Plant-Based Burgers Aren’t Denting Our Beef Addiction

Alternative proteins were meant to reduce the carbon footprint of our diets. But it doesn’t look like people are switching ... yet.
plant based meats on trays repeated
Photograph: Getty Images

In the past couple of years, meatless meats have been on a wild ride. In May 2019, Beyond Meat went public and its share price soared by 163 percent—the most successful opening day for any company since 2008. A year later, as the pandemic wreaked havoc on slaughterhouses, plant-based meat sales in the US boomed. By the end of 2020, grocery sales of plant-based meat and seafood were up by 46 percent. At the same time, a glut of fast food brands were getting in on the action and announcing their own plant-based launches.

After the hype came the slowdown. US retail sales in 2021 stayed stubbornly at their 2020 levels. Beyond Meat’s share price has tumbled to around 14 percent of its mid-2019 peak, while its net losses increased to $182.1 million. McDonald’s US test of the McPlant burger—which contains one of Beyond’s meatless patties—ended without any confirmation that the fast food behemoth has plans to take the collaboration further. The dizzying turnaround in the hype cycle is causing people to wonder: Is the plant-based meat revolution already running out of steam?

It’s a good question. But maybe we should start with an even more basic one. Like, what the hell are plant-based meats for in the first place? It’s easy to imagine lots of potential futures for plant-based meat, points out Glynn Tonsor, an agricultural economist at Kansas State University. We could have a world in which people start swapping their vegetables for soy protein burgers or conventional meat consumption stays the same—or increases—but people supplement their meat-heavy diets with some extra plant-based meat. The retail market for plant-based meats would soar in these scenarios, but this wouldn’t necessarily deliver on promises of reducing the carbon emissions of our diets or animal suffering in the world.

If you’re interested in emissions and animal welfare—which the founders of Beyond Meat certainly are—then you might want to look beyond the sheer size of the plant-based-meat market and ask a different question. Are people swapping meat for plant-based alternatives? And since beef has many times the emissions of other kinds of meat, it makes even more sense to ask whether people are trading their cow-based hamburgers for pea and soy protein patties. “Displacing beef is a major goal for plant-based meat,” says Emily Cassidy, a research associate at the World Resources Institute’s Food Program. “In terms of agricultural emissions, beef is the elephant in the room.”

This is where things get tricky. Figuring out whether plant-based meats are replacing beef isn’t something you can tell from share prices or total retail sales. Instead, we have to rely on data from surveys and analyses of supermarket shopping carts. The evidence we do have suggests the Great Displacement isn’t happening (yet). “There’s relatively little evidence that plant-based meat alternatives are currently displacing conventional meat,” says Dan Blaustein-Rejto, director of food and agriculture at the Breakthrough Institute.

One recent study tracked the buying habits of nearly 38,000 US households over two years. It found that people who bought plant-based meat at least once in that period actually ended up buying slightly more ground meat after their first purchase of a meat alternative, although these households tended to spend less on ground meat overall compared to those that never purchased meat alternatives. And most people who bought plant-based meats also bought ground meat—strongly suggesting that the demand for plant-based meat was coming from flexitarian households, or from meat eaters who were eager to experiment with alternative proteins.

Another way to figure out the impact plant-based meats are having is to look at how price changes impact the demand for various kinds of meat. A study of retail data from a couple of years ago showed that when the price of plant-based meats went down, demand for them went up, but when the price of animal meats fluctuated, demand for those products didn’t fluctuate as widely. The study also found that rather than displacing red meat, plant-based meats tended to be bought alongside beef and pork and usually seemed to be a substitute for chicken, turkey, and fish—which have a much lower carbon footprint than beef. All of this suggests that on the whole, people see beef as a mainstay of their dinner plates, while other forms of protein can come and go.

To Blaustein-Rejto, the data suggests that most people are using plant-based meats as an extra source of protein rather than a direct replacement for meat. “It seems that it’s people who aren’t eating much meat who are turning to these products,” he says. But the average American eats over 80 pounds of beef every year—plant-based meats would need to put a dent in that figure to have a positive environmental impact.

Blaustein-Rejto is optimistic over the longer term. In the US, plant-based burger patties are 65 percent more expensive than their animal-based equivalents. Survey data suggests that if the price of a beef burger and a plant-based patty were equal, about 20 to 30 percent of people would choose the plant-based option. If that held true in the future, it could add up to a lot of people switching from beef to plant-based alternatives. Tonsor cautions, however, that people tend to exaggerate these decisions in hypothetical situations, so we might not see such a high rate of swapping in the real world.

There are some signs that this dynamic could start to play out, however. In the Netherlands, rising meat prices mean that vegan meat is now slightly cheaper than its animal counterparts. In Europe, plant-based meat sales increased by 19 percent in 2021, which could reflect higher meat prices or suggest a greater willingness on the part of European people—who on average eat much less beef than Americans—to try plant-based alternatives.

Focusing on taste and price are the main priorities for the plant-based meat industry, says Celia Homyak, codirector of the Alt:Meat Lab at the University of California, Berkeley, but more work needs to be done to make people aware of the environmental benefits of these foods. “Ultimately people’s taste buds lead them in a certain direction, but until they are informed or guided in that way, they won’t get there.” Because people who eat plant-based meats are the minority in the US, survey data suggests that on the whole, people view vegan meats much less favorably than beef burgers across a broad range of categories, including taste, protein content, and environmental impact.

And there might be an even bigger factor threatening the success of plant-based meat in the US: chicken. Over the past 50 years, the dominant trend in meat-eating has been a shift from beef to chicken. Americans now eat more than two and a half times as much of the stuff as they did in 1971. Some of that increase has come at the expense of beef, and some has been part of an overall increase in meat consumption per capita. Switching from beef to chicken is a net win in terms of emissions, but chicken still has a higher environmental impact than plant-based meats, and chickens tend to live much worse lives than cattle (plus you need to eat a lot of chickens to add up to one cow). “The popularity of chicken is a huge barrier for the growth of plant-based meats,” says Blaustein-Rejto. Chicken is cheap, nutritious, and growing in popularity, and it’s not clear that plant-based meats will change this trajectory.

But maybe we shouldn’t set such a high bar for meatless meats. Global meat consumption is expected to increase 14 percent by 2030. Even slowing this growth by a fraction would be a step in the right direction in terms of emissions and animal welfare. And the plant-based meat industry is still in its infancy. “Plant-based meat sales grew faster than anyone could have imagined over the past few years,” says Blaustein-Rejto, so it’s not surprising that the industry is currently seeing a cooldown. Meatless meat brands have proven that people are willing to give these products a chance when they are still expensive and novel—now it’s time to show that hungry customers will keep returning once they’re cheap.