Comment: Agriculture should welcome, not mock, fake meat

Beyond Meat signage featured on a screen during the company's IPO at the Nasdaq Market site in New York, May 2, 2019.

P.T. Barnum, the quintessential showman, might have found today’s food carnival more interesting and far more profitable than his namesake circus of yore.

For example, slow food is taking note of the fast rise of meatless, or plant-based, burgers this year. Veggie burgers, their previous incarnation, are not new; the lovely Catherine, my significant other has been buying and trying them for decades. This year, however, two companies, Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, introduced high-tech veggie versions of the American classic and both have rocked eaters and investors alike.

In her Sept. 2, Washington Post review of a Beyond Burger, food writer Alicia Kennedy, a longtime veggie burger devotee, noted that “… when it arrived and I took a bite, I immediately began to tear up… I was so sure I’d just eaten beef, for the first time in years.”

Joyous tears have also flooded Wall Street for Beyond Burger’s parent company, Beyond Meat. On May 2, the company offered its first public shares at $25 apiece. Prices that day closed at $65.75, then they really took off. On July 26, shares hit $235 before dropping back to “just” $165 on Sept. 3, a 660 per cent rocket ride in just four months.

Many farm groups (and most ag pundits, too) aren’t as impressed as fake meat’s eager eaters and gilded investors. All but a few scoff at the very idea of meatless meat tasting anything close to real meat while nervously confessing that they see vegetable-based meat as an existential threat to the livestock and poultry sectors.

That farm reaction was not unexpected. It is, after all, what we in ag often do: We condemn first then — maybe, maybe not — ask for the facts.

The fact is meat alternatives snagged only US$4.3 billion of the US$900-billion-plus global meat market in 2018. Market analysts see mock meat sales rising 6.8 per cent per year through 2023, to an arguably unimpressive US$6.3 billion, even as real meat sales grow faster.

Burger King is proving that forecast spot on.

On Aug. 31, market watchers told Business Insider that Burger King’s recent six per cent increase in sales rested on two, unforeseen facts: its meatless meat entree, called the Impossible Whopper (from Impossible Foods), is driving new customers to its 7,000 U.S. retail outlets and that, once there, “traditional beef Whopper sales have also increased… ”

An even more plausible reality is that the biggest threat to meatless meat will come from other meatless meat newcomers attempting to catch their veggie lightning in a bun.

More importantly, some of the newcomers aren’t new; they are the biggest of big boys in Big Ag.

“The big guns of ADM (Archer Daniels Midland), Cargill, Tyson and a host of others are elbowing for space, each keen for a serving of the latest and greatest in alternative meat fare,” noted Chris Bennett on Aug. 13.

And, he added, “Innumerable smaller companies are jumping into the game, with new startups popping up monthly.”

Despite that rising investment surge in mock meat, farmers and ranchers — and chickens, beef cattle, lambs, goats, hogs, turkeys, and anything else that sizzles when fried, roasted, or grilled — are not an endangered species.

In fact, veggie burger or not, the number of vegans and vegetarians in the U.S. has not increased in 20 years. Moreover, Ethan Brown, the co-founder of Beyond Meat, told Vox in March “that 93 per cent of consumers who buy Beyond Meat also buy animal meat — and he’s fine with that.”

Farmers and ranchers should be fine with that, too. Today’s global meat market is nearly US$1 trillion strong and vegans, vegetarians, and meatless meat lovers wouldn’t make a noticeable dent in it if they all gathered weekly somewhere for a black bean burger binge.

Indeed, most only want one thing: healthy, nutritious, great-tasting food that’s not fake anything. The first one that consistently delivers what the customer wants, wins.

Just ask old P.T.

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