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Bruin Bucks: Business in plant-based meat alternatives is rising, but is interest declining?

(Nghi Nguyen/Daily Bruin)

By Alicia Park

Feb. 14, 2023 1:19 p.m.

This post was updated on Feb. 14 at 5:23 p.m.

Alternative protein options have grown in the past few years, ranging from diverse grocery store products to an increasing number of dishes in restaurants and UCLA dining halls.

As consumer interest has risen, businesses and investors have been paying more attention to this market, driven largely by environmental consciousness.

According to a study conducted by Stanford University and UC Berkeley, discontinuing the animal agriculture industry would reduce net carbon dioxide emissions by over 50%, helping meet the necessary minimum threshold limit — two degrees Celsius over preindustrial levels — to avert climate change. The animal agriculture industry releases methane and nitrous oxide gases that contribute to the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, according to the study.

According to National Geographic, animal agriculture contributes one-fifth of the total greenhouse gas emissions, which traps heat in the atmosphere, leading to global warming.

Due to the negative environmental impacts of animal agriculture, various efforts on both the academic and entrepreneurial end have grown over past years to decrease the level of greenhouse gas emissions and help deter climate change.

According to the Washington Post, there are 60 alternative meat companies and 45 alternative milk companies each generating revenue greater than $500,000, as of November 2022.

However, some students said they had mixed feelings on the merits of plant-based meat products.

Sruthi Rangarajan, a second-year computer science student, said she doesn’t consume alternative meats despite having been vegetarian her whole life.

“I personally just don’t like it because of the texture, I think, and the taste of it,” Rangarajan said. “But I do feel like a big part of the reason that most peers or friends consume alternative meats is because maybe they used to eat meat and then they switched to being a vegetarian or a vegan, … And it is a great alternative for them.”

Gwenna Hunter, the founder of the online community and first vegan food bank in Los Angeles, Vegans of LA, said although she first utilized alternative meats to transition to a meatless diet, she is now more careful about consuming processed foods, as she wants to focus on her health in a more holistic way.

“When I started out I was definitely one-hundred thousand percent junk food vegan, complete junk food vegan, especially because I was busy in the movement and I was everywhere,” Hunter said. “So the processed foods were a huge convenience for me. But you know, if you want to be healthy, a whole foods plant-based diet is really more optimal and sustainable and more ideal. I’m definitely not judging anyone who chooses to eat the processed stuff because that stuff is good too.”

Graduate student Daniel Rosenfeld said that the decision to eat meat, particularly by people who typically follow a plant-based diet, can often be a product of social influences rather than personal preference.

“These instances where people decide to violate their vegetarian diet and eat meat are really a testament to the way that eating meat is a very socially normative and socially encouraged behavior in our society,” Rosenfeld said. “So what makes following a vegetarian diet difficult for a lot of people is often not so much the actual taste of food, but the social aspects of eating.”

Rosenfeld added that lowering prices and increasing consumer awareness of the health and environmental benefits to alternative meat, as well as continuing to integrate alternative meat products in dining halls and restaurants may help bring alternative meats into the social landscape.

Alternative meat companies are currently facing a complex landscape as they fight to maintain consumer interest to both grow in revenue as a business and make the positive environmental impacts they set out to accomplish.

While the alternative meat industry boomed, especially in 2019 with the initial public offering of Beyond Meat, its value decreased soon after. Since its IPO in 2019, Beyond Meat’s stock price has dropped 76% overall and 93% from its peak.

Although replacing the animal agriculture industry is one solution for climate change, consumer behavior is a major factor that determines the trajectory of any industry.

According to Forbes, the alternative meats business sector started falling before the trend ever really had the chance to take off. Additionally, listed prices, unsubstantiated health benefits, competition, lack of interest from major omnichannels and repetition are some key reasons for the downturn of the industry in the past five years, according to the Washington Post.

However, Hunter added that she is hopeful for the alternative meats industry despite the seeming slowdown of demand.

“Companies like Beyond Meat, they’re pioneering this, so they’re going to go through the woes and the highs and the lows and the missteps and trips and falls, and then other companies are going to come and learn from it,” Hunter said. “I think it’s completely sustainable because it’s the first of its kind.”

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