Plant-based burgers don’t spoil our beef addiction

Another way to find out the impact of plant-based meats is to look at how price changes affect the demand for different types of meat. A study of retail data from a few years ago showed that demand for plant-based meat increased when the price of plant-based meat fell, but when the price of animal-based meat fluctuated, demand for those products didn’t fluctuate as much. The study also found that plant-based meats, rather than displacing red meat, were more likely to be bought alongside beef and pork, and typically appeared to be substitutes for chicken, turkey and fish — which have a much lower carbon footprint than beef. All of this suggests that, by and large, people see beef as the mainstay of their plate, while other forms of protein can come and go.

For Blaustin-Rejto, the data suggests that most people use plant-based meat as an additional source of protein and not as a direct replacement for meat. “It seems that people who don’t eat a lot of meat are turning to these products,” he says. But the average American eats over 80 pounds of beef every year — plant-based meats would need to lower that number to have a positive impact on the environment.

Blaustin-Rejto is optimistic in the long term. In the US, plant-based burger patties are 65 percent more expensive than their animal-based counterparts. Survey data suggests that if the price of a beef burger and a plant-based patty were the same, about 20 to 30 percent of people would choose the plant-based option. If that were the case in the future, it could result in many people switching from beef to plant-based alternatives. However, Tonsor warns 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 momentum could be unfolding. In the Netherlands, rising meat prices mean that vegan meat is now slightly cheaper than its animal counterpart. In Europe, plant-based meat sales rose 19 percent in 2021, which may reflect higher meat prices or indicate a greater willingness among Europeans — who, on average, eat far 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 needs to be done to educate people about the environment benefits of these foods. “Ultimately, people’s taste buds direct them in a certain direction, but until they’re informed or guided that way, they won’t get there.” Since people who eat plant-based meat are in the minority in the US, point Survey data suggests that people generally view vegan meat much less positively than beef burgers in a variety of categories, including taste, protein content, and environmental impact.

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