This week, Beyond Meat CEO Ethan Brown told attendees at the Wall Street Journal Global Food Forum that the company plans to launch a plant-based steak in retail stores later this year. The vegan sliced steak is meant to replicate the taste and texture of its animal-based counterpart. But will consumers eat it?
In the eyes of many, plant-based meat products like Beyond’s burgers, Nuggs chicken nuggets, Impossible meatballs, and so on, are, so far, niche products at best. Companies like these have made a strong push to expand outside of the relatively minuscule vegan and vegetarian market in recent years, but sales figures suggest that it’s not working as well as some may have hoped.
Faced with a 15% drop in sales, year over year, some are saying that the experiment of pushing plant-based meat onto a mainstream audience via grocery stores and chain restaurants has failed. Overall, most people would rather eat animal products than plant-based proteins.
But the U.S. meat consumption rates are wildly unsustainable—and they’re only getting worse. There’s no shortage of information on how livestock farming saps natural resources like land and water, not to mention the pollution it creates, and its contribution to the climate crisis. And meat production, per calorie, is a pretty inefficient way to feed people. As the world’s population continues to grow and the climate crisis becomes more pressing, it’s clear that we cannot continue to eat meat at the rate we do in the U.S. Plant-based meat could be a solution, but the demand just isn’t there.
We might be able to learn a lesson, however, from another food that was once not a very common dish among Americans: chicken.
Since the late 2000s, chicken has been the most widely available meat per capita. From fast food to high-end restaurants, professional and home kitchens, from the Deep South to the Pacific Northwest, chicken is a staple in the American diet.
But it wasn’t always this way. Until the 1940s, Americans ate far more beef and pork than they did chicken. For most of American agricultural history, chicken feed didn’t exist as a commercial product that farmers could buy: chickens lived on farms as scavengers, more of an afterthought than a real source of income or sustenance.
Want to guess what changed? (Hint: It wasn’t just a sudden turn of popular taste.) The impetus was economic. And like so many marvels of commercial history, it happened by accident. In 1923, egg producer Cecile Steele of Delaware’s Delmarva Peninsula mistakenly received 10 times as many chicks as she had ordered: 500 rather than 50. In an exercise of resourcefulness, Steele decided to raise them for meat. By selling the meat at such a scale, she was able to turn an impressive profit, much more than she would have made from eggs alone. Within a decade, word spread of the profitability of raising broiler chickens, and at least 500 such operations popped up.
There wasn’t a massive demand for chicken meat, but the farmers found their customer bases in niche markets, such as the Jewish immigrant population of New York, who appreciated that chicken could be slaughtered on site to ensure it met kosher standards. The fledgling chicken industry really blew up when mid-century farmers started using science to make it even more profitable. Chickens were bred to be bigger and bigger, and their feed was formulated so that they required fewer and fewer resources to grow. As it became cheaper to produce greater quantities of chicken, prices dropped, and Americans began to eat more chicken than ever before—from about 20 pounds per person in 1950 to almost 42 pounds in 1972.
Chicken became supreme because, first and foremost, it was profitable. Americans didn’t have a huge appetite for it; they acquired the taste as chicken became widely available and affordable. Industry created a product that no one was asking for, and consumers found a place for it. Annie Leonard, cultural critic, sustainability advocate, and co-executive director of Greenpeace USA, used the phrase “manufactured demand” to describe the phenomenon of industry making people want something, rather than making something that people want. Her focus was on bottled water: how beverage companies convinced people to buy something that’s more wasteful, and generally no better, than the stuff they already can get from their kitchen sinks. But it’s a strategy that could, theoretically, also be used for good.
Manufactured demand isn’t exclusively a tactic for cynically pushing products that people don’t want or need. Sometimes, industry has a solution to a social quandary—like how to feed a growing nation. The bottled water industry did it with clever marketing; the chicken industry did it with attractive pricing. Plant-based meat could be a solution to feeding the world more sustainably. They just need to figure out how to make people want it.
Maybe with a leap-of-faith investment (or a happy accident, like Cecile Steele had), expanding the scale of plant-based burger production could drive down prices. If plant meat is the cheapest option at the grocery store, people will make it work. We’ve already seen glimmers of this: Over the past couple of holiday seasons, the rising cost of meat caused an uptick in sales of products like the Tofurky holiday roast. When the nontraditional option becomes a better fit for society, it has a chance to go mainstream.
Demand doesn’t always have to lead industry; sometimes, the industry can lead demand. Plant-based meat already has significant advantages over animal meat in terms of sustainability and nutrition. If the plant-based food industry can figure out what else it needs in order to become the best option in the deli case, it has a chance of taking on the animal agriculture industry—and maybe, eventually, of taking it down.