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Beef, Burgers, and Beyond

Juicy, tender and medium rare…plants? 

In the past few years, there’s been a surge in the production and purchase of plant-based meat alternatives. Some people have been amazed and others horrified, by the proximity of plant-based alternatives to the meat they are mimicking. 
Regardless of perception and opinion, many view meat substitutes as necessary. To be clear, plant-based alternatives have existed for a long time, i.e. veggie burgers. But veggie burgers primarily target vegetarians. These faux meat products serve a completely different purpose. They target meat eaters. 

The new class of alternatives tastes like meat, making it more likely that meat eaters will purchase more products from the likes of Beyond Meat or Impossible Foods and purchase less red meat. The market for meat substitutes comprises vegetarians and vegans too as most products don’t have any animal by-products either.

It’s not a surprise that we are witnessing this rapid transformation in the food industry. Our environmental reality, health and animal safety concerns, and changing preferences necessitate less consumption of meat and greater exploration of its alternatives.

However, a CBInsights research study underlines that meat is nowhere close to being completely replaced by plant substitutes. At the moment, approximately 30% of calories consumed by humans are from meat products such as beef, chicken, and pork. Our demand explains the “30 million beef cows in the US and 21 million pigs in Iowa alone.” Hormel Foods, Tyson and other meat giants have cashed in on our preferences as well – $22.5bn and $20.6bn, respectively. 

But we are becoming more aware of the enormous environmental costs of the lucrative meat industry. Animal-based products use 1799 gallons of water, emit 16 pounds of greenhouse gases (GHG), use 260 square-ft of land, but only cost $1.50 to produce on average. According to the United Nations’ Food & Agriculture Organization, animal agriculture creates 14.5% of GHG emissions, 65% of which are from beef and dairy cattle. 

We also face personal costs with increased consumption of red meat. A Harvard Medical School study concludes that “every extra daily serving of unprocessed red meat (steak, hamburger, pork, etc.) increased the risk of dying prematurely by 13%. Processed red meat (hot dogs, sausage, bacon, and the like) upped the risk by 20%.” It was a thorough and extensive study as it examined 121,000 men and women over the course of 24 years. Among them, 24,000 had died during the course of the study. The researchers found that the rate of death was higher among those who ate the most red meat than among those who ate the least. 

These numbers are alarming and quite frightening. But the good news is that greater exposure to these facts have been shifting people’s demand for plant-based foods. In 2017, vegan orders increased by 19%, and plant based food in retail grew by 20% in 2018 compared to 8% in 2017. Plant-based products are also immensely profitable, totaling $3.3bn sales in 2018. More specifically, plant-based meat alternatives in retail grew by a whopping 24% in 2018, generating $670m in sales. Just two years ago, the meat substitutes only grew 6% in sales. These impressive numbers indicate growing demand as well as an opportunity for the food industry to satisfy consumers’ needs through a profitable venture. 

Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have capitalized on this opportunity and have been relatively successful in the alternative meat industry. Beyond Meat, publicly valued at 5.39bn, exploded on social media platforms when it introduced the Beyond Burger. One of its most popular products, Beyond Burger is sold by McDonald’s, A&W Canada, TGI Fridays, Carl’s Jr., Del Taco, Dunkin’, Hardee’s, and Denny’s. At some locations however, not all Beyond Burger products are vegan or vegetarian as they’re made on the same grill as other patties. The main protein source is pea protein, and beet extract results in the patty’s red color. The Beyond Burger is strictly non-GMO and certified vegan by Vegan Action Foundation. Vox has claimed that Beyond Burger “tastes even more like meat” than regular meat. But Beyond Meat also sells Beyond Beef, Beyond Sausage, and Beyond Beef Crumbles across grocery chains. 

Its rival, Impossible Foods, primarily serves the Impossible Burger, currently available at White Castle, Burger King, Hard Rock Cafe, The Cheesecake Factory, Qdoba, Red Robin, and Fatburger. Little Caesars’ serves the Impossible Supreme Pizza, the only plant-based sausage product available by Impossible Foods. The main difference with Beyond Burger is that the Impossible Burger is made of soy protein concentrate and contains soy leghemoglobin, which makes the patty ‘bleed’. The Impossible Burger is also certified halal and kosher. Although the Impossible Burger contains mainly organic ingredients as well as more vitamins and minerals, it has faced criticism for using genetically modified ingredients, such as the pesticide glyphosate. 

According to the Impossible Foods 2019 Impact Report, the Impossible Burger 2.0 uses 87% less water, 96% less land, 89% fewer GHG emissions, and 92% less dead-zone creating nutrient pollution than if the same burger was made using the most environmentally efficient cattle-based products. Beyond Meat found similar environmental impacts for the Beyond Burger, as its production emits 90% less GHG emissions, requires 46% less energy, 99% less water and 93% less land compared to a quarter pound of U.S. beef. 

However, there has been a backlash against such data points. Marco Springmann, a senior environmental researcher at the University of Oxford argues that although the two companies’ meat alternatives reduce our carbon footprint, complete meat replacement should not be our ultimate objective. He claims that the carbon footprint of the Beyond Burger and Impossible Burger are actually between chicken and beef. Furthermore, these businesses need to be more cognizant of the sustainability claims they make as they’re not sufficiently evidenced by data. 

The meat alternatives movement also faces opposition from cattle farmers. According to The Washington Post, there have been proposed bills in 30 states to stop companies from labeling non-animal products as meat, burger, sausage, jerky or hot dog. Similar laws have already been implemented in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Dakota, South Dakota, Oklahoma and Wyoming. 

Whereas in some states, to address the growing popularity of plant-based meats, a lot of farmers have turned to dry pea harvesting. There was an increase of 28%  in acres used for planting dry peas, from 855,000 acres in 2018 to 1.1 million acres in 2019. But it can be difficult for farmers to dramatically increase production even if the price is right, as that would necessitate equipment changes, and sufficient experience to cultivate dry peas. Moreover, North Dakota and Montana dominated dry pea production, 80% to be exact, in 2018. The two states have more favorable conditions, which isn’t true of all farming states in the U.S. 

There haven’t been structural changes introduced to the farming industry, as meat products still account for 30% of global calorie consumption and meat isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Furthermore, plant-based meat alternatives face a lot of hurdles in terms of regulation, scalability, and ethics. Nonetheless, it’s important to consider the implications of society’s transition to plant-based alternatives, because consumers are now more interested in vegan and vegetarian options and businesses have increased investment in faux meat products. 

Could you ever imagine a meat-less future?  

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Fareeha is majoring in Economics and Public Policy at CAS and only has two more years to go at NYU! Originally, she’s from Bangladesh, a country known for its breathtaking natural beauty and torrential monsoon rains. But she spent a few years in the hot, humid climate of Dubai and on the coastal city of Jakarta. On Her Campus, she writes what she's passionate about; everything from crazy politics to pop culture.
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