The Sorry State of Fake Meat


Beyond Meat isn’t doing well. Is that good or bad?

The share price for Beyond Meat has been in steep decline recently, and this week news broke that Taco Bell has nixed a planned collaboration after a veggie carne asada product failed to impress. If you can’t meet Taco Bell’s quality standards, it’s likely time to do some soul-searching.

While this validates the views of all of us who have long been skeptical that meat alternatives will rapidly replace real meat in very many people’s diets, the woes of Beyond Meat are not an unalloyed good. As much as I disagree with substituting fake meat for the real thing as an approach to fixing the food system, the food system does remain broken.

Industrial solutions for industrial problems

What I mean is that I broadly agree with proponents of meat alternatives that industrial animal agriculture has massive problems, from environmental impact to nutrition, and most of all animal welfare. But companies like Beyond Meat aim to solve these issues by leaning further into industrialization; if chickens and pigs and cows are inefficiently turning corn and soy into meat, why not just leave the animals out of the process?

This is understandable. The history of food since the start of the 20th century has been one of steadily increasing consolidation, with sophisticated processing creating novel foods that are more stable, more homogeneous, and more widely distributed. But animals make for a poor fit in such a system. Their entire life cycles, which can be integrated parts of a healthy ecosystem, have been forced into factory farms and feedlots. It’s made meat cheaper, but only at great cost to livestock and the environment.

In this context, it makes sense that innovating within the existing system looks easier than trying to reimagine how we farm. (So much the better if it is also the path to making a quick buck.) The problem Beyond Meat has – and I suspect, Impossible Foods shares it, though as a private company its actual sales and earnings aren’t as available – is one of demand.

While vegetarianism and veganism are more visible than they used to be, they have not been increasing as a share of the population. This means that, while there may be a dedicated and loyal base for meat substitutes, to really change the food system Beyond Meat needs to replace beef rather than tofu.

Changing tastes is hard

More and more companies are getting into the meat alternative market. And even if it remains one of mostly vegetarians and aspiring vegetarians, no doubt tastier options like Beyond and Impossible will have a place. But if their growth projections rely on converting meat eaters to the cause, they will need products that taste at least as good as the real thing.

Introducing new products in new stores and chains will naturally generate interest, but that interest has to be converted into changed habits – the guy going to Dunkin’ Donuts might try Beyond Sausage on his breakfast sandwich once, but will he keep choosing it in the long run? Why would he?

One reason someone might choose fake meat is the generalized aura of healthfulness associated with the term “plant based.” But I don’t expect this to hold up. Take this recent study finding a connection between meat substitutes and poorer mental health. I hasten to point out that this study deserves every bit as much scrutiny as studies more friendly to us meat eaters.

But the same press that does a generally poor job of covering the limits of dietary science will most likely continue to credulously report contradictory studies about the healthfulness of fake meats, with the end result being a general public that isn’t sure what to think. So I repeat that, for such people to become devotees of meat alternatives, those alternatives will have to taste really good.

Changing farming is harder

It’s easy for me to sit here feeling smug about the challenges faced by an industry that would happily tax me out of existence. But the reason Beyond Meat has garnered so much hype, and that lab grown meat companies generate so much buzz despite the fact that they may well never make it to market in any volume, is that they operate within existing structures of production and distribution. They may not be succeeding, but the path by which they could achieve success is at least fairly straightforward.

My preferred alternative of a more sensible farming cannot be described so easily. Though many farms in America are too big, it is not just a matter of smaller farms. Though soil health and its implications for the climate has long been neglected in farming, simply refocusing on carbon sequestration won’t be enough. (Indeed, I am increasingly concerned that “soil health” and “regenerative agriculture” will simply become methods of greenwashing.)

Instead I hope, however unlikely a hope it may be, to see the growth of farming that suits particular places and communities, while balancing the needs of these with enough scale and efficiency to make it economically viable. But such a radical reimagining of how we raise food cannot be made into a universal model.

So what about Beyond Meat?

I’ve been writing this post in part to work some thoughts about meat alternatives, but I’m a few hundred words in and I still feel conflicted. Would it be better for people to eat somewhat more pea protein and somewhat less factory farmed pork? Should I support change for its own sake? I do enjoy watching overconfident would-be disruptors of the food system crash into reality, but I simultaneously despair at that very reality.

In the end, it is all taking place in a context that has only tangential relationship to my farm. But I nevertheless think it’s important for those of us who are trying to build a better agriculture to engage with the mainstream, however messy and uncertain that may be. The most common alternative taken by farms like mine – claiming perfect knowledge of the best way forward and a complete disdain for the mainstream – comes with its own problems. But that will have to wait until next week.

5 Comments

  1. yale evelev12/11/2021

    Just wanted you to know, I enjoy reading you every week.

    Reply
    1. Garth Brown12/11/2021

      Thanks! I appreciate you taking the time.

      Reply
  2. Lisa Feldstein12/11/2021

    I really enjoy your take on the food system. I think you’re right on point. I do want to say, though, that my friends who do eat Beyond Meat and Impossible are omnivores who believe, rightly or wrongly, that these are healthier alternatives to beef. They have told me that these products do taste and have the mouthfeel of meat. Many of my vegetarian friends won’t touch these products, though. Not because of the politics of food, but because these products are too beefy. Many of these folks have been vegetarian for many years and are not looking for a replacement for something of which they don’t feel deprived. Some find the experience of eating the almost-beef experience disconcerting, even disturbing. I think of it as analogous to a split I’ve observed amongst those I know who keep Kosher. Some happily consume margarine that almost tastes like butter, tofutti instead of ice cream, etc., delighted that they can have almost-dairy foods with their meat meals. Others feel this does not honor the spirit of the rule, even if it does meet the “law.” One should be aware of the differences, and should be conscious of the choices you make with every meal.

    Reply
    1. Garth Brown12/12/2021

      Very interesting, Lisa! I have tried a Beyond Burger and wasn’t very impressed, but I’m obviously not typical. It’s funny to think that it’s TOO beefy for vegetarians, because while it is closer to beef than something like a lentil burger, I would never mistake it for real meat. I agree that right now plant based meat alternatives have an aura of healthfulness, but I suspect that will be eroded in the coming years, as more people realize that they are, in fact, highly processed foods.

      Obviously, all of this is just my best guess based on what I’ve seen and read. There will certainly be a lot to keep an eye on in the coming years.

      Thanks for reading.

      Reply
  3. val12/11/2021

    Beyond meat, plant based meat, insects, lab grown meats are UNSUSTAINABLE. Human beings are meant to eat meat albeit not all meats. We don’t have two and four stomachs to properly digest greens and grains while good in moderation and in ferments can cause much damage to the endocrine system especially when it has been modified. Common sense is what’s needed. People are being lied to about veganism vegetarianism, etc..I am praying they wake up before they have destroyed their bodies through malnutrition. I have much respect for farmers and ranchers. Local is the way to go.

    Reply

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