Will Meatless Alternatives Devour The Traditional Meat Industry?

Meatless meat producers are on a roll, but what does this mean for industry?

Alternative meat products have come a long way in recent years. In 2013, Dr. Mark Post tucked into a lab grown burger that looked, smelled, and most importantly tasted like the real thing. Since then the market for lab grown protein – otherwise known as clean or meatless meat – has exploded, attracting major investment and endorsement. Business tycoon Richard Branson believes that clean meat will fully replace traditional meat in 30 years’ time. Where is the industry today, and what does it mean for incumbent meat producers?

Rearing a new market

In the past few years, interest in alternative proteins has rocketed. The reasons for this are clear. At its current growth rate, the world’s population will reach eight billion by 2024. Feeding this number of people is a serious concern, but innovative FoodTech solutions could help to respond to the challenge. Another factor comes from concern for the environment. The traditional meat industry uses up 30 per cent of the earth’s arable land, not to mention creating greenhouse gas emissions.

As well as protecting the environment, consumers want to make better decisions for their own health. Red meat is thought to raise cholesterol due to high levels of saturated fat. Additionally, some people are uneasy about the antibiotics and other medications given to livestock.

There are ethical angles here, too. Some meat eaters accept that animals are killed for consumption, but don’t agree with poor treatment. It’s difficult to know what conditions the animal lived in before it was slaughtered.

We now have a consumer market (in Western society, at least) that still eats meat, but less so than before. A handful of key companies – Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods and Memphis Meats in particular – are already coming to the fore. Big businesses have certainly recognised the power of these combined factors to disrupt their industry. Tyson Foods, for example, the largest meat supplier in the US, joined a $55m investment round in Beyond Meat. Nestle predicts that plant based foods will achieve a $5bn market share by 2020, and supermarkets have visibly increased their vegan and vegetarian options.

Slaughtering a traditional industry

A strong argument for reducing meat consumption is that it will be better for the environment. This might be true, but changing supply chains will only change the resources that are used, and could even lead to an employment crisis for farmers and producers. The target market for meatless meats may not be vegetarians and vegans, but perhaps it should be given that these lifestyles are undoubtedly on the rise. While environmentally and health conscious meat eaters may well jump at the chance to do their bit to reduce their carbon footprint or cholesterol, mass adoption always rests on price. The meatless products available today are more expensive per pound than meat itself, which will ultimately be the deciding factor for a large proportion of consumers. Meatless meat may be better for the environment, our health and our consciences, but is it realistic? One of the major criticisms of plant based proteins lies in scalability, but companies appear to be addressing this issue. Impossible Foods, for example, opened its large scale Oakland plant last summer.

The metamorphosis of meat

Mass meatless meat consumption is likely to have implications, first and foremost, for the incumbents that make their money from animal or fish proteins. The handful of companies with a huge market share will have to decide whether or not to invest in and consequently envelop their competitors. Meatless alternatives will also compete with cattle farmers, and could eventually lead to a reduction in livestock herds. This won’t happen immediately, though. Producers may start with a blend of meat and plant based ingredients as they gradually transition to not using meat at all. Replacing farms, feed stations, slaughterhouses and packaging facilities with a single factory or lab will also clean up the supply chain and simplify food production. Once meatless meat options become established, producers are likely to consider doing the same for other products, such as fishless fish.

If the steady adoption of dairy free options is anything to go by, meat free products are well on the way to achieving a considerable market share. Whether or not this will happen within three decades is debatable, but major players have already emerged in Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods, and Memphis Meats. Their popularity is due to the fact that they have recognised and addressed a relatively new trend in consumer preferences. Customers want to eat foods that are good for both them and the environment. For the most part, meat does not meet the criteria. However, even meatless meat companies face the difficult task of convincing diehard meat eaters, and the vegan and vegetarian community, to convert to clean meat.

What other implications could meatless meats have for different industries? Will consumers choose meatless meats over the real thing? Do you agree that lab grown, clean meat options will dominate the market in the next 30 years? Share your opinions.