Meat substitutes have grown from relative obscurity to near ubiquity in a very short space of time. A once niche product now sees incredibly broad appeal, from high-end dining all the way down to the McDonald’s McPlant. And now, like birds of prey circling the kill, the food conglomerates have arrived to claim their piece of the plant-based pie.
And that plant-based pie sure is a big one. Alternative meat sales reached a record $4.2bn in 2020 and are projected to reach $28bn by 2025. Europe is a leading market for alternative meat, claiming nearly 40% of the market; the UK saw a 50% rise in alt-meat sales in 2020 alone.
And the impact of social trends on the market cannot be overstated. The continuing realisation of the climate emergency – coupled with an increasingly fashionable look for veganism – have conspired to produce the perfect storm of conditions for the market to flourish.
Going by the influx of investment the market as seen over the past two years, it’s safe to assume that the industry’s biggest players expect these trends to continue, too.
While alternative meats were characterised by an abundance of small start-up companies at the beginning, now just four companies own nearly 80% of the market. Kellog alone owns unbelievable 46% of the market, despite producing no own-brand meat alternatives.
Whether or not this is a good thing remains to be seen, but the two sides of the debate go as follows:
Some of the largest meat processors in the world – the likes of JBS, Tyson, and WH Group – are now making major acquisitions or producing alternatives of their own. This could be seen both as an effort to maintain market share while going against the cultural zeitgeist, or simply as a shrewd effort to expand revenue streams.
One this is clear though – while sustainability might be the advertised mission statement of these companies, profit is the key driver of investment here.
Meat alternatives are – just that – one alternative. But they seem far from the best one available. While the levels of animal cruelty involved in the food’s products are greatly reduced, the impact on the environment might be trickier to measure.
Cultivated meat – that is, meat grown from cells in a lab – requires huge amounts of power to produce. Plant-based alternatives also require lots of energy-intensive processing, as well as cultivating the same monocultures that are leading to deforestation in other industries – think soy fields being grown in the Amazon.
Beyond this, the purported health claims of these products are still very much up for debate. Many of these foods fall into the category of ‘ultra-processed’ foods, which many dietary guidelines recommend avoiding. Whether these products are healthier than home-made plant-based alternative to meat is highly unlikely.
Whether alternative meats turn out to be a fad or a mainstay of the food industry remains to be seen. The industry titans have sure put their money where their mouth is, hedging their bets that the trend will continue – but who knows what trend is around the corner next.
The animal meat conglomerates are joining other food giants that already control about 80% of the meat alternative market, including Kellogg’s, which owns the MorningStar Farms brand, and Conagra, which owns Gardein.