Another way to find out the impact of plant-based meats is to look at how price changes affect the demand for various types of meat. A study of retail sales data from a couple of years ago showed that when the price of plant-based meats fell, demand increased, but when the price of animal meats fluctuated, demand for ‘these products did not fluctuate so widely. The study also found that, rather than displacing red meat, plant-based meats tended to be purchased alongside beef and pork and typically appeared to be a substitute for chicken, turkey and fish, which have a much smaller carbon footprint than beef. All of this suggests that, in general, people see beef as a mainstay of their dinner plates, while other forms of protein can come and go.
For Blaustin-Rejto, the data suggests that most people use plant-based meats as an additional source of protein rather than directly replacing meat. “It seems like people who don’t eat a lot of meat are turning to these products,” he says. But the average American eats more than 80 pounds of beef each year; plant-based meats should boost this number to have a positive environmental impact.
Blaustin-Rejto is optimistic about the long term. In the United States, plant-based burgers are 65 percent more expensive than their animal-based equivalents. Survey data suggests that if the price of a beef burger and a plant-based burger were the same, 20 to 30 percent of people would choose the plant-based option. If this were true in the future, it could lead to many people switching from beef to plant-based alternatives. Tonsor cautions, however, that people tend to exaggerate these decisions in hypothetical situations, so we may not see such a high exchange rate in the real world.
However, there are some signs that this dynamic may be starting to develop. In the Netherlands, rising meat prices mean that vegan meat is now slightly cheaper than its animal counterparts. In Europe, sales of plant-based meat rose 19 percent in 2021, which could reflect higher meat prices or suggest a greater willingness on the part of Europeans, who on average eat much less beef than Americans, to try plant-based alternatives.
Focusing on taste and price are top priorities for the plant-based meat industry, says Celia Homyak, co-director of the Alt:Meat Lab at the University of California, Berkeley, but more work needs to be done to make people aware of the environment. benefits of these foods. “Ultimately, people’s taste buds lead them in a certain direction, but until they’re informed or guided that way, they’re not going to get there.” Because plant-based meat eaters are the minority in the U.S., survey data suggests that, in general, people view vegan meats much less favorably than beef burgers in a wide range of categories, including taste, protein content and environmental impact.