The controversy around plant-based meat is missing the point | Greenbiz


[GreenBiz publishes a range of perspectives on the transition to a clean economy. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the position of GreenBiz.]

If you were to read the recent headlines, you would be left with the impression that the plant-based boom is over. That the nascent industry dreamed too big and promised too much. That its market share is shrinking so quickly that it’ll fade into utter oblivion within a few years and our grandchildren will look at us and laugh when we say things such as, “Remember those plant-based burgers we used to eat?”

Here’s the thing, though: It’s not. 

I say that as the co-founder of a plant-based burger joint that celebrated its 10th restaurant opening in January and has seen overall sales grow by 400 percent since 2017. And in 2022, just as everyone was starting to count plant-based meat out, we announced a successful funding round of $20 million. 

Thus far, the success and momentum of our business has been built upon a strong — and growing — consumer appetite for plant-based proteins and more sustainable, consciously sourced ingredients. 

I understand the skepticism and trepidation around meat alternatives and the plant-based trend, but looking to myself as an example, if I can make the switch, I believe anyone can. I had a successful career in private equity in the oil and gas industry. I ate what you might call a next-level version of the standard American diet, consuming upwards of 10 pounds of red meat a week. I didn’t have the time, inclination or even passing thought to question this diet’s impact on my own health, let alone the well-being and future of the planet. 

But food is so personal that it’s hard to make a lasting dietary change on facts alone. The real key to driving plant-based eating is convenience and taste.

I started the first steps of my vegan journey for health reasons thanks to my wife and co-founder, Cierra, and after losing my mother, Jacque, to breast cancer in 2010. My mind was blown when I learned that it takes nearly 2,000 gallons of water to produce a single pound of beef (I was indirectly consuming a swimming pool’s worth of water a week!); that one-third of human-caused methane emissions come from livestock; and that the meat industry is largely controlled by four global mega corporations whose lists of human, animal and environmental rights abuses are almost incomprehensibly vast.

But food is so personal that it’s hard to make a lasting dietary change on facts alone. The real key to driving plant-based eating is convenience and taste. As someone who personally made the switch from hard-core carnivore to vegan, it is clear to me that Beyond Meat and similar plant-based products have a place at the table, offering necessary convenience and familiarity to those, like me, who want to scratch that itch of animal protein sans all the upstream and downstream consequences. 

Regardless of the reason or motivation, every single time you choose a plant-based meal — whether it be a Beyond Burger or a scratch-made quinoa-mushroom one — you’re making an impact on our collective planetary future by reducing the carbon emissions associated with that meal by half. This is the point that plant-based meat’s naysayers are missing. To be clear, this isn’t a debate between plant-based meats and grass-fed, organic, free-range animal proteins raised in pastoral settings. Virtually all the animal proteins sold in American restaurants and grocery stores come from factory farms. This is about a meat-production system designed to maximize profits at the expense of animal wellbeing and now the planet’s wellbeing too, and it’s time we wake up to the responsibility of stewardship that we have for this planet.

I would argue that consumers increasingly agree. Seven in 10 meat-eaters are at least open to meat analogues, whole plant-based foods, or both; and 21 percent of consumers are looking to reduce their meat intake — a 15 percent increase from the previous year. At NLB, we sell Beyond Burgers alongside our whole-food, house-made veggie burgers. Why? Because our guests, 80 percent of whom identify as flexitarians, have made it clear that they enjoy eating across the full spectrum of our diverse plant-based menu, whether that’s a meat analogue or a scratch-made patty.

The climate crisis demands a swift and complete overhaul of our dining habits, and the data clearly demonstrates that plant-based alternatives are healthier and better for the environment than conventional beef.

The viability of my business is predicated upon demand for plant-based proteins and an American consumer that demands a more conscious, more sustainable approach to fueling up to enjoy life to the fullest. I believe a better version of America exists. Even as the plant-based market navigates growing pains, I’m confident in our future.

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