Forests and agriculture | Business brief

How far will the future be meat-free?

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Less a fad, more a trend?

The market for alternatives to meat continues to grow as food sector companies meet consumer demand while also working towards meeting impact goals

The continuing rise of meat alternatives has undoubtedly one of the key recent food trends, as a shift in consumer preferences towards vegetarian and vegan diets continues apace. A big change has been the increasing involvement of high street brands and chains. 

For example, coronavirus allowing, this summer Ikea will start serving the new “plant ball”, a meat-free take on its world-famous meatball. Made from yellow pea protein, oats, potatoes, onion and apple, the new menu item is the latest development in the flat-pack furniture giant’s promise to give customers “sustainable alternative” food at its in-store restaurants. The plant ball follows its veggie hotdog, which sold ten million units in the first year after launch.

Fast-food chicken chain KFC recently removed all chicken from its menu for a whole week at a restaurant in Rotterdam, Netherlands. Separately, to mark National Week Without Meat, it served up chicken-less “chicken” crispy tenders and burgers. This led the company’s UK head of food innovation Victoria Robertson to admit that KFC has a “a big challenge in shifting … perceptions of what we offer”. 

In the US, Taco Bell is following up its dedicated vegetarian menu with the introduction of a plant-based protein in its products this year. Talks with both Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods – the start-ups making the most progress in bringing meat-free “meats” to market – are ongoing.

And the UK’s biggest high street bakery chain Greggs, buoyed by the success of its meatless sausage roll, has launched a similar meat-free steak bake. Beyond the high street and fast food sector, many traditional food companies have followed the trend too, with the likes of Kellogg, Nestlé, Tyson Foods, Hormel and Smithfield all jumping into the meat-free market to appeal to changing eating habits.

$140bn at stake 

This move makes good commercial sense. Analysts at Barclays predict that sales of meat alternatives could hit $140bn in the next decade. That’s around a tenth of today’s global meat market.

The market is likely to be dominated by those developing plant-based meat substitutes. Alongside Impossible and Beyond Meat, some of those making good progress include Garden Protein International, Morningstar Farms and Amy’s Kitchen in the US, and Quorn Foods, Moving Mountains and VBites in the UK. 

These companies are successfully establishing robust distribution networks with retailers and restaurants. Companies like Naturex, which introduces red colouring made from beetroot and other natural extracts to give meat substitutes a more “meaty” appearance, will grow too.

Elsewhere, laboratory-grown meat – something that has long been considered pure science fiction – is becoming a reality. Memphis Meats has announced plans to build a pilot facility to scale up production after it secured $161m in new investment in its latest round of funding. Bill Gates and Richard Branson, as well as conventional meat producers Cargill and Tyson Foods, have all taken a stake.

Growing meat consumption? 

Clearly there is still a huge global disparity when it comes to our entrenched cultural attitudes towards plant-based eating – and especially, lab-grown meat. Around the world, meat consumption shows no sign of slowing down, driven by rising demand in such places as Brazil and Thailand. 

But start-ups are “poised to meet rising demand, as well as stir interest in the benefits of plant-based foods among meat-eaters”, says Brian Kateman, co-founder of the Reducetarian Foundation, especially as the meat-free sector expands into countries where plant-based food is more nascent.

Beyond meeting changing eating habits, many companies see value in aligning their meat-alternative offerings with their wider climate strategy. 

Ikea’s pledge to increase the quantity of plant-based products sold at stores to 20% by the end of 2022 is part of its ambition to be “climate positive” by 2030, says Priya Motupalli, global sustainable agriculture lead at Ikea Food. She argues that more and more people are enjoying plant-based food because they wish to lead more sustainable lives. The movement is most prominent among the young, who want to take climate positive actions, which manifests itself in the food they choose, Motupalli says.

It’s an easy argument to make, given the environmental impact of meat production. A quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions come from food – and more than half (58%) of these emissions come from animal products, with beef and pork having the biggest impact.

In Europe, the long awaited Green Deal – a roadmap for making sure the EU’s economy is sustainable for the long-term – had sparked calls from NGOs to ensure food production and consumption is taken into account. In a joint letter, signed by Greenpeace and WWF among others, campaign groups have specifically asked that the European Commission’s wide-ranging Farm to Fork Strategy includes binding targets to reduce the amount of meat, dairy and eggs being produced and consumed. “It’s time to start treating meat and dairy like other sources of pollution,” says Greenpeace EU agriculture campaigner Sini Eräjää. 

Carbon impacts 

But is the argument that meat production is bad for the planet, and growing more plant-based food is good, too simplistic? Could a widespread shift among retailers, restaurants and food companies to offer a much larger percentage of plant-based and meat-free alternatives have the positive impact that seems to be taken as a given?

The truth is, for now we don’t know given the massive scaling issues involved. What we do know is that, while beef production, in particular, demands more land and water and causes more environmental destruction than any other food products, all plant-based food still have environmental impacts.

Take, for example, mushrooms, which are commonly used as a meat substitute. While they are not in the same league as beef when it comes to contributing GHGs, there is still a carbon footprint attached to the process of growing mushrooms or keeping them warm near to where they are cultivated. Producing one kilogram of the common button, chestnut or portobello mushrooms emits up to 2.95kg of carbon dioxide (CO2), according to the US Department of Agriculture. This is on a par with emissions from saltwater fish and tuna (3kg of CO2/kg and 2.2kg of CO2/kg respectively). By contrast, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation has beef at almost 300kg CO2/kg of protein. 

Mycoprotein, which is grown from fungi, is another common meat substitute. It too has a carbon footprint that cannot be ignored, at typically between 5.55 and 6.15 kilograms of CO2 per kilogram from farm to fork. This includes the impact of processing once the fungi produces the protein, including the emissions associated with production of the sugar upon which the fungi is fed.

Quorn is one of few companies that transparently details the impact of making its products. According to its latest analysis, while their mycoprotein – the main ingredient in all Quorn products – contributes just 0.8kg of CO2/kg (from farm to factory gate), creating products such as its vegan ham-free slices produces 3.1kg of CO2/kg (to factory gate). 

The company doesn’t calculate farm to fork impacts, but is keen to point out that producing mycoprotein uses 90% less land and water than producing some animal proteins. “Mycoprotein represents an exemplary way that we can feed a growing global population with a sustainable and nutritious protein source,” says Sam Blunt, global marketing operations director.

Future 50 Foods  

As the transition to cater for changing tastes and eating habits continues, food companies will have to consider how their supply base will be affected. 

Unilever’s largest food brand Knorr has been working with WWF to devise a list of 50 foods with lower environmental impact than both animal products and most other plants. The list contains some more common foods, like spinach and sweet potatoes. But it also suggests that seaweed and cacti could become central to our diets in the future.

The company has promised to increase the number of products in its portfolio that feature these so-called Future 50 Foods by 25% by 2025, claiming that it has been experimenting with alternative foods for many years. 

The hope is that Knorr’s public commitment to serving up more meat-free foods will stimulate the supply chain to produce more of it, and retailers to buy more of it. WWF is working on the ground, giving supplier companies and farmers advice on how they can best produce Future 50 Foods, which in some cases might mean switching out of different crops where it makes sense to.

Of course, a key question for the food sector is whether the interest and enthusiasm for consuming less meat is merely a short-term fad. The trend certainly looks like to continue. 

One-third/two-thirds?

Right now, just 2% of US citizens say they are vegan, but there is clearly huge scope for the trend to grow. Millennials are three times more likely to be vegan or vegetarian than their parents, with some suggesting that plant-based proteins could account for a third of the protein market by 2054.

Elsewhere, a number of emerging social and economic issues could significantly change the food system. The Chinese government is actively encouraging people to halve their meat consumption; the vegan market already looks set to have grown by around 17% in the five years to 2020.

Meanwhile, talk of an EU tax on meat, which could increase the price of a steak by 25%, coupled with Impossible Burgers slashing its wholesale prices by 15% suggests the market is only going to move in one direction.

Just how far things move in that direction is the question that brands and suppliers will want answered as quickly as possible. For now, companies must find the right balance in catering for new dietary demands alongside those of their existing, meat-loving customers, and all while lowering footprints across the whole product range. 

As Ikea’s Motupalli says, even though there’s a big focus on boosting the company’s plant-based range of food, it won’t forget its commitment to other customers or the planet. “The success of the veggie hotdog shows that plant-based food can be an attractive choice for the many if it’s delicious and affordable. At the same time, we will also work towards meat from better sources.

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