Markets / February 3, 2020

Is Plant-Based Food an Agricultural Game-Changer?

By Erik Miller

Is plant-based food the future? Or just a passing fad? There’s no denying that the number of people who practice plant-based dieting has increased – since 2014, the number of people identifying as vegan or vegetarian has increased 600% in the US alone. Impressively convincing meat substitutes such as the Impossible Burger, which is now sold in over 17,000 restaurants in the US, have become highly successful. As plant-based lifestyles become more mainstream, with celebrities like Jay-Z embracing the trend, it would seem that plant-based diets are becoming a lasting trend.

The End of Meat?

Does this mean that society is on the cusp of leaving meat behind for good? Perhaps. However, vegetarianism and veganism have certainly experienced cycles of popularity before. The 60’s and 70’s saw widespread plant-based movements, and in the 1948 election, the obscure American Vegetarian Party even ran an ill-fated campaign for president on behalf of one John Maxwell. Needless to say, Maxwell failed to win American hearts and minds, but even so, vegetarianism has clearly held a place in our collective consciousness for some time.

This time things seem different. In the Internet age, with global connectivity at all-time highs, people are more free than ever to create consensus as to their preferences, dietary or otherwise. This consensus seems to be leaning more and more towards veganism and vegetarianism, especially in the developed world.

The statistics speak for themselves. Grubhub, a popular food delivery app, reported that orders of vegetarian and vegan food increased 19% between 2016 and 2017, and it is estimated that the amount of plant-based dieters in the UK has increased by 350% in the last decade. Those who espouse plant-based lifestyles cite moral, environmental, and health concerns as the principal factors that inform their decision.

Towards A Plant-Based Economy

Aside from ethical concerns, many supporters of plant-based diets tout a number of economic benefits to reducing global meat consumption. A study from the National Academy of Sciences estimates the total economic benefit of large-scale conversion to healthier, plant-based diets in the trillions of dollars, and reductions in healthcare costs in the US alone could be as high as $250 billion.

Of course, these benefits would be more favorable for some economic sectors than for others. The world’s meat producers are battening down the hatches in anticipation of a serious contraction in global sales, and experts fear that plant-based diets could cost the US a whopping 1% of its GDP. Proponents of plant-based foods point out that this decline would be offset by the growth of other agricultural sectors, but concerns remain.

A broad cultural shift to plant-based foods would also have dire implications for the many people who depend on animal agriculture for their livelihood, especially in emerging markets, where the rural poor often depend on it heavily. With little in the way of available capital or access to educational materials, the transition from plants to animals could be all but impossible for many.

Environmental Impact

Although claims of environmental benefits may be somewhat exaggerated, it is also clear that a large-scale shift to plant-based lifestyles would have a significant impact on carbon emissions. The UN estimates that animal agriculture represents almost 15% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. The reduction in land use for feed growing alone would be huge; in the UK, more land is used to grow feed for animals than to grow food for humans.

The plant-based movement looks like it’s here to stay, and the agriculture industry must once again adapt to this changing dynamic in consumer demand. Companies that have been on the forefront of this trend, such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, have made billions, and even mega-corporations like Nestlé are betting on the lasting impact of plant-based foods. For better or worse, millions of people are moving away from meat, and those who can adapt to this change stand to profit immensely.