The link between animal agriculture and greenhouse gas emissions is increasingly a key focus of the debate over how to reduce global warming. An August 2019 report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change highlights this connection and recommends a shift toward plant-based diets as one approach to solving the climate crisis.
This recommendation comes at a time when plant-based meat alternatives are popping up everywhere. Recently, KFC teamed up with the company Beyond Meat to test plant-based “chicken.” Hundreds of customers flocked to a one-day trial event in Atlanta, where “Beyond Fried Chicken” menu items sold out within five hours.
KFC is not the only major restaurant chain responding to the increased demand for faux meat. Impossible Burgers have made their way onto the menus of the Cheesecake Factory and Red Robin. Yard House offers a generous selection of plant-based options that include Gardein “chicken.” And several fast-food chains, including Burger King, Subway, Dunkin’, and McDonald’s, have also jumped on the meatless meat wagon.
The explosive popularity of a new generation of plant-based alternatives is disrupting the meat industry, setting the stage for start-ups like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat to become major players in this growing market. Using proteins from soy, peas, potatoes and other plant ingredients, these companies have developed products that replicate the taste, texture, and even the “bleeding” characteristic of beef, attracting both vegetarians and carnivores. In the last eight years, Impossible Foods has pulled in roughly $750 million in investments, while Beyond Meat is currently valued at $9.2 billion. Overall, the retail market for plant-based foods is worth almost $4.5 billion, and total investment in the industry has reached roughly $17 billion, according to the Good Food Institute. These numbers are only expected to grow as more meat-eaters transition to “flexitarian” or “reducetarian” diets.
Some large agribusiness corporations that are heavily invested in the production of animal protein are responding to this market shift by diversifying into the plant-based space. Tyson Foods was a key investor in Beyond Meat before rolling out its own line of plant-based nuggets and patties dubbed “Raised & Rooted.” Another large meat processing giant, Cargill, announced in August an additional $75 million investment in the largest North American pea-protein producer supplying Beyond Meat. Recognizing the market opportunities outside of animal foods, Danone, known for its dairy products, now has a diverse line of plant-based yogurts and beverages.
The rapid rise of plant-based alternatives has predictably sparked a backlash from other stakeholders in the agricultural industry, who are now focused on restricting the marketing of these products. This year alone, legislators in nearly 30 states have proposed bills to prohibit companies from using words such as meat, burger, sausage, jerky, or hot dog unless the product came from an animal that was born, raised, and slaughtered in a traditional way. Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Wyoming have already enacted such laws, sparking immediate legal challenges by plant-based food advocates.
Whether consumers are turning to plant-based alternatives to save the planet, protect animals, or simply live a healthier lifestyle, the market for meat alternatives will likely continue to thrive.