Last fall, the restaurant consultancy group Baum + White named ‘plant-based’ the food trend of 2018 – a sentiment that was echoed by Nestle, which listed it among the four consumer trends it believes will drive growth in the coming years.
This was founded on early sales data from groups like delivery service GrubHub which released results showing that users chose vegan food 19% in the first half of 2017 than in the first half of 2016. This trend continued into 2018 as illustrated by data from NPD Group that showed demand for plant-based proteins were up 19% in the year ending in March 2018.
But how far will this trend actually go? And will it spell an end to animal agriculture? Or will it burn bright and hot and eventually fizzle like so many food fads before it? In this episode of FoodNavigator-USA’s Soup-To-Nuts Podcast we find out from Jacy Reese, a social scientist and animal advocate, who is publishing a book – The End of Animal Farming. In it, he says he hopes to lay out a path forward to capitalize on plant-based eating’s momentum and not just fix animal farming, but move past it entirely.
While his view may seem overly optimistic or one-sided to some, he is building his case on a strong foundation of consumer demand that has almost 40% of Americans trying to eat more plant-based foods, according to a recent Nielsen Homescan survey.
Where is plant-based in the adoption curve?
Reese notes in the book, the popularity of plant-based eating didn’t happen overnight. Rather, he explains for roughly 200 years, beginning in the 1800s, vegetarianism and veganism have struggled against downward pressure from negative social and cultural connotations as well as high costs that kept it out of reach for many Americans. He adds, it wasn’t until the past 20 years that diet really started to gain momentum. But even now, he notes, it has a long way to go to catch up with its omnivorous or carnivorous counterparts.
“I don’t think much about what the biggest trend [predictions are] of 2018 or anything like that. Instead, I am seeing this broad expansion of humanity’s moral circle to consider the interest of animals not just in the food system but, you know, we have seen so many changes already happening for animals used in entertainment or cats and dogs used at home, animals used in biomedical research – it is kind of the culmination of that,” he said.
He also suggests attributing factors include rising concerns about animal farming’s impact on the environment, human health and the need to feed a growing population, for which animal products are “inefficient.”
All these factors are coming together to create a perfect storm for businesses – which in turn spurs innovation to meet demand. And when economics are involved, what once might have been a trend earns greater staying power.
So, where does that put the plant-based trend – and market – today? According to Reese, the percentage of Americans who identify as strictly vegan or vegetarian is still relatively small, but he adds, the real potential for growth is reflected in the number of consumers who follow a flexitarian diet and are simply swapping out some of their animal-based products for plant-based options.
Recent Nielsen data supports Reese’s observations. A global survey conducted by Nielsen last fall found 39% of Americans and 43% of Canadians are trying to incorporate more plant-based foods in their diets, even though only 6% of North Americans self-identified as vegetarian and only 3% of Americans identify as vegan.
This in turn has helped drive double-digit growth across innovative plant-based food options. According to Nielsen, in the 52 weeks ending April 7, 2018, sales of plant-based cream were up 25%, plant-based yogurt was up 31% and veggie noodles were up a whopping 115%. Other classic categories like cheese alternatives were up 45% and meat alternatives were up 30%.
Is plant-based here to stay?
While all of this sounds great for plant-based product manufacturers, is too good to be true, and will it last. Reese acknowledges that food fads come and go all the time, but he explains that based on historical and current social movements that the plant-based diet is here to stay.
For example, he points to “macro-fundamental factors,” such as expanding moral concern, a sense of urgency around environmental issues and climate change as well as the cost of food production versus the price at the shelf.
On the last point, he explained that as more plant-based products that taste good come to market at prices lower than their animal-based counterparts, more consumers who rely on low-cost industrial food will turn to plant-based eating.
A four-stage timeline to ending animal agriculture
Based in part on this optimism, Reese lays out in his new book a long-term, but also ambitious, timeline and four-stage process for when he predicts plant-based diet not only will rival animal-based eating, but actually surpass it and eventually put an end to animal farming.
“Right now, I think we are in the foundation period of this movement. We are seeing a lot of social change. We are seeing quite a few people adopt vegetarian and vegan diets, but it is not more than 10%. It is not the mass movement that we have had for human issues, but I think up until about 2025 we will continue laying the foundation,” he said.
Somewhere between 2025 and 205o he predicts we will get to the second stage of the movement, “which is a food revolution,” he said. This will be centered on places where the technology is available to make plant-based products efficiently and will depend on which country’s governments foster innovation.
As each country adopts its own path towards plant-based eating, those products will become globalized and to meet that demand production will become increasingly efficient, further lowering prices.
“As we near 2100, and by then I think we will have so much more momentum that people will care about animals more similarly to how they care about humans now, and we will see just the exploitation and use of animals as wrong … and that will eventually lead to the complete abolition of animal farming,” he said.
Is the writing on the wall?
If what Reese says is true and the writing is on the wall that plant-based eating is not just a hot trend for 2018, but the wave of the future, what can manufacturers and processors due to help propel the trend forward – or stake their claim?
Reese says the most impactful change they can make is offer plant-based products that appeal to a broad audience, are scalable and affordable.
“I am excited about just making … cheap, tasty, nutritious food – even if it doesn’t check all the boxes,” he said, explaining that advocates and manufacturers need to take the long-view and not get caught up in each two steps forward and one step back.
For example, some products might not meet vegans’ standards or might offend their ethics, such as when Impossible Foods used animal tests to secure FDA status as Generally Accepted As Safe so that more consumers felt comfortable eating it instead of animal protein.
“The more we can make these seem like a mass social change, rather than just a personal identify, and more than just a minority lifestyle for people to adopt, I think the better off the food system will be in the long run,” he said.
Readers who want to learn more about the future of plant-based eating and the changes that Reese is predicting are coming can check out his new book The End of Animal Farming: How Scientists, Entrepreneurs, and Activists Are Building an Animal-Free Food System. It will be available Nov. 6 and can be found in major bookstores and online.