Around the world, meat is a business worth over $2 trillion. In the last 50 years, global meat consumption has doubled. In 2017, the U.S. alone produced approximately 100 billion lbs. of meat, with production growing at a rate between 2% to 3% per year. In 2016, the U.S. meat and poultry industry accounted for $1.02 trillion in total economic output, representing 5.6% of U.S. GDP. The industry employs 5.4 million people, who earn $257 billion in wages.
IDTechEx Technology Analyst Dr. Michael Dent has recently published a new report titled “Plant-based and cultured meat 2020-2030: technologies, markets and forecasts in novel meat replacements”, focusing on the future of novel meat alternatives.
Dent asserts that the industry in its current form is not sustainable. Animal livestock uses a disproportionally large amount of land. Of the 51 million km2 of agricultural land worldwide, 77% is used for livestock. Despite this, only 17% of global caloric consumption comes from animals, with plant-based foods supplying 83% of global caloric intake and only 33% of global protein intake coming from meat and dairy. The amount of available agricultural land is dwindling, yet the global population is still rising and is expected to reach 10 billion by the year 2050. Feeding this many people will require an increase in global food production of 70%.
Animal agriculture is also damaging to the environment — the practice contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, water stress, and environmental pollution. Although the world cannot realistically afford to carry on at this rate of meat consumption, the planet is very unlikely to become vegetarian. Instead, there is a large opportunity for any company that can create realistic substitutes for meat products. Plant-based and cultured meats have emerged as two of the most promising types of meat after having recently grown in the market at a rapid pace.
Plant-based meat analogues: substance behind the hype?
Plant-based foods are potentially far more sustainable than meat since they require less land and water while generating fewer emissions. As of late, plant-based meat substitutes have generated a lot of hype. In the wake of the trend, there have been concerns regarding whether or not plant-based meat could eventually replace conventional meat as part of a sustainable future.
Despite global meat consumption increasing over the previous decades, there is a growing market for vegetarian and vegan substitutes. This trend can be explained by a growing media focus on the ethical, environmental, and health issues associated with eating meat; the uptake by 95% of consumers who are not vegetarian or vegan also plays a factor. Growing consumer demand has been met with significant investment from major food and beverage companies, along with investment bodies. Impossible Foods has received over $750 million in funding; in its first three months since going public, Beyond Meat experienced a 500% growth in its share price, leaving the company’s valuation at nearly $9 billion. Major food companies such as Tyson and Kroger are getting on board by releasing their own plant-based products.
However, the “healthy” label could be problematic for plant-based meat. Products like the Impossible Burger and the Beyond Burger are not necessarily healthier than their meat counterparts since they contain high levels of fat and salt. There are consumer concerns about the levels of processing that go into plant-based meat products, and the price of plant-based meat is also an elephant in the room. Plant-based meats are often much more expensive than their animal-based counterparts and they will struggle to become more than a premium product until they can reach price parity with meat. With major technical and supply chain challenges to overcome, this is easier said than done.
Cultured meat: will it ever be a reality?
Plant-based meats often struggle to replicate the taste and texture of meat. For all the environmental and ethical benefits, to many consumers, it’s just not meat. A potential answer is the use of “cultured meat”, “cell-based meat”, or “clean meat”, with the latter producing from in vitro cultivation of animal cells rather than by slaughtering animals. This would theoretically enable the production of “meat” products totally identical to those obtained through animal slaughter, but grown in a lab.
Since the world’s first cultured burger was produced in 2013, the industry has grown at a rapid pace, with startups around the globe competing to be the first company to commercialize a cultured meat product. However, the industry is still in its infancy, facing major technological hurdles. Despite bullish claims from industry startups, it might be decades until cultured meat products are widely available in stores and restaurants.