From the Executive Director’s desk
On 7 August 2023 when the CEO of the leading US plant-based meat manufacturer Beyond Meat, Ethan Brown, told investors that net revenues had decreased 31% over the previous year, the media rushed to pronounce that we’d reached “peak veganism” and gathered further evidence of reduced sales, companies filing for bankruptcy, and consumers turning away from vegan products. Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) confirmed, through its annual consumer survey, that Australians self-identifying as vegetarian or vegan was at its lowest figure (5%) in nearly 10 years of gathering data, down from 9% in 2021. But we should be cautious of judging the current state and potential of a whole sector on association with a lifestyle or ideology such as veganism.
In a world of flexitarians, pescatarians, reducetarians, vegetarians, and those on diets excluding dairy, or choosing only animal products that meet their personal animal welfare standards, it’s not surprising that the media has reached for a simple category to encapsulate all those choosing plant-based meats, as an alternative protein, as adopting a ‘vegan’ diet. Whilst labelling a food on the packaging as vegan helps the consumer immediately identify that no animal products are present, it doesn’t automatically identify that the consumer is a vegan. Indeed, there are some vegan products that many vegans won’t eat: those using palm oil, for example, because of the implications for the destruction of orang-utan habitats. In short, consumer surveys (and subsequent media commentary) on the decline in people self-identifying as vegan, doesn’t tell the real story behind what’s happening with people’s dietary choices.
Drilling down into copious reports and salient data points reveals several significant facts about the current market. First, based on MLA’s own research, we know that the percentage of Australians, year-on-year, that claim to be reducing the volume of red meat they eat has held steady at around 30% of all meat eaters. However, the majority state the reason for their reduction is price (61%) and they’ve turned to cheaper meat cuts such as chicken and pork. Nevertheless, a significant number (16%) are reducing consumption for health reasons and 5% have made their decision over environmental concerns. Both those numbers present opportunity for the plant-based meat sector if, as several manufacturers are doing, the nutritional profile of the product is enhanced to satisfy consumers. In particular, manufacturers need to highlight the protein content, ensure their products provide the other nutrients that consumers want from meat (such as vitamin b12, iron, and zinc), and address conscious consumer’s concerns over processing and ultra-processing.
The wholesale move from meat-eater to vegan is neither attainable nor required. Simply replacing one or more meals containing meat with plant-based meat alternatives, having meat-free days or weeks, choosing the plant-based burger on those occasional family outings to the fast-food outlet, will have measurable impact on individual health as well as environmental degradation. Two market leaders, Beyond Meat (USA) and Quorn (UK) have produced research findings showing clear benefits for heart health swapping out animal meat for their products. One-in-four fast-food burgers now sold in Germany is plant-based. Recent peer-reviewed research, published in Nature Communications, measures the impact of a 50% reduction in animal meat consumption by 2050 leading to net reduction of forest and natural land almost halted and total greenhouse gas emissions declining by 31%.
Framing the travails of the fledgling plant-based meat sector as a case of “to be or not to be” vegan misrepresents consumer interest, conscious consumer purchasing decisions, and the tremendous potential of the sector to address serious issues facing the planet, society and individuals.