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Sustainability of Intensive Protein Production


With a backdrop of media hype over transition to plant-based protein, it is important to recognize the inherent sustainability of intensive egg production.  The Good Food Institute estimates that a single egg is responsible for evolution of approximately 150 g of carbon dioxide equivalent compared to one once of chicken at 170 g, pork at 190 g and dairy at 300 g.  On the basis of land use, a single egg requires approximately 0.1 m2 compared to pork at 1.0 m2.  Beef requires 5 m2 per one-ounce serving.


Despite the appeal to what has been referred to as a bewildering array of food tribes including veggievores, flexitarians and lacto-vegetarians and their ilk, the cost of plant-based substitutes compared to animal protein is extremely high.  An Impossible Burger served at the Seattle Airport carried a $1 surcharge over a conventional beef burger.  In the UK, vegetable-based meat substitutes including hotdogs and cauliflower-based steak are priced significantly higher than conventional counterparts resulting in a backlash from consumers.


A commentator for a major UK restaurant chain said that profit margins on vegan dishes were approximately equal to meat equivalents despite the fact that the cost of ingredients is cheaper.  She added, “Anything that is plant-based has a huge amount of work in it since everything on the plate is made from scratch.”


In past months, multinational companies have invested heavily in plant-based substitutes including Danone of France that forecasts sales of $7 billion by 2025.  Observers are in fact questioning whether their $12.5 billion acquisition of WhiteWave in 2016 represented an injudicious overpayment.  Maple Leaf Foods of Canada purchased two brands for $270 million in 2017 and will invest $310 million in a new plant in Indiana.  Tyson Foods will adopt a go-it-alone program following sale of their equity in Beyond Meat before the highly successful IPO. Tyson Foods anticipates sales of $1 billion from plant-based products within a decade.


The appeal for plant-based meat substitutes is based partly on perceptions of health but also considerations of sustainability and welfare.  It remains to be seen whether there is a sufficient mass of consumers willing to pay a premium for these attributes, even if taste and satisfaction are equivalent to conventional meat products.  There is a growing concern that the rapid rise in demand for plant-based substitutes may well be based on curiosity. This was the case in my selection of an overpriced Impossible Burger sandwich. Since the product was inferior to a conventional meat burger, the trial will not to be repeated.