Investor funding burgeons in plant-based proteins, but it hasn’t decreased meat consumption

In mid-March, alternative-protein-promoting non-profit Good Food Institute (GFI) released data showing that investment in the alt-meat market surged in 2020, hitting a record high of $3.1-billion, while sales of meat were up 19.2 percent over the past year.

Companies focused on plant meats, eggs, and dairy (as opposed to fermentation and cell-based-meat ventures) accounted for the lion’s share of that windfall, taking in three times the amount of capital they raised in 2019.

Hot on the heels of GFI’s report, Boston Consulting Group and Blue Horizon Corporation predicted that alt meat would comprise 11 percent of the protein market by 2035—climbing to 97-million metric tons annually from 13-million now. And just after that revelation, Food Dive reported that self-identified meat eaters dropped from 85 percent in 2019 to 71 percent in 2020.

All this news gave alt-meat proponents lots of reason for optimism. GFI released a statement from senior investor engagement specialist Sharyn Murray, celebrating the investor community “waking up to the massive social and economic potential of food technology to radically remake our food system.”

David Benzaquen, who runs plant-based-consumer research company Moonshot Collaborative, told The Counter that the uptick in funding — mostly by “traditional institutional investors” in Asia — is the “culmination of more people wanting to eat flexitarian and investors recognising the massive risk from the animal farming industry.”

Still, sales of meat were up 19.2 percent over the past year — including beef from Brazil, a high offender when it comes to chopping down forests for ranching.

And while food industry giants like Tyson and Cargill have entered the alt-meat space — and/or, like McDonald’s, which just signed a three-year “McPlant” deal with Beyond Meat — they have yet to declare a synchronous commitment to decreasing livestock production.

In a space initially forged by eco-conscious vegans interested in animal welfare and sustainability goals like lower greenhouse gas emissions and a decreased water footprint, there remains the question of whether expanded investment is reshaping a problematic food system — or just building up a parallel one.

“People going to McDonald’s and Burger King and finding plant-based burgers starts to normalise them as an option and makes them more accessible.”

“I wish these big corporate names would dive in and make a commitment to reduce beef production — we’re in the midst of a climate and extinction crisis and it’s urgent,” said Stephanie Feldstein, population and sustainability director for the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, Arizona.

Still, she sees investment in plant-based meat as a “first step. This is where [corporations] can see that plant-based burgers are profitable, and at the end of the day that’s what they care about.”

Profitability, she said, is predicated on Americans making a “massive cultural shift” that starts with them being able to sample inexpensive alternatives to beef and chicken. “People going to McDonald’s and Burger King and finding plant-based burgers starts to normalize them as an option and makes them more accessible,” she said. 

“Alt meat is not getting scaled up in a bubble; it’s happening with an increase in demand for more protein. That could come from alt meat or it could come from meat.”

Feldstein is also loath to voice skepticism about corporate interest in fake meat. She believes “it’s always the industry” that benefits when doubt is expressed about whether their motives are pure enough.

Feldstein thinks the importance of plant-based meats, no matter who is producing them, has to be considered in context. “Alt meat is not getting scaled up in a bubble; it’s happening with an increase in demand for more protein. That could come from alt meat or it could come from meat,” and the environmental impacts of the former are “negligible” compared to the latter, she claimed. (Although, plant-based diets can have a larger environmental footprint than someone choosing a vegan diet might realise, the BBC reported last year.)

To Feldstein, the larger issue of concern is that the industrialised food system that provides consumers with unsustainable beef is the same one that is locked into using “less-than-perfect ingredients like GMO soy that are destroying the Amazon — it’s the only source” companies like Impossible Foods have.

“But the long-term ideal of getting to a more diversified regionally focused food system and away from our current model is a reason to support alt proteins now,” Feldstein added….

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