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Will meat eaters really switch to alternative proteins?

Beyond Meat in a grocery store

A Beyond Meat consumer package, shown in a grocery store meat section. Courtesy of Beyond Meat

This analysis originally appeared in the Food Weekly newsletter, which is a year old this week. New readers can sign up here.

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.

The science is clear on 2 points: We need to dramatically cut food system emissions; and red meat is responsible for an outsized share of those emissions.

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.

The results do show some consumers switching to plant-based burgers as prices fall, notes Jayson Lusk, an economist at Purdue University and a co-author of the study. But you’re going to get the "biggest bang for the buck," he added, by changing the price of beef.

This isn’t great news for Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods and others working to cut the price of plant-based meat. But it does suggest a clear role for governments. Many economists would argue that meat-eaters should pay more for burgers anyway, because the cost of the product does not cover the harm that it causes. Introducing a meat tax therefore would be justified on economic grounds. According to the research, it also would shift people toward plant-based diets.

Reports in the British media suggest that last week Prime Minister Boris Johnson was indeed considering levying taxes on meat and cheese. He didn’t mull it over for long. News of the plan was greeted by negative headlines, followed by a hurried assurance from Downing Street that "we will not be imposing a meat tax on the great British banger." The option is being debated elsewhere in Europe, but can any of you imagine any influential U.S. politician taking a stance different to Johnson’s?

Where does this bevy of bad news leave plant-based meats?

I’m not sure it will overly concern the strategists at Beyond, Impossible and rivals. I doubt their business plans assume that governments will raise prices of animal meat, at least not in the United States.

The challenge for these companies always has been to create a product that beats meat on the three things consumers care most about: convenience; price; and taste. The recent news simply confirms how unlikely it is that governments will assist, and also how hard it will be to persuade meat-eaters to switch to plant-based alternatives.

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