The Present And Future Of Plant-Based Milk & Meat Alternatives
A pair of researchers in Finland have recently published a sweeping review article looking at the state of social scientific literature on plant-based meat and milk alternatives. In total, they look at 123 studies on cell-based (i.e., lab-grown meat and milk) and plant-based (e.g., soybean or lentil-derived meat substitutes) products to better understand their role within the broader “protein transition” — the term for the gradual move away from meat taken from non-human animals and towards plant-based and cruelty-free replacements.
Ultimately, they find that the current social science research centers around three research themes, all of which view the promises and potential of these plant-based alternatives from distinct perspectives. Specifically, they see that market transformations, consumer preferences, and politics and ethics are the focal points of current literature. They conclude the paper with a call for greater attention in social scientific research to novel plant-based solutions. In particular, they hope to see a broader scope of academic attention, going beyond market transformation and consumer preferences to agricultural production, value-chains, and food systems analysis.
To carry out this systematic review, the researchers conducted a broad search in academic databases of published studies with the following keywords: plant-based protein, soy-based, artificial meat, meat substitutes, clean milk, meat analogue, soy meat, plant protein, soy protein, soy product, in-vitro meat, shmeat, plant-based meat, cultured meat, meat alternative, soy food, milk alternative, tofu, alternative protein, and plant-based milk.
After paring down their initial sample of articles (based on topic relevance), the authors analyzed the articles’ for overarching themes and frameworks. Overall, they report a consistent framing of “meat and milk alternatives…as a promise in…ecological, nutritional, technological or ethical terms.” Within this overarching frame, the authors further classified the body of work into three sub-themes: “(1) promissory narratives and tensions on markets, (2) consumer preferences, attitudes, and behavioral change, and (3) politics and ethics.”
The first sub-theme is fairly straightforward. Simply, the associated work promises a kinder, healthier, fairer, tastier, safer, and more sustainable food system for everyone, including the non-human animals involved in contemporary practices. This will be a familiar claim to many animal welfare advocates, and one that is no less important in a scientific context than an everyday one. In the academic context, however, the view of plant-based alternatives is one of techno-optimism or salvation. Through the steady march of progress, we can create a food supply that is more nutritious for humans, more ethically considerate of non-human animals, and better for the environment in terms of land use, resource conservation, and greenhouse emissions. Ideas like this have been further popularized by documentaries such as The Game Changers, which highlight the health benefits of reducing and eliminating meat from one’s diet, as well as the implications for morality and sustainability. Related to this notion is the myth that meat and milk are necessary components of a healthy human diet. In reality, as highlighted by the study, this idea is fundamentally a marketing ploy to normalize the high consumption of animals, particularly in Western countries and Brazil.
The second sub-theme the authors identify is “consumer preferences or attitudes towards the alternative products on the market.” In particular, the studies they highlight in this category examine consumer perceptions, attitudes, and behavioral change as a function of individual choices. Using techniques from social psychology, behavioral sciences, economics, and cognitive sciences, many of the studies reviewed specifically look at policies to champion plant-based alternatives as part of shifting diets and culture. Under this umbrella, the researchers found that individual choices to try plant-based alternatives are primarily driven by ethical and health considerations, but these motivations are unlikely to be enough for people to continue a plant-based diet. Instead, products having a similarity to meat and milk with respect to taste, nutrition, and texture are a much more sustainable means to ensuring someone’s commitment to not consuming animal products.
Convenience and compatibility with one’s current lifestyle are also key factors. Importantly, these articles collectively do not address how to convince people to change, only what they say would be important to them if they were to change. The authors briefly address how behavioral economics tools and findings could be used to accomplish this. Amongst other ideas, they mention “push/nudge” policies that encourage people to take small but compounding steps towards reducing their consumption of animals. They also recommend more rigorous studies and research/development of one-to-one taste substitutes, as this is often the predominant consideration for the hardest to reach group.
Finally, the authors discuss the theme of politics and ethics. They highlight the broader relevance of academic moral philosophy in the production of plant-based alternatives, although they do not highlight this as being especially relevant to consumers on the whole. Certainly, while such exercises are hardly mere navel-gazing, they are unlikely to impact the market for plant-based alternatives at the level of consumers, where it arguably matters most. Nevertheless, the authors recognize that from the perspective of environmental justice, which encompasses both non-human animal interests as well as the disproportionate effects of climate change on low-income, minority, and global south-residing people, plant-based alternatives present an important path to pursue. In summarizing, the authors write:
In this vein, the studies [reviewed] call for more attention to political processes that contribute to inertia within decision-making in food markets and policy. In studying political stakeholders’ ideologies in relation to in vitro meat, researchers have found that ideology works as an “indispensable interpretive resource” in navigating the potential conflicts and controversies around cell-based meat. Specifically, ideologies that support the idea that technological innovations will fix the matters of unsustainable food consumption and processes must be critically evaluated. A focus on technological innovations may stem from deeply ingrained assumptions about the ideal of ultimate control over food production, depending on highly integrated models of industrial organization.
In conclusion, the authors offer a few key takeaways. First, plant-based alternatives often try to position themselves as one-to-one substitutes for animal products. This may be eventually effective insofar as practice may make permanent, but there is nonetheless a tension between consumers who want to reduce their impact but also want to continue eating meat. This leads to the authors’ second main point: that consumer preferences are affected by everyday habits. The protein transition, then, should recognize the challenges it will face in light of this shift. Finally, the authors note that the ethical considerations of meat consumption, both with respect to the non-human animals that are killed and the eco/sustainability concerns are more broadly important, but more could be done to highlight the distance between the costs of meat and meat alternatives.
Ultimately, however, a demand for plant-based products will be driven by consumers. As taste, texture, and similarity to meat is most important to many people, strategies directed at persuading individuals away from meat consumption may do better to avoid using meat as the reference point, instead pitching plant-based alternatives as their own category altogether. Thus, the principal idea for animal advocates and others seeking to reduce and eliminate animal consumption is that it may be prudent to take better stock of consumer ideas about plant-based alternatives and leverage these understandings to make such alternatives more appealing. The future may be better for it.