Meat substitutes need to get a lot cheaper
Meat substitutes are more expensive than their meaty equivalents. Until they're cheaper, they will struggle to bite into the protein market.
While many countries are making progress on reducing emissions from energy – albeit frustratingly slowly – agriculture is a much more stubborn sector.
How do we make this happen?
Some people might move to a more ‘traditional’ plant-based diet. Substitute burgers and sausages for lentils, peas, beans, and other protein-rich crops.
But I think most people will only move if there is a plant-based equivalent to their meaty foods. They want the same meals, just swapping out a beef burger for an identical meat-free imitation. The texture, taste, and nutrition should be similar. Switching is effortless.
The range of ‘meat substitutes’ on the market like Beyond Meat and the Impossible Burger has grown quickly in the last few years. A few years ago, you might have a few options to choose from. Now you have whole shelves.
But meat substitutes are not making the dent in the market that is needed. In most countries, meat consumption is still growing. Globally, it’s growing quickly.
I think price is one (of several) explanations for this. Meat substitutes are still too expensive.
Meat substitutes are more expensive than meat
I couldn’t really find much academic literature on the price comparisons of meat substitutes. At least not any that were up-to-date, and covered a range of products on the market.
So I collected some numbers for myself.
I looked at the prices of the range of meat substitutes available in a major UK supermarket chain – Tesco – and compared them to their equivalent meat products. Not the most rigorous analysis, I know, but a fairly realistic perspective on the price differences that consumers face when they’re browsing the aisles.
In the chart below I’ve plotted the price of each product per kilogram on the x-axis. The rows on the y-axis are different types of product: chicken, burgers, sausages etc. Plant-based substitutes are in blue, and meat products are in red.
If you want to dig into the specific products shown, here’s an interactive version.
Obviously, there is a massive range, even for the same product. You can get a kilogram of chicken for £3 or £15, depending on the quality and brand.
But what pops out from the data is that meat substitute products are never the cheapest. Red dots tend to cluster on the left, while blue dots are more spread.
What’s also notable is that the meat substitute products that almost compete with meat on price are the unbranded Tesco ones (as opposed to brands like Beyond Meat or Quorn).
Some categories are better than others. Plant-based versions of bacon and fish simply do not compete on price. On mince, sausages, and burgers, the gap is much closer.
The gap tends to widen when we adjust for protein
The comparison above looked at the cost per kilogram.
But we might also want to adjust for protein content: what’s the cheapest way to get enough protein?
I recalculated these numbers as the price per 100 grams of protein. The results are in the chart below. Again, here’s an interactive version to explore.
Overall, the picture tends to look a bit worse for meat substitutes because they often have a slightly lower protein content. Sausages and chicken lose quite a bit of ground.
The exception to this is mince, where the Tesco unbranded version competes well with the meaty equivalent.
To complete the lot, I also calculated these prices per 1000 kilocalories. The gap actually closes a bit when adjusted for calories.
Here’s the interactive version to explore.
Meat substitutes don’t just need to be cost-competitive: they need to be much cheaper
Full disclosure: I’m a big fan of meat substitutes. I’m happy to pay a bit more, and I am in a privileged position to do so.
But most people will not pay more for a product that they’re on-the-fence about. They probably won’t even make the switch if these products are the same price. Meat substitutes need to be quite clearly cheaper, especially if we want them to break into middle- and low-income markets.
How do we do that?
There are two options to change the price differential: make meat more expensive, or meat substitutes cheaper.
On the former, governments could implement a ‘meat tax’. The point of that being that the total cost of meat – in terms of its environmental and social costs – is not reflected in the market price. A tax would try to capture at least some of these ‘externalities’. Seems rational, but would be a bold step for a government to take.
The latter is harder to comment on without good cost breakdowns for meat substitutes. What costs so much: the ingredients, the energy for processing, is it a problem of scale? Some meat substitutes seem like they should be relatively cheap to make: we’re not talking about lab-grown meat here, we’re talking about turning pea, soy, or wheat protein into a patty. Maybe I’m underestimating the costs involved: a full breakdown would be useful to see which levers can be pulled to get them down.
While this might seem like a post against meat substitutes, I’m actually very bullish on them. They seem like the most credible pathway to reducing global meat consumption – the emissions, land use, deforestation, water use, and animal pain that comes with it.
But to succeed, they need to be much cheaper than they are today.
In case it’s not obvious: I'm not talking about reducing meat consumption of those in the poorest countries, where they consume little, and it's often crucial for nutrition.
The onus needs to come from richer countries where meat consumption per person is 10 to 20 times as high as those in poorer countries.
As I covered in an older article, a shift to a plant-based diet is the most effective way to reduce the carbon footprint of your diet.
Clark, Michael A., Nina GG Domingo, Kimberly Colgan, Sumil K. Thakrar, David Tilman, John Lynch, Inês L. Azevedo, and Jason D. Hill. "Global food system emissions could preclude achieving the 1.5° and 2° C climate change targets." Science 370, no. 6517 (2020): 705-708.