Traditionally, one of the arguments against giving up meat was that it’s more expensive

Delicious and completely vegetarian — plant-based meat is increasingly competing with the real thing.

The meat problem

If you’re wondering why more and more people are adamantly against meat consumption, you should know that it’s far more than an ethical problem. Even if you don’t have a problem with slaughtering billions of animals every year, there are still other concerns to consider. For starters, eating meat requires much more water than the equivalent plant foods, while at the same time, produces much more greenhouse gas emissions. At the core level, the reason for this is pretty simple: farm animals only convert about 10% of the food they eat into nutrients which we can eat. Granted, some of that comes from something like straw which we can’t digest — but even so, a large part of what livestock eat could be fed to humans directly.

Take soybeans for example (one of the main drivers of deforestation in the Amazon). Pound per pound, it has just as much protein as beef, and yet some 98% of globally produced soy is fed to livestock. As a result of this inefficiency (and other processes associated with animal farming), veggie burgers generally produce ten times fewer emissions than meat ones, while also using ten times less land and requiring ten times less water.

Health is another issue with meat. More and more science is showing that while meat can provide important nutrients, reducing meat consumption (even without necessarily eliminating it) has important health benefits. Overall, there are numerous benefits  — both in terms of health and in terms of environment — to reducing meat consumption.

But two important problems still remain: taste and price.

Taste has improved dramatically for plant-based meats. Producing soy- or chickpea-based burgers isn’t exactly a new idea, but the bland taste that some people associate them with is long gone. Sure, you can still find generic and bland options on the market (as in any other industry), but nowadays, plant-based meats boast an impressive range with countless variations and recipes. They taste better than ever and simply put, they’ve turned from a good option for vegetarians into a good option — period.

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Cheaper than meat

The problem of price, however, still remains. Up until very recently, vegetarian or vegan meat-like alternatives were simply more expensive.

“Right now, plant-based meat commands a premium in most restaurants and grocery stores,” says Liz Specht, PhD, senior scientist at food nonprofit Good Food Institute. “Given that it is inherently more efficient to make meat directly from plants rather than cycle feed crops through animals, people wonder why plant-based meat is often more expensive than conventional options. There are several factors at play, and understanding these can help us better project what the future might hold for this market.”

However, all that is changing. Already, plant-based alternatives are competitive in many parts of the world. Companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are taking the spotlight, but other groups such as Quorn or Hungry Planet have also been working hard for quite a while to drive down costs. In the new report, Specht says that will only get better.

The main issue, she explains, is that companies simply haven’t reached a large enough size to optimize supply lines.

It’s a simple economic equation. As with all other companies, plant-meat companies need to generate a profit. This means maximizing revenue while cutting down costs. For several of the big producers, the price is optimized, as the companies can barely keep up with demand. So it’s all about cutting costs and optimizing supply chains.

“The lack of scale at this time limits the companies’ ability to negotiate the price of their raw materials (soybeans, peas, etc.). But even more, it limits the type of inputs they can access. Right now, many companies are using ingredients that are essentially minor side streams from other industries,” adds Specht.

For instance, soybean protein (a key ingredient of many plant-based burgers) is often only a byproduct of the soy industry, which mostly focuses on extracting oil or producing animal feed. The same is true for peas, which are also a part of many veggie alternatives. When they will reach a certain demand level, companies will be able to not only reduce costs, but also ensure that plants are grown specifically for the purpose they intend, which will make the resulting foods even more appealing.

As the market takes off, Specht continues, the production of raw materials will be optimized, and there will also be profitable side-streams from the ingredients. For instance, starch-rich fractions of pea can be used for animal feed or fermentation-based ingredients, reducing costs for all parties involved.

As the market continues to grow and mature, it will also attract external investors — which is already what’s happening. A third of the US population is reportedly flexitarian, meaning that they substitute at least some of their meat with plant-based alternatives, and are looking at more options to do so. Investors have picked up on this and there has been a sharp rise in investments in plant-based meat, egg and dairy companies in recent years.

In addition, a large portion of the companies’ budget is involved in R&D. After all, it’s a relatively new field, and the companies are still trying to sort out what works. As things settle into place, the investments into R&D will not need to be as high.

All in all, the plant-based meat industry seems to be coming into its own, and it won’t be long until the tipping point is reached and plant-based meat becomes cheaper than meat — for good.

“Industrial animal agriculture has been operating and optimizing at a global scale for decades. Yet it is still inherently more efficient to make meat directly from plants rather than feeding our crops to animals and then eating a part of the animal. It’s all but inevitable that the plant-based meat industry will eventually be cost-competitive with conventional meat,” Specht concludes.