or staying power.

Perhaps most supportive of the Telegraph, BBC, Daily Mail et al. claims that plant-based is over are the removal of vegan lines by brands such as Heck, and the closure of popular companies, including Meatless Farm. The latter was used as an example of the “wider slowdown in the market for vegan food” by the Telegraph.

The publication neglected to reveal that Meatless Farm attributes its closure to rising operational costs, not a lack of consumer demand. In fact, at the time of writing, rumours had already begun to swirl that Meatless Farm was due to be rescued by fellow plant-based brand VFC, which has recently enjoyed vast global expansion.

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In order to cut through the mainstream media machinations, it’s vital to consider the plant-based market’s overall progress, not just its current state of play. As such, consumer demand, quantifiable statistics, and interest from the meat and dairy sectors must be considered. And with these in mind, there is a justifiable reason to believe that the plant-based niche is just settling into its long-term groove.

‘Decline’ is Relative

2020 was–arguably–the start of the ‘plant-based boom.’ As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold of the world, consumers scrambled to buy foods they deemed healthier and better. Though it should be noted that the popularity of meat-free items was already in ascent thanks to brands, including Wicked Kitchen, making options available in major supermarkets.

Come summer 2020, plant-based food sales were reported to have more than doubled (243% increase) compared to the year prior. This translated into consumers regularly including 14% more plant-based products in their shopping.

With such an unprecedented backdrop helping to accelerate the acceptance of plant-based foods, it was to be expected that when life returned to normal, things would change. With food system imports and exports resuming and production returning to pre-pandemic levels, the exuberance for ‘healthier’ foods eased off and mass-buying of plant protein evened out to a significantly higher rate than before the pandemic but not as high as during the global health scare.

This is what the mainstream media appears to enjoy reporting on: the relative drop in sales compared to the extreme boom in 2020. However, the current market analysis does not support the press’s naysaying.

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In 2022, Straits Research valued the plant-based food market–encompassing meat and dairy alternatives–at $16.45 billion. It is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 9.1% through to 2031, leading to a final value of $36.02 billion. However, this could be a conservative estimate. In 2021, Bloomberg Intelligence predicted that the plant-based food sector would see a value of $162 billion by 2030, accounting for a 7.7% global protein market share.

“Food-related consumer habits often come and go as fads, but plant-based alternatives are here to stay – and grow. Jennifer Bartashus, senior consumer staples analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence, said in a statement at the time. “Meat and dairy alternatives could obtain 5% and 10% of their respective global market shares in the next decade.”

Consumers Are Still Investing

While market predictions remain positive, they are only estimations. Something that could be seen as a far more reliable indicator of a permanent consumer shift is the willing investment of regular people, into plant-based brands.

Barcelon-based Heura, often cited as Europe’s ‘fastest growing plant meat brand,’ proves the meat-free bubble has not burst. It provides evidence that consumers appear not only to want to buy the products but also own stock in the companies that produce them.

Following two successful crowdfunding rounds, which raised more than €8 million from 7,000 in 2021 and 2022, Heura launched its third and final crowdfund project in May of this year. Raising more than €2.6 million in the first 48 hours, the company bagged 3,400 new investors, garnered a total of €3.4 million in investment and set CrowdCube platform records.

Last year, the manufacturer–which makes a range of chicken, chorizo, and burger alternatives–reported an increase in turnover by more than 80%. Its investors, dubbed ‘Good Rebels,’ appear to be sold on the sustainability messaging of the brand, coupled with its heart-healthy products that place olive oil front and center.

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Similarly, UK brand THIS launched a crowdfunding project in 2022. Hosted on the Seedrs platform, it raised more than £8 million, double its original target, from 2,890 investors.

Meat and Dairy Companies Are Developing Plant-Based Products

Finally, one of the most compelling signs that plant-based products are here to stay is their development by long-standing meat and dairy giants.

It was just revealed that Cargill, one of the four largest meat companies in the US, is banking on plant-based protein being a major part of its future portfolio. Predicting that the world will need 70% more protein in the next three decades, the meat giant–which embraced plant-based alternatives far later than many of its competitors–is experimenting with a range of protein sources. These reportedly include soy, pea, and wheat.

“We expect, over the next 25 to 30 years, 70% more protein consumption [among] an increasing world population,” Florian Schattenmann, chief technology officer of Cargill, said in a statement. “That protein has to come from somewhere. We want to be that diversified protein supplier.”

The Cargill alternative protein portfolio is expected to grow, with cultivated options being explored alongside animal-free wheat, soy, and pea.

Meanwhile, the dairy sector is also taking note of consumer demand. Sector giant Arla just announced that it is launching a plant-based version of its Lurpak butter range. The announcement has inspired ire from dairy farmers who feel betrayed that such an industry leader would pay lip service to the plant-based trend, just as they claim to be attempting to increase the sustainability of the conventional dairy sector.

Arla’s news follows multiple big-name launches of plant-based dairy alternatives, including Applewood, Cathedral City, and Boursin cheeses.


Amy Buxton