As plant-based, flesh-like foods proliferate is the meat market being butchered. Dr Alexandra Sexton writes
Vegan burger-maker, Beyond Meat, recently made global headlines for achieving the strongest public trading debut of 2019. In its first day on the Nasdaq its shares more than doubled in price, leading to a market valuation of over $3.5billion. By market close, Beyond Meat had reportedly enjoyed the best performing first-day initial public offering for nearly two decades. For many commentators this success signaled a leap toward vegan meat becoming mainstream.
During the same week, another plant-based story caught the attention of the Twittersphere. The tweet apparently showed an image of a contribution to a work-based potluck: a tray of layered raw lettuce, tomatoes and what looked like grated carrot (it has emerged that it was probably made as a joke). The accompanying caption read: “Co-worker brought in vegan lasagne today and I’m ready to knock all that shit over.” Liked over 70,000 times, the tweet fuelled a heated debate over what constitutes a proper lasagne. Memes abounded. Alternative recipes were submitted as examples of real lasagne – vegan and meat-based. Vegans and non-vegans alike were united in dismissing the creation as simply a stacked salad.
What unites a multi-billion dollar debut on the US stock market with a slightly sad-looking pile of lettuce? Together they demonstrate the high-stakes involved in making animal-based food without the animal. Simply calling a salad “lasagne” was, for many people, not enough to make it so. The success of Beyond Meat and other recent plant-based companies has instead rested on the recognition that sensory and emotional experiences, as well as familiarity, are also central to the ways we understand and accept the foods we eat.
Meat, a staple of many diets throughout human history, is having a dramatic identity crisis. Over the past decade livestock production has been increasingly spotlighted for its contributions to environmental, human health and animal welfare impacts. It is a subject now barely out of the Western media cycle. Headlines routinely swing from the dire warnings of scientists to the hopes resting almost entirely on the private sector to innovate (and consume) our way out of Cowmaggedon.
“Meat, a staple of many diets throughout human history, is having a dramatic identity crisis.”
This is where companies like Beyond Meat and others have entered the fray, armed with a carefully curated selection of plants as their secret ingredients (intellectual property-protected in many cases). The argument goes: growing plants to feed animals to then feed humans is a hugely inefficient use of resources. There are then ethical issues over killing to eat as well as the health risks associated with meat consumption from food-borne pathogens and diet-related illnesses. The argument then follows that removing the animal removes many, if not all, of these issues. This is currently the subject of much discussion across global scientific, industry and policy communities.1
But if you replace animal with plant, can the final product still be considered meat?
Chief executive of Beyond Meat, Ethan Brown, asserts that it can. If we focus on the molecular level, he argues, meat can be viewed as a collection of amino acids, minerals, lipids and other nutrients – all of which can be sourced from plants. In this view the burgers and nuggets his company produce are meat, just made with different raw materials and processes.
Nutritional content is an important driver of people’s food choices. However, a long history of consumer research shows that it takes much more than nutritional equivalence to convince people to switch from animals to plants. Even promising positive environmental and animal welfare benefits – as recent meat substitute companies have asserted – is often not enough to convince the most enthusiastic of meat eaters.2 This is because we do not simply consume and act as rational consumers, but rather eat and act as eaters.3 Eating is an experience caught amid ever-changing tensions between convenience, taste, price, accessibility and personal values. The feeling of what we should eat (for planet, health, farmers and animals) is often made messy by competing emotional, structural and, importantly, sensory factors.4
“Never before has a plant bled or sizzled quite so closely to animal flesh.”
Recognition of these tensions, and the specific importance of sensory experience in eating, has been key to the success of recent plant-based companies. Making plants bleed, sizzle, chew, tear and taste like animal flesh has enabled them to be accepted more fully as meat than previous products based on blended or texturised vegetable proteins. The actual animal has been removed, but characteristics of its physiology have purposefully been recreated.
To attract meat eaters also relies heavily on the words the companies use to describe their products. Over the past 18 months, a semantic battle has raged around the meaning of terms like meat, beef, and sausage. Livestock producers in Europe and the US have called for regulators to restrict these labels solely to animal-derived products. For them, meat must be the product of the carcass of an animal that has been reared in the traditional manner by farmers and ranchers – it cannot merely be made by putting together a collection of lipids and proteins.5
A movement for change?
There is no question that the recent plant-based meat companies are game-changers in terms of technological innovation. Never before has a plant bled or sizzled quite so closely to animal flesh. And their imitation game appears to be working, as meat-eaters continue to drive record sales with every new product launch.
Tempting as it is to get caught up in the hype, we need to consider the nature of change these products are delivering. Yes, they have questioned our understanding of what qualifies as meat, but not our taste for it. Yes, they have removed death from the process, but not our desire for blood and flesh. So, is this enough of a change? Should we be trying to make plants more meat-like, or rather our tastes less meat-loving? Are there other approaches we are overlooking and under-funding in our quest to make plants more animal? And are the ethical gains of slaughter-free meat undermined by reinforcing meat – in some form or other – as a natural and necessary part of our diets?6
An even bigger question concerns the marketplace as an effective instrument of change. History has shown that markets can be disrupted and industry titans can fall. But despite these shake-ups, certain rules prevail, with the need for continuous growth being among the top tenets.7 It is undeniable that the biggest threat to the livestock market to date has been realised through the development of a rival market.8 What does this mean on the ground? Recent market data suggests that it doesn’t mean a simple redirection of consumer dollars away from animal to plant-based, but rather that people are buying both.
A similar picture of addition rather than substitution is happening at the corporate level too, as big meat and dairy companies, such as Tyson and Danone increasingly add plant-based start-ups and products to their portfolio. This is a story evermore about consolidation rather than disruption of power in the food system. It is also a story of increasing rather than replacing choice. It is certainly not about reducing choice. Undisturbed consumption resolutely remains the solution to the issues caused by over-consumption.
These developments could signal the first step in the ultimate replacement of livestock production – complete substitution was never going to happen overnight. But how, and to what extent, change is being implemented requires continued critical reflection at every stage.
“Disruption” as a term has gained an enthusiastic following in business, particularly in Big Tech, as always delivering positive outcomes. But with any change there will always be winners and losers. The potential gains we make in some areas will come with trade-offs in others. As the market for meat grows, we must continue to ask what is being disrupted and what is being left intact (perhaps purposefully). The question then remains whether this balancing act is leading to the most effective and radical change needed to address the contemporary problems of the food system. In an era of impending planetary and societal tipping points, we cannot afford to get this wrong.
- Dr Alexandra Sexton is a post-doctoral social scientist researching the politics of food technology and global food security, with a particular focus on alternative approaches to conventional livestock production. She is currently working at the University of Oxford on an interdisciplinary research project entitled Livestock, Environment and People funded by the Wellcome Trust. This article draws on her recent publications which can be found via the links below:
- Framing the future of food: The contested promises of alternative proteins. Blogpost on this paper here
- Eating for the post-Anthropocene: alternative proteins and the biopolitics of edibility.
- Recent examples of these debates include: Garnett, T. et al (2017). Grazed and confused: Ruminating on cattle, grazing systems, methane, nitrous oxide, the soil carbon sequestration question-and what it all means for greenhouse gas emissions. FCRN; Godfray, H.C.J. et al (2018). Meat consumption, health, and the environment. Science, 361(6399), eaam5324; Willett, W. et al (2019). Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. The Lancet, 393(10170), 447-492.
- Sexton, A.E., Garnett, T. & Lorimer J. (2019). Framing the future of food: The contested promises of alternative proteins. Environment & Planning E: Nature and Space, 2(1), 47-72.
- Goodman, M.K. (2016). ‘Eating bioeconomies’, in Le Heron, R., Campbell, H., Lewis, N., & Carolan, M. (eds.) Biological economies: Experimentation and the politics of agri-food frontiers. Earthscan: London.
- Roe, E.J. (2006). Things becoming food and the embodied, material practices of an organic food consumer. Sociologia Ruralis, 46(2), 104-121; Johnston, J. (2008). The citizen-consumer hybrid: ideological tensions and the case of Whole Foods Market. Theory and Society, 37(3), 229-270; Mol, A. (2009). Good taste: The embodied normativity of the consumer-citizen. Journal of Cultural Economy, 2(3), 269-283; Sexton, A.E. (2018). Eating for the post‐Anthropocene: Alternative proteins and the biopolitics of edibility. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 43(4), 586-600.
- Sexton et al (2019).
- See Miller (2012) for critical discussion of this point regarding cultured/cell-based meat: Miller, J. (2012). In vitro meat: Power, authenticity and vegetarianism. Journal for Critical Animal Studies, 10(4), 41-63.
- Lowe et al (1993: 221) define productivist agriculture as “a commitment to an intensive, industrially driven and expansionist agriculture with state support based primarily on output and increased productivity”. Lowe, P., Murdoch, J., Marsden, T., Munton, R., & Flynn, A. (1993). Regulating the new rural spaces: The uneven development of land. Journal of Rural Studies, 9(3), 205-222.
- Arguably there are additional contextual factors that have contributed to this trend.