An Urban's Rural View

Everybody's Marketing to Meat Eaters. Is That a Problem?

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
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This paragraph in the Oct. 13 Economist reached out, grabbed me and demanded I share it with you:

"In America, Nielsen found in 2017 that 3% of the population called themselves vegans and 6% vegetarians (people who eschew meat, but eat eggs and/or dairy products). This proportion seems more or less stable; the country's largest polling organizations, Gallup and Harris, both found 3% of the population calling themselves vegan over the period 2012-18. But more detailed research by Faunalytics, a company which has been running large surveys of eating habits for 20 years, puts the numbers at just 0.5% for vegans and 3.4% for vegetarians. Fully a quarter of 25- to 34-year-olds in America claim to be either vegan or vegetarian, whereas studies by Faunalytics find the median age of American vegans to be 42, four years older than the national median. It seems that a fair amount of aspirational self-deception, terminological inexactitude or simple hypocrisy is at play."(…)

You can see why this grabbed me. It defies conventional wisdom, which pictures more and more Americans, especially millennials, giving up meat. Veganism and vegetarianism have a favorable public image, so much so that the Economist suggests there are people who want others to think they're vegans or vegetarians even though they aren't. This paragraph indicates veganism and vegetarianism are still fringe phenomena. Despite the halo these practices wear, the actual number of practitioners is small and, all the hype notwithstanding, stable.

This is good news for folks in the meat business and row-crop farmers who grow animal feed. Unfortunately for them, there's a catch. While veganism and vegetarianism may not be growing, sales of plant-based foods are. Indeed, the paragraph I just quoted appeared in an article headlined "Why people in rich countries are eating more vegan food."

Nielsen, a market research firm, says 19.5% of food and beverage dollars spent in 2017 were on "products that met a plant-based diet," up from 17.6% in 2014. (…) During that same period, sales of "vegan" food (which Nielsen seems to define as anything a vegan could eat minus produce) rose 4.1% and produce sales rose 4.6%. Sales of all food and beverage minus produce were up only 0.6%.

Some of the plant-based products showing the fastest growth are of particular interest to those in the meat business. For example, in the 52 weeks ended last April 7, sales of "meat alternatives" jumped 30% while "plant-based yogurt" was up 31% and "plant-based cream" up 25%. Sales of more traditional plant-based products, like tofu, brown rice and granola, were down 1.3% during the same period.

Judging from the Economist's numbers, these sales aren't increasing because vast numbers of people are converting to veganism and vegetarianism. They're increasing because carnivores are eating more plant-based food. As the Economist put it, "The true vegan efflorescence lies in casual, part-time veganism."

As I've written in an earlier post, the new generation of plant-based food companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods understand that carnivores are the market. (…) They use technology to make plants taste as much like meat as possible -- and even sizzle and bleed in the pan. This seems to be a promising formula. Beyond Meat just hired JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs and Credit Suisse to help it go public. (…)

Should it worry those in the real-meat business that the faux-meat crowd is targeting meat eaters? Despite the rise of plant-based food, meat consumption per capita continues to rise in the U.S., albeit ever so slowly and with poultry accounting for almost all of the gain. (…)

Maybe the increases would have been bigger if plant-based alternatives had not been available, but you have to wonder. Americans already consume a world-beating 90 grams of protein a day, most of it from animal products. Somehow, it's hard to imagine most Americans eating a lot more meat than they already do.

Dietary experts say 50 to 60 grams are all that good health requires. In the long run, Americans may well eat less meat per capita and if they do plant-based alternatives may well be part of the reason.

Worldwide, though, meat consumption has been growing at a consistent 3% a year since 1960. The Economist says in China per capita meat consumption has quadrupled since the 1970s. As poor countries become richer, people want more meat.

The message is clear. The rise of plant-based alternatives means that for American livestock raisers and animal-feed farmers, exports are going to be more important than ever. It's one of the only sources, if not the only source, of growth.

Agriculture producers have to hope Washington's trade negotiators understand that. Alas, right now there's reason to fear they don't.

Urban Lehner can be reached at



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