The following is a guest post from Michael Leonard, CEO of Motif FoodWorks, who has nearly two decades of experience in senior industrial science and technology roles in the specialty food ingredient and fast-moving consumer goods industries.
“There’s no chance,” pronounced Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer in 2007, “that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share.”
Ballmer blew that call, illustrating that even brilliant people can stumble when they try to see into the future. Indeed, consumers’ embrace of new products, new technologies and new paradigms are notoriously hard to predict. For this reason, the current attacks on meat alternatives should be weighed with skepticism. Innovation always provokes a backlash. And while some journalists are predicting the imminent demise of plant-based meat, writing the sector’s obituary this early in its life will prove to be a poor soundbite in the exciting years ahead. Because in the long run, consumers like innovation – and they like having choices.
As the CEO of Motif FoodWorks, I believe plant-based foods are critical to a better future; they make too much economic, nutritional and ecological sense not to pursue. The demand is there, and it will grow. Do I know exactly how fast, or what the market will look like in 10 years? Of course not. But human beings have, for centuries, brought scientific and technological advances to bear on the making and serving of food. It is folly to think this tradition will end. We are too close to unlocking the full potential of food design and the secrets of texture and taste to pull back.
A recent Bloomberg piece dismisses plant-based meat as “just another fad,” depicting it as an over-hyped industry and on its last legs. It takes explicit aim at our industry’s largest consumer-facing brands — Beyond Meat Inc. and Impossible Foods. The author points to slowing sales after the unprecedented pandemic boom but it cherry-picks data. The article reads as if written by someone who believes the purpose of our young sector is to replace the meat industry. First and foremost, our industry is only just getting started. Second, to understand our innovations and products as replacements is fundamentally not the case, and we stand with our fellow companies and innovators who have pushed back against these empty claims.
Demand for particular products ebb and flow; markets change like the weather. Nevertheless, the case for plant-based meat remains powerful. Take the environmental implications. It is widely accepted, for example, that production of plant-based burgers generates up to 90% less greenhouse gas emissions than that of beef burgers, while taking up less than 25% of the agricultural land and using about 95% less water. It causes significantly less water and air pollution, too. With the world confronting what the U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called the “life-or-death struggle” of a warming planet, these benefits matter.
Nor can we ignore the health benefits. As we and our competitors have worked to improve the taste, flavor and texture of meat alternatives, the health advantages have become more widely acknowledged. It’s a powerful data point to note that the vast majority of plant-based burgers, for example, contain 0% cholesterol and an average of 25-30% less saturated fat than traditional meat products. A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, for example, found that in patients who switched from animal meat to plant-based Beyond Meat burgers, weight and cholesterol levels dropped along with their risk of heart disease. In Europe and elsewhere, more studies are finding that plant-based alternatives carry fewer health risks than most meat products. And it won’t stop there. Our industry continues to evolve and enhance products with the 3.0 and 4.0 generations of meat already within sight.
In the end, consumers can’t be pigeon-holed into only the sustainability or nutrition camps. To view the plant-based meat and broader plant-based food sectors in competition with, or as substitutes for, traditional consumer products is the wrong lens to use. This is not a zero-sum game. It’s not about subtraction or substitution. It’s about adding innovation to the marketplace. We need to give consumers more credit. Consumers’ motivation to purchase products is not only driven by taste or price, but also by health benefits and because they care about the environment. Many of us still want to eat meat, just less of it because we know that it will reduce our carbon footprint and improve our health. More importantly, consumers want choice. I believe that the demand for more choices translates into healthy competition which in turn creates better outcomes for everyone — better products, better prices and, hopefully, a better world.