According to a new report published by Boston Consulting Group (BCG), one of the three largest management consulting firms in the world, more and more consumers are aware of “alternative proteins” and shifting to them — a move that could be extremely helpful to our climate efforts. According to the report, the world may even reach “peak meat” within the next decade, after which consumption of animal protein may decline.
If you were to ask most people about what they could do to tackle climate change, they’ll probably say things about cars or heating or turning off the lights. But while those can indeed be significant, a big contributor to climate change usually flies under the radar: meat.
The world eats a lot of meat. Every year, we devour (or throw away) some 66 billion chickens; 1.5 billion pigs; 300 million cattle; 600 million sheep; 480 million goats; and several tens of millions of other animals like turkeys, rabbits, and ducks. Our meat consumption takes up disproportionately large areas of land, uses disproportionately large amounts of water, and produces a whopping amount of greenhouse gases. Livestock provides just 18% of calories but take up 83% of farmland, and animal consumption alone is responsible for 15% of our global greenhouse gas emissions.
Bruce Friedrich, Executive Director at The Good Food Institute, likens the consumption of chicken to tossing eight plates of pasta in the trash for every one that we eat. “Essentially we’re entering into a relationship wherein 800 percent of what is grown is thrown away,” he said at a 2016 talk at the Yale School of Management. “That is just one of the reasons that animal agriculture is crying out to be disrupted.”
So if you’d want to reduce your climate impact, it would be a good place to start.
“If the total market for animal-based products, which is responsible for 15% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) missions, were to shift to alternatives, it would eliminate 11% of currently projected emissions in 2030,” the BCG writes in its report. “This may be the best investment opportunity we have yet seen to combat the climate crisis.”
But consumers are starting to catch on. BCG research shows that people around the world are starting to buy into alternative proteins (non-animal protein) — and many are happy with what they find. This was accentuated in the pandemic lockdown, when people became more aware of their health.
According to the report, alternative proteins will represent 11% of all protein consumption by 2035. With support from policymakers, technology, and investors, the figure could rise up to 22%. That’s the equivalent of decarbonizing the entire aviation or maritime industry — that’s how much of a difference eating less meat can do. But progress is not guaranteed.
Change is not a given
So the alternative protein industry is experiencing growth — but growth is not a given. Some consumers may prioritize reducing their climate impact and ethics, but most won’t, and even those who do also care about other things.
Transformations, especially those involving things as complex as our food system, require continuous progress, and progress is not always linear (we’re seeing this in the case of electric cars as well, which follow a jagged growth pattern).
Basically, progress is needed in three areas for alternative protein to become truly mainstream: health, taste, and price. As Anuj Maheshwari of Singapore state investment firm Temasek Holdings told BCG, “It is not a given that consumers will switch to alternative proteins for the sake of climate impact, unless expectations for taste, texture, cost, and nutritional value are met.”
However, the upward trend is looking positive, especially as awareness seems greater in younger generational groups.
This is good news. Although the survey was relatively small (a sample size of 3,729 people in 7 countries), the results were consistent with reported market trends. Although just a small minority of the surveyed population consumes exclusively alternative protein, over a third report trying to balance things evenly or consuming more alternative protein. A third were unaware or unwilling to try. This suggests that while there’s still a lot of room to grow, alternative proteins have a strong foothold to build on. Yet again, the results were remarkably consistent across different countries with substantially different food preferences.
The money is starting to line up
It’s not just the consumers that are driving change — companies are starting to change as well. Or rather, consumer demands have reached a point where they are starting to influence companies. Many traditional companies have started investing in alternative protein. This is not only bringing costs down, but also driving innovation and progress in the field.
“Advances in technology have occurred along the entire alternative protein value chain and are helping bring new products to market. Costs are falling, drawing them closer to parity with conventional animal protein products, and hybrid products are emerging as a way for fermentation- and animal-cell-based ingredients to reach consumers more quickly,” the report notes.
Plant-based products have already reached parity with the meat products they aim to replace (or are very close to reaching parity) — and their price is expected to continue dropping — which makes them more and more attractive to many. This includes the Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods type products. The fermentation-based products, which use microbes as “cell factories” for producing protein, are expected to achieve parity around 2026 — their price will continue to drop after that as well; this type of products will also aim at non-meat animal products like dairy or egg.
Lastly, animal cell based products, or cultivated meat, is expected to be price competitive with “traditional” meat by 2035. This is particularly notable since the first lab-grown burger was only created in 2013 and cost a whopping $300,000 to produce — showing just how far the industry has come.
A climate hope
This is not just about the business or ethics of replacing animal products — it’s about climate. If the world truly wants to avoid a climate catastrophe (which we’re currently headed for), just turning off the lights isn’t enough. We need to transform a lot about our society, and we need to do so quickly; reducing animal agriculture is exactly the type of low-hanging fruit we need.
We’re fortunate that these developments come now, and not later because timing is crucial. If consumption of alternative protein truly grows as expected, it could be a key asset in our fight to reduce emissions.
It’s important to keep in mind that this isn’t just carbon, either: a lot of our methane emissions comes from agriculture as well, and methane, while not as long-lived as carbon dioxide, is a much more potent greenhouse gas, so reducing methane levels will come with an almost immediate cooling effect. Basically, we’d have an almost immediate positive result.
Any significant overall change in diets toward more alternative proteins will have an immediate cooling effect on the planet, since GHG emissions from animal farming include a substantial portion of methane—as much as 50%. Methane has a much higher global warming potential than CO2 and a much shorter atmospheric lifetime. Consequently, reducing methane levels in the atmosphere doesn’t just prevent further warming; it comes with a cooling effect.
Andrei's background is in geophysics, and he's been fascinated by it ever since he was a child. Feeling that there is a gap between scientists and the general audience, he started ZME Science -- and the results are what you see today.