Animal agriculture and the challenge of veganism

In a recent article in Forbes Magazine, Katrina Fox defends the claim that veganism is going mainstream. Anyone who follows the movement will agree that the last couple of years have seen a dramatic increase in the amount of people in the Western world who identify with veganism, but estimates in most countries still put the proportion of vegans in the range of 0.5% to 4%. Certainly that makes it premature to say that we are anywhere near mainstream adoption, but Fox presents some frankly astounding developments on the business side of things to bolster the claim. For example, in the US, plant-based dairy alternatives are estimated to make up 40% of the total demand for dairy and dairy alternatives within three years. Sales of cow’s milk declined 5% last year, while plant-based milk sales grew 3.1%. Sales of plant-based foods in total increased by 8.1%. Rabobank estimates that within five years, alternative protein could represent one-third of European meat demand.

Businesses are taking note. Realistic vegan burgers or minced meat (such as the Impossible Burger, the Beyond Burger, or Denmark’s “Naturli’ Hakket”) seem to be the go-to venture for many hoping to capitalize on these developments, but more broadly, seven of the fifteen most well-funded food and beverage startups in the world are plant-based. These developments also surpass the domain of food and agriculture, with vegan fashion, materials, and cosmetics picking up steam. Tesla recently committed to removing animal-based leather from all their car interiors, and Norway is shutting down all fur farms by 2025. The sheer range of developments that Fox presents suggests that it is unrealistic to assume that veganism will remain a niche.

My research interests in food innovation, animal agriculture, and veganism stem from the realization that feeding 10 billion people by 2050 will require a sustainability transition of staggering dimensions. The forces that will determine the shape of that transition are already playing out and need to be studied. Some key questions include: what will happen as disruptive ventures are bought up by Big Agriculture? How will established players resist the vegan revolution (several countries have passed or are proposing laws making it illegal to label plant-based substitutes as meat or milk products)? How will the balance between high-tech substitutes and socio-cultural changes in patterns of demand, taste, and ethics be negotiated? And if these developments are currently predominant in the West, then where does that leave the rest of the world?

Written on February 8, 2018