August 18, 2022

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Plant-Based Burgers Aren’t Denting Our Beef Addiction

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 Blaustin-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.

Blaustin-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.