For decades, mainstream culture dismissed vegetarians as hippies or health nuts. But keep an eye on the local meat counter—the future of the meat industry may, in fact, be meatless.
The Beginnings of a Meatless World
Growing conensus holds that the benefits of reducing meat consumption are potentially massive to both the planet and the people living on it. In recent years, research has shown that the large-scale adoption of a vegetarian diet could have extensive benefits for the earth—benefits that go far beyond health factors or animal rights, though both remain driving factors for many making the push toward the widespread adoption of a meatless lifestyle.
The production of plant-based food entails a far smaller carbon footprint than raising, farming, and slaughtering animals to eat. One study estimated that transitioning to a more plant-based diet could reduce global mortality by up to 10% and bring down food-related greenhouse gas emissions by up to 70% by 2050.
The change is timely, considering that the top three American meat manufacturers alone produced more greenhouse gases in 2016 than the country of France.
While the production of meat has become more industrial, the production and consumption of plant-based foods has changed, too. Coworking company WeWork announced in July that employees would no longer be able to expense meals that contained meat and that it would stop offering meat at company events. Restaurants have been updating their meatless offerings in a bid to appeal to growing demand from diners. And some startups have begun introducing meat alternatives that increasingly mimic the experience of eating meat, potentially paving the way for more widespread conversion.
The buzz around such startups has made plant-based proteins one of the fastest-growing retail categories, and companies offering meat alternatives appear poised to continue expanding their market share as more consumers begin incorporating meat-free meals into their diets. This trend could accelerate if governments begin enforcing regulations aimed at reducing the environmental toll of meat production, as some in the meat industry worried they might after the 2015 signing of the Paris Agreement.
Implications for Investors
That growing demand, coupled with potential regulatory actions, may prompt new strategies from investors concerned about the future of the meat industry and the environmental impact and long-term value of their investments. According to the Global Impact Investing Network’s 2018 Annual Impact Investor Survey, food and argiculture received attention from more investors than any other sector (though only 6% of total asset allocations).
Established meat industry players like Tyson and Cargill have begun reacting to interest in meat-free diets by entering the market, either acquiring or investing in startups or creating their own divisions to tackle plant-based protein and meat-alternative manufacturing. Startup Beyond Meat has already attracted the attention of both investors and the public at large.
While most meat alternative companies currently offer plant-based proteins, scientists are also at work creating meat-based foods entirely in a lab. Memphis Meats, for example, is growing chicken and beef from stem cells, while Perfect Day has found a way to create dairy proteins (for products like cheese and yogurt) without cows or lactose. These products aim to satisfy some of the demand for animal-based foods without the environmental impact.
That potential has attracted high-profile investors, including Bill Gates and Richard Branson.
Still, companies that make lab-grown meat alternatives will have to wait a while before they see their products in the average American kitchen. For now, the products are still too expensive to produce at the large scale required to make a noticeable impact, and they haven’t yet received clearance from the Food and Drug Administration. Additionally, meat alternatives across the board—both lab-grown and plant-based—face legal challenges from the meat industry, parts of which object to such products calling themselves “meat.”
While reducing meat consumption has become trendier in recent years, eliminating altogether it isn’t on the table just yet. But as food tech innovations continue to create more appealing and readily available meat alternatives, the decision to participate in a meatless America may be becoming ever more palatable.