“Had my first ‘fake’ meat burger today Tom – how realistic is it that it’ll overtake real meat consumption in the next 50 years?”
This question came on my #AskAFuturist thread from Will O’Hara. So far in this series I’ve been answering questions that I had researched in the past, usually for client projects. This one though is largely new to me, albeit we skimmed it as part of the future pizza project. So I’ll use this as an opportunity to not just give my answer, but to show my working out as well.
Context: What is ‘fake meat’?
The first thing we have to do is define what we mean by fake meat. Vegetarian meat alternatives have been around a long time, both in their generic forms (like soya protein) and branded (e.g. Quorn). In the last few years there have been two distinct crazes around what might be considered ‘fake meat’. The first is a group of entirely plant-based products designed to come closer to the real thing. The most famous proponents of this approach, Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, have started with the ubiquitous burger. Both use a mixture of proteins, binders and natural colours to produce something with a texture and flavour that is at least analogous to the beef original.
The second set of products is lab grown meat, produced by the likes of the Eat JUST and Memphis Meats – more US start-ups. This approach takes real meat cells and cultures them – i.e. gets them to replicate – creating ‘real’ meat without the slaughter of animals. These products are still at the development stage right now. They’re technically feasible but scaling them up to mass production is a major challenge.
So for the sake of this article I will focus on the first category. What you might call next-generation plant-based meat alternatives. In order to answer Will’s question, we have to understand why people might swap real meat for these alternatives. That leads us to our pressure points.
Pressure points: replacing meat
One of the first issues you will hear any fake meat advocate raise is the impact of the livestock industry on the climate. Cows, as you’re no doubt aware, burp and fart a lot, and are a major contributor to climate changes gases as a result. Agriculture as a whole represents around 22% of total greenhouse gas emissions for which humans are ultimately responsible (anthropogenic). Livestock accounts for nearly two thirds of this (14.5%), and this is before you take into account the costs of processing and transportation. The production of meat, particularly beef, consumes an enormous amount of land – land that is often cleared of trees to make way for the cattle, further contributing to the impact of meat production. On top of all this, meat production is an incredibly input-intensive way of producing food. You have to put a hell of a lot of calories – and often overlooked, water – into a cow to produce the ultimate nutritional value for a human. Chickens are more efficient* but still a long way from plants. There’s a good argument that we would do a lot better if humans just ate the plants rather than feeding them to a cow first.
Some people just don’t want to kill animals to eat meat. And ‘some people’ seems to represent a growing portion of the population. I’m not convinced by how rigorous this survey is, but it suggests that ‘for the animals’ is the reason most people turn to veganism.
There does seem to be a connection between how abstracted we our from the food production process and our squeamishness about eating our fellow creatures. Given how little experience most of us have now of the realities of agriculture and food production, it seems likely that more and more people will feel this way. Especially given the quality of alternatives on offer.
Anecdotally, one thing I have noticed over the last twenty years is that even some people who eat meat, don’t like it to look like meat. They can’t cope with bones and certainly not offal of any kind. Personally, I think that if you can only face meat when it has been processed beyond recognition, then you probably shouldn’t be eating it anyway.
One of the reasons meat is such a big problem from both a climate and a cruelty perspective is that it has become too cheap. Go back to the mid-1800s and our meat consumption per capita was around 100 grams per day. Today it’s over 220 grams. You have to factor in to that, that there was a lot of pent-up demand for food back then. But that demand was filled in part by cheap meat from imports and the growing mechanisation of the industry.
Meat on the whole remains too cheap. But relatively to that low base, high quality and responsibly farmed meat seems relatively expensive. In 15 years living with a vegetarian (now two vegetarians), my meat intake has declined massively and I’ve become hyper-aware of just how much a small amount of meat bumps up the weekly shopping bill. While fake meats are relatively expensive right now (we’ll come to whether that will change), there are lots of cheaper plant-based alternatives.
Trends: choice and power
This brings us to the trends affecting meat consumption and the switch to fake meats. I want to highlight two here particularly.
Power: augmenting health through knowledge
The first trend is around our health. We are more aware of the functioning of our own bodies now than ever before. And arguably more conscious of our appearance. The second most common reason for people to turn vegan after concern for animals is apparently health, according to the survey linked above.
The idea that, from a health perspective, meat is bad and plants are good is clearly nonsense. As will likely be inscribed on my grave stone, it’s a little more complicated than that. But there’s very little money to be made preaching the common sense approach of a balanced diet. And there is a lot of hype right now around veganism, with many celebrities converting to the plant-based cause. This creates a fertile environment for highly-valued start-ups producing branded meat alternatives, serving the group who were very happy eating meat but who have chosen not to for perceived health benefits.
Choice: a competitive market for alternatives
Fake meat is hot right now but one thing we know about our hyper-connected world of low-friction innovation is that it will produce alternatives. Many alternatives. We don’t shop and eat in a world of meat, veg and grains any more. We have a cornucopia of choice on offer across every super market. Now, how processed and how healthy those options are might vary. But the diversity on offer is only going to increase.
This affects the meat industry as it too faces more competition. But it means we can’t set up meat and fake meat as binary choices – there are already many options, including the first generation of meat substitutes and the lab grown meat coming down the pipeline.
So what happens when we look at the collision between these pressure points and the big trends? To me it is pretty clear that average meat consumption in the UK is now on a long term downward trend. This will be driven by a combination of our falling acceptance of meat consumption, the rise of good alternatives, and the compounding factors of health trends and climate awareness.
But I don’t see meat going away altogether. Not for a long time – longer than the 50 years suggested in Will’s original question. It will likely become a more expensive choice as volumes decline. And there will be many alternatives, not just fake meat. But in 50 years I’m willing to bet it will still be on the menu.
So, will we be eating more fake meat than real meat in 50 years? I think the answer is probably ‘yes’, with a fairly broad definition of fake meat that includes the current generation of plant-based alternatives, and those that are sure to follow. Whether we still call them fake meat by then is a different matter. The industry may be forced by the farm lobby to call its products something that distinguishes them from meat. And consumers may well want that too.
*Note that these are US figures. As many meat and dairy advocates have pointed out, different farming regimes have very different inputs and outputs.