Beyond Meat IPO shows growing appetite for alternative meat products

Plant-based meat substitutes are on the rise, and they’re not just making their way onto the plates of vegans. Wall Street, fast food chains and health-conscious consumers are now taking notice, at a time when climate scientists are increasingly warning of the environmental impact of animal-based diets.

Plant-based burger patties from brands like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have become the gold standard for meat alternatives, entering into partnerships with fast food chains like Carl’s Jr.’s for their “Beyond Burger and the soon-to-be-released “Impossible Whopper” for Burger King. Rather than a typical black bean or quinoa veggie burger, these products — the Impossible Burger is made from a soy protein created from genetically modified yeast, and the Beyond Burger uses primarily protein from yellow peas —   are created to taste, look and sizzle like real meat.

Last week, Beyond Meat made its stock market debut at a $25 share price, peaking at $73 the same day — “the biggest opening day rally since the 2008 Financial Crisis,” according to InvestorPlace Media.

Processed meat giant Tyson Foods also recently announced it will be creating its own meat alternatives. The company previously held a 6.5 percent stake in Beyond Meat.

Gustavo Fuentes, an independent stock market analyst and financial advisor, said there’s substantial potential for plant-based “meat” companies. “The trend will be based on the demand that the products of these companies have and therefore the trend could grow significantly. The demand and acceptance that these products have will be fundamental to observe a paradigm shift within the food sector,” he said.

In an SEC filing, Beyond Meat compares the U.S. market for plant-based meats to the one for non-dairy milk, which they note is about 13 percent of the dairy milk market. The company estimates the plant-based meat market could grow to $35 billion in the U.S. if it took a similar percentage of the animal meat category, which is valued at about $270 billion.

The increased interest in plant-based meat alternatives coincides with warnings from the scientific community regarding climate change and environmental degradation. A report from British medical journal “The Lancet” released earlier this year warned that worldwide meat consumption, namely red, should be cut in half in order to meet sustainability initiatives set by the  United Nations, as well as the landmark 2016 Paris Agreement that aims to limit global temperature growth to 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.

Kathleen Kevany, an associate professor at Dalhouse University in Nova Scotia who researches sustainable diets and social change, said the production of animal meat has a large environmental footprint. .

“Whatever humans do for food we exact a consequence. But pound for pound, plant-based foods require less land, less water, and less fossil fuels and less inputs than do animal products,” she said in an email. “The amounts vary from 4-10 less resources needed for equivalent plant-proteins, compared to animal sources.”

Plant-based foods require less land because they don’t require massive amounts of space for grazing, or land for growing feed. Kevany said the extensive land clearing that raising animals for food requires is a large factor in biodiversity loss.  

“This is a substantial price that is not costed in the food,” she said.

Kate Coley, a DePaul junior and vegetarian who is transitioning to a vegan diet, said the environmental footprint played a key factor in why she chose to change her traditional diet.

“I think climate concerns are a big reason for people choosing more veggie options. I know folks who are cutting out certain meats for this reason, and it’s why I’m reducing my dairy and egg intake as much as possible,” she said.

Despite the warnings, meat consumption isn’t really going down.

“We’ve heard the same warnings time and again … and yet per-capita meat consumption in both the United Stands and the world has never been higher,” said Matt Ball, senior media relations specialist at The Good Food Institute, an advocacy group for alternative meat products.

This doesn’t seem to hinder people’s interest in meat alternatives, though. Ball referenced research by Oklahoma State University in which 68 percent of those surveyed said they were uncomfortable with some of the ways animal agriculture operates. These are reachable populations for companies like Beyond Meat, which explicitly states in its SEC filing that, rather than selling the Beyond Burger to the tiny vegan and vegetarian market, “we request that the product be sold in the meat case at grocery retailers, where meat-loving consumers are accustomed to shopping for center-of-plate proteins.”

“Companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are offering those 68 percent of people the meat they want without that discomfort. As these products continue to improve in terms of taste, price, and convenience, more and more people will choose them,” Ball said.  

Impossible Foods, similarly, told The DePaulia that the majority of demand for its Impossible Burger 2.0 does not come from individuals who follow a strictly plant-based diet.

“Demand is so high that Impossible Foods is massively increasing production as quickly as we can … this certainly correlates with higher demand overall for plant-based meat. The vast majority (more than 70 percent) regularly consume animal meat; only 3 percent of our consumers say they never eat animal-derived foods,” an Impossible Foods representative said in an email.

While better in terms of the environmental footprint, plant-based meat alternatives don’t come totally free of flaws.

“They are processed, often with significant salt and fat added,” Kevany said. “They still replicate the narrative that eating meat is okay. And they are not without their energy and equipment costs, and consequently their prices can be higher.”

Additionally, while big brands like Tyson Foods are more recognizable, they could potentially fall behind companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods with consumers who follow a meatless diet, since they’re not an exclusively plant-based brand.

“I definitely don’t think any ethical vegetarians or vegans would ever buy from a company like Tyson no matter what products they add,” Coley said.