Fake meats are taking off in a way we’ve never seen before. But are fake meat companies selling an impossible dream?
Just like their products, fake meat manufacturers look like a pretty good deal until you take a closer look. Demand for the closest analogue – milk replacements like almond or soy milk – is driven largely by lactose intolerance, a factor that isn’t widespread in the meat market. Unrepentant meat eaters aren’t likely to eat it – they’re happy with their regular burgers – and vegetarians and vegans already have plenty of products to satisfy them.
So fake meat manufacturers are targeting self-hating “flexitarians” – people who occasionally eat meat on a night out despite a largely plant-based diet – and that’s a very narrow market indeed. Fake meats are also high in fat and sodium, meaning this demographic is even less likely to incorporate them into their regular diet.
Another problem comes from the fact that when we say “fake meat”, we actually mean “fake mince”. The difficulties in emulating the texture of steak are apparently insurmountable with today’s technology, meaning that if flexitarians did embrace fake meat, their options would be extremely limited.
So right now, it’s unclear what is actually driving demand in fake meats other than novelty – the “I can’t believe it’s not meat” factor. But could that change?
What about climate change?
One factor that might drive interest in fake meats is climate change. Fake meat production, unlike agriculture, is extremely predictable. While there are always outside concerns – legislation on what can and can’t be called meat, for example – the process of making fake meats is not beholden to changes in weather.
“We believe that the adverse effects of climate change will add variables to supply chains that will see seasonal fluctuations in animal-agriculture supply capabilities,” VOW CEO Tim Noakesmith told Investor Daily.
“Cultivated meat seeks to minimise the number of supply chain areas that are impacted by changes in climate, including drought conditions, allowing us to have more predictive yields and ultimately pass future cost savings on to consumers.”
Some fake meats also use substantially less resources than their real counterparts, with Impossible Burgers using 96 per cent less land, 87 per cent less water and causing 89 per cent less greenhouse gas emissions, according to a report from Quantis.
“My sense is that the confluence of factors we’re facing will drive adoption of alternatives, despite the overwhelming force of market dominance and tradition that underpin our current diets,” said Brian Jones, an associate professor at the University of Sydney.
“Agriculture recognises it, our young people recognise it. It needs investors to drive it.”
However, others aren’t so sure. Professor Paul Wood AO says that changes to Australia’s meat markets will bring them closer to carbon neutrality, and that parts of the market are not as emissions heavy as some claim; for example, poultry produces far less greenhouse gas than beef.
Professor Wood also contests claims that fake meats can be used to feed the world’s growing population due to the difficulties in making a nutritious fake meat product from which vitamins are absorbed in the same manner as they are from natural meat.
“That population growth is largely in Africa and Asia. It’s not in western developed countries… we’ll continue to see a huge growth in meat-based protein because they’re in nutrient deficiency,” he said.
Also at stake is the fact that some fake meats are actually more emissions heavy – at least, in their current form. It remains unclear whether producers will be able to reduce their own greenhouse emissions given the energy-intensive process of creating fake meats.
With all of that in mind, the case for fake meats does not stack up.
No doubt they will find their niche. Might we see meat eaters using the products to wean themselves off their favourite protein in the same way that smokers use e-cigarettes? At the very least the products are now too ubiquitous to disappear completely, and they’ll likely be a feature on fast food menus for years to come. But those predicting total industry disruption are just crying wolf.
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