Sales of plant-based meat products—which imitate the taste and feel of meat without using animals—took a dive in 2022. That drop has prompted some major media outlets to conclude that the burgeoning billion-dollar industry, which has been touted as a solution to the agriculture sector’s outsized climate footprint, was merely a “fad” that has run its course.
“Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods wanted to upend the world’s $1 trillion meat industry,” Deena Shanker wrote last week for Bloomberg, referring to the world’s leading fake meat manufacturers. “But plant-based meat is turning out to be a flop.”
Supermarket sales of refrigerated plant-based meat dropped roughly 14 percent in 2022, Shanker reported. Restaurant sales, too, took a hit by nearly double digits. And Beyond Meat—which CNN writer Danielle Wiener-Bronner referred to last month as “a darling of Wall Street whose top product became synonymous with plant-based burgers”—saw its stock plummet by about 76 percent last year and was forced to lay off some 20 percent of its staff. The company is now valued at just $1 billion, a monumental fall from its $14 billion peak in 2019.
“Before we were seeing this incredible growth rate,” Thomas George, a portfolio manager at investment research company Grizzle, told Bloomberg. “But when you lose that momentum, you lose your certainty around how big plant-based meats can be.”
Many analysts have attributed the decline in sales to revelations that plant-based meats may not be as healthy as they’ve been advertised to be, with some health experts pointing to the imitation meats’ high sodium content and calling the food “ultraprocessed.” Other analysts, however, have said the drop is more likely tied to inflation, with customers temporarily writing the product off as a luxury item ahead of a potential recession.
Whatever the case may be, the debate highlights the fraught effort to tackle the environmental consequences of some of the world’s most embedded industries that, in many ways, symbolize our way of life as a modern society. Much like cars and planes have allowed humans to travel the world at higher speeds and efficiency, agriculture has allowed societies to thrive in greater numbers and in less hospitable environments.
But agriculture—particularly large-scale farming—is also a leading cause of global warming, deforestation, biodiversity loss and freshwater shortages worldwide, experts say, with livestock playing an outsized role. And the meteoric rise of Beyond Meat and its top rival, Impossible Foods, has largely been a testament to the world’s desire to tackle the climate crisis.
Research has shown that raising and feeding livestock accounts for nearly 15 percent of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions. The process also takes up huge swaths of land that could otherwise sequester that carbon and requires massive amounts of water that could otherwise help alleviate drought-stricken areas like the American West, which continues to struggle to maintain water supplies as the climate crisis worsens. In fact, the five largest livestock producers—JBS, Tyson, Cargill, Dairy Farmers of America and Fonterra—release more greenhouse gas emissions than oil giant ExxonMobil, my colleague Georgina Gustin reported in 2021.
Getting more people to switch to plant-based diets, including by convincing the world’s meat lovers to eat more plant-based burgers, hot dogs and chicken nuggets, could help tackle those problems, supporters of plant-based meat have argued.
Research appears to back up those arguments. According to an analysis by CarbonBrief, which compared the plant-based burgers from Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods to ones made from beef, the carbon footprint of the plant-based burgers were 20 times smaller. A John Hopkins University study came up with similar results, finding that imitation beef has 7 percent of the carbon footprint, uses 23 percent of the water and takes up 2 percent of the land that real beef production does. And a report last summer from the Boston Consulting Group, one of the world’s biggest consultancy firms, also found that investments in plant-based meats could lead to far greater cuts in planet-warming emissions than any other green investments, including electric vehicles.
But plant-based meats continue to face real hurdles as a climate solution, as last year’s decline in sales illustrates. For one, the products remain more expensive, costing on average 43 percent more than the real thing, according to the Good Food Institute. Additionally, plant-based meat, while better than real meat, still requires more water, energy and land than simply growing other plant protein from peas and other less demanding vegetables, activists have said. Scientists have also argued that switching to plant-based meat diets isn’t enough to tackle the massive environmental impact of human agriculture and that the world’s food systems must be fundamentally changed to avoid catastrophic warming in the coming decades. Humans have developed a whopping 70 percent of all land on Earth, the U.N. reported last year, with agriculture making up the biggest piece of that pie.
Still, many people in the climate movement believe that plant-based meat remains a useful tool for reducing emissions in the short term, especially if the products can help people make difficult lifestyle changes. In fact, many climate experts have said society will need to implement all the available solutions to tackle the crisis at hand (with the caveat that the most well-established solutions, like quickly transitioning away from fossil fuels, are being adequately pursued).
“We need all hands on deck for faster, bolder climate action,” United Nations Secretary General António Guterres said at the opening ceremony of last year’s COP27 global climate summit. “A window of opportunity remains open, but only a narrow shaft of light remains. The global climate fight will be won or lost in this crucial decade—on our watch.”
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That’s how many Americans believe plant-based meat is a healthier alternative to real meat, according to a 2022 report from Citi Global Insights. That’s down from 50 percent in 2020.