By Paul Shapiro
At a time when some particularly purist vegans are expressing concern over whether Burger King cooks its Impossible Whoppers on the same grill as its conventional Whoppers, it’s not a surprise that some in the vegan community weren’t exactly enthused by recent announcements from companies like Perdue and Tyson. These meat giants both touted that they’d soon offer less-meat products that, rather than being solely meat — their norm — are instead blended with plant proteins. (Tyson’s is a burger that’s half-beef and half-pea protein, while Perdue’s are chicken nuggets and patties blended both with vegetables and a proprietary plant protein formula provided by a company I cofounded, The Better Meat Co.)
Of course, many pragmatists in the alt-protein community, including the Good Food Institute (GFI), lauded these announcements as important progress, as did dozens of other leaders in the space. Perdue even quoted GFI in its press release. But one person I was surprised to see expressing at least some concern about of the blend trend was a person who’s certainly far from a purist: Nil Zacharias, the author of Eat for the Planet.
I like and respect Nil, and am a regular listener of his insightful podcast, on which he was kind enough to have me as a guest. So I take what he has to say seriously. As I told him when I saw a tweet of his wondering whether blending was a good thing or not, if I believed that my company providing Perdue with a plant protein formula that they could blend into their nuggets and patties was anything other than good for chickens, I wouldn’t do it.
Nil’s critique (linked above) offers a thoughtful response to these announcements, and to be fair, he doesn’t come out against blending, but rather asks provocative questions implying skepticism. Ultimately, I think that skepticism may be unwarranted, though, and here’s why.
Nil lays out an impressive array of announcements in the plant-based space that offer the impression that things are inevitably moving in the right direction. Taken on their own, it seems like a plant-based paradise awaits around the corner. In fact, when discussing some meat companies’ recent association with fully vegan products, he goes so far as to say, “While I hate to let perfect be the enemy of good, I have news for you — perfect seems to already be winning!”
I too am glad to see meat companies acquiring plant-based brands, but it’s helpful to remember that these same meat companies are also expanding their own animal meat brands at the same time, including building new slaughter facilities. And there’s a reason for it: they’re supplying demand for animal meat, which is at historic highs.
The reality is that meat consumption is rising in the U.S. and around the world. We raise and slaughter more animals for food than ever before. Most Americans say they plan to maintain or increase their meat consumption in the next year. To give some perspective, the entire plant-based meat sector makes up under one percent of meat sales right now.
Even under the most optimistic predictions, by 2029, animal meat will still comprise 90 percent of the meat market. There really is no way around the conclusion that hundreds of billions of animals will surely be raised for food in that time.
The percentage of Americans who are vegetarian hasn’t really changed much in decades. Compounding that, those numbers are even worse than they appear: About 60 percent of self-identified vegetarians include meat when asked to list everything they ate recently. And 84 percent of people who become vegetarian or vegan eventually abandon the diet.
But even if the percentage of people who never eat meat remains very small, surely North Americans are eating less meat per person, right? Sadly, no. In fact, we’re now eating more meat per person than ever before. Same with China. Even in Israel, which has garnered headlines for its plant-based progress, per capita meat consumption is extremely high.
In other words, just as — even under the best case scenario — nearly everyone is going to be using fossil fuels for years to come, we can expect that animal-based meat is going to be in the human diet for many years to come, too. The question is: what can we do to help improve this pressing situation?
Hybrids (Cars and Meat) Are Part of the Solution
Just as environmentalists welcome wind, solar, geothermal, and other cleaner energy strategies as a way to reduce fossil fuel use, sustainable food advocates should welcome a variety of efforts, too. Yes, those include meat-reduction efforts like Meatless Mondays, whole foods plant-based diets, plant-based meats, and hopefully soon cultured meats. But, as is also the case in reducing fossil fuel use, it also includes blending.
Imagine if environmentalists were to criticize automakers for releasing hybrid gas-electric cars rather than just going all-electric. Surely most people recognize that oil-powered cars will be with us for years, so why not at least make them use a lot less oil? It’s great that there are all-electric cars out there, but they still represent about one percent of cars in the US. At least that’s better than plant-based meat, which is still sitting at less than one percent of meat sold in the US.
Consider the following thought experiment: what would reduce oil use more: doubling the number of electric cars from 1 to 2 percent, or getting 10 percent of the 99 percent of conventional cars to become hybrids, dramatically cutting the amount of oil that 10 percent uses? You get where this is going.
The same is so with meat. Why not, in addition to advancing plant-based meat, help ensure that meat products today use far fewer animals? If 99+ percent of meat today is coming from animals, why not subtract a large portion of that animal meat in exchange for plant protein instead?
If we’re excited about plant proteins starting to displace animal meat in the meat aisle at supermarkets, why not also be excited about it displacing animal meat in the meat itself?
In the End
I agree with Nil that there’s a concern about media outlets referring to blended products as “plant-based.” (I’ve not seen any meat company do that, though.) That sows confusion and isn’t helpful. But that’s not a knock on the concept of blending any more than it would be a knock on hybrids if a journalist called Toyota’s Prius a “clean energy car.” Sure, it may not really be true, but you’re still glad that automakers are offering hybrids. If more drivers switched to them, assuredly we’d be emitting far fewer greenhouse gas emissions.
Similarly, if meat companies can entice everyday meat consumers to eat fewer animals simply by buying the products they already enjoy, that seems quite good. It doesn’t replace the need for plant-based meats, which are overwhelmingly purchased by meat-eaters. It just means that when those consumers do opt for animal meat, they’ll be getting a product that’s better for them and the world, just like a hybrid car.