By Paul Shapiro
No doubt about it: makers of plant-based meat are experiencing blockbuster growth during the pandemic for a variety of reasons. From widespread slaughter plant shutdowns restricting supply and increasing prices to concerns about the treatment of those employed in those plants to attention on the connection between pandemics and how we treat animals, many Americans are exploring the plant-based world in earnest.
That’s why news outlets like Forbes are correctly touting: “Alternative Meat Sales Soar Amid Pandemic.” After all, the percentage gains for plant-based meats are even greater than for animal-based meat.
Plant-Based Meat Sales are Beefed-Up, but Are Still Dwarfed by Animal Meat Increases
As impressive as this beefed-up growth is for the plant-based meat movement, it’s helpful to recall that animal meat demand has also never been higher, and the actual gains for animal meat producers dwarf those of the plant-based meat-makers.
According to Feedstuffs, “since the onset of the pandemic-related changes in grocery patterns, the meat department has seen an additional $5.0 billion in sales, versus an additional $100.3 million for plant-based meat alternatives.”
In other words, the increase in actual dollars spent on animal-based meat during the pandemic has been 50 times higher than the increase spent on plant-based meat.
That said, the same Feedstuffs story notes that plant-based meat has climbed to 1.5 percent of total dollars spent on meat items at grocery stores (fresh and frozen), certainly the highest I’ve ever seen it. However, keep in mind that plant-based meat typically sells for 200 to 500 percent the cost of conventional meat, so percent of dollars spent will be higher than the percent of actual meat sold.
And when it comes to measuring those pounds of actual meat, Feedstuffs makes it clear that plant-based meat’s share has actually decreased during the pandemic since animal-based meat has climbed so rapidly. They write: “Despite percentage gains being higher, the absolute gains in pounds for meat versus meat alternatives caused the share to drop during the pandemic. Meat alternatives presented 0.82% of total sales in the first week of March and dropped to a low of 0.59% in the week of April 12. The share for the week of May 10 stood at 0.70%.”
Translated: Even with meaty-oric growth in demand for plant-based meats, more than 99 percent of the fresh and frozen meat sold at grocery stores still comes from conventional animal meat, with less than one percent coming from plant-based meat.
If you then consider that the numbers are likely even more dramatic in the restaurant industry, you start to see just how much more there is to do for plant-based meat to start making a real dent in what are historically high meat production numbers.
To affirm this point, Rebellyous Foods CEO Christie Lagally calculates that “In the United States, we produce more than 105 billion pounds of animal meat each year. Best estimates of U.S. plant-based meat production hovers just around 200 million lbs per year. That’s a fifth of one percent (0.2%) of the total U.S. meat production by volume.”
Lagally’s numbers (99.8 percent of meat sold is animal-based meat) seem to align with the data coming out of the pandemic too. Even with the majorly impressive gains of the past couple months, plant-based meat is still substantially less than one percent of the total volume of meat sold in the U.S.
For me, the takeaways are twofold:
First, plant-based meat advocates should celebrate the gains being made. But we should also recognize what an asterisk plant-based meat still is at the present moment when viewed in the context of the whole meat industry. The world isn’t abandoning meat; quite the opposite. Meat demand has never been higher and is projected to keep rising.
Second, the opportunity in this space is just massive. Fifteen years ago plant-based milk was comparably small, and now it’s 13 percent of fluid milk market sales. (It’s much smaller in cheese, though, which is why dairy cow numbers are up.) Fifteen years from now, will alt-meat not be so “alt” anymore? That’s what experts like Barclays are predicting.
In other words, the sky’s the limit on growth in plant-based meat. And there’s room for many more companies to enter the space and build an even more robust industry that will continue to increase its share of the market and ultimately reduce humanity’s footprint on the planet.
Paul Shapiro is the author of the national bestseller Clean Meat: How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner and the World, the CEO of The Better Meat Co., a four-time TEDx speaker, and the host of the Business for Good Podcast.