Plant-Based Demands and the Effect on Animal Agriculture

A recent Bloomberg Intelligence report projects that the alternative meat market could grow from $4.2 billion to $74 billion in the next ten years1. Concern for animal welfare, health, and the environment is leading the plant-based eating boom, with more people identifying as vegan, vegetarian, or flexitarian worldwide. While eating more plants may benefit the environment and animals, this diet also has a socio-economic impact that is disrupting the global meat industry.
Effects on the Cattle and Beef Industry
Alternative meat prices are still much higher than prices of traditional animal-based meat products. The higher price tag gives alternative meat a relatively low market share, with plant-based beef and meat only accounting for about 1.4% of all US meat sales2. As prices drop, many animal activists believe beef consumption will also drop. However, a new study by the Breakthrough Institute found that plant-based ground beef price reductions would have minimal effects on US cattle production.
The study found that if plant-based ground beef prices dropped by 10%, it would only reduce total ground beef production by 1.2%. While more people may buy plant-based meat at a lower price, it may not reduce animal-based meat consumption proportionately.
Effects on Animal Welfare
The Breakthrough Institute’s study also found that a 10% ground beef price reduction would only reduce the number of cattle slaughtered for meat by 0.15%. Livestock farmers would likely increase their sales of steaks and other solid beef cuts to make up for the loss incurred by reduced ground beef sales. Furthermore, America exports more than 10% of its beef, and cattle farmers may decide to increase their exports as plant-based beef gains more market share.
Effects on Livestock Farmers
The animal agriculture industry supports millions of workers at various production stages. A recent paper3 interviewed 37 industry experts on the socio-economic impact of plant-based meat on US rural farming communities. The research paper identified three groups that may be impacted most by exponential growth in the plant-based food market:

  1. Growers of soy and corn for animal feed
  2. Contract pork and poultry farmers
  3. Meatpacking workers

According to the USDA4, Midwest farmers dedicate about 95 million acres of farmland to growing corn and soy, with 38% of corn and 70% of soy crops going to animal feed. Many emerging plant-based foods boast soy-free recipes, often substituting soy for mushrooms, peas, and mung beans.
Animal feed crop farmers may have to switch to growing legumes and other plant proteins to support the growing plant-based meat market, which comes with geographic and climatic limitations. Contract farmers that build steel barns for chickens and pigs may have to convert them into hemp or mushroom-growing buildings. This expensive undertaking may not be possible for many vulnerable farmers.
Furthermore, plant-based meat processing is more automated than managing animal products, requiring fewer workers and eliminating countless slaughterhouse jobs.
Restructuring the Meat Industry Sustainably
Many studies illustrate the environmental and health benefits of adopting a plant-based diet but building a thriving alternative meat industry will take careful restructuring to avoid negative economic impacts. Helping livestock farmers restructure their operations to support the growing plant-based industry will likely take federal funding and new policymaking. Manufacturers should invest in research and development of plant-based alternatives for solid meat cuts to build a more robust alternative meat market that does not solely rely on ground beef substitution.
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