Argument

Plant-Based Proteins Are Too Expensive

Here’s how to level the playing field with meat.

An Impossible Foods burger made of plant-based meat.
An Impossible Foods burger made of plant-based meat.
An Impossible Foods burger made of plant-based meat. Impossible Foods
By , the CEO of Climate Advisers, and , the CEO of the Good Food Institute.

The global food system is reeling from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the reverberating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and devastating droughts across Africa, India, and the Middle East. Looking to the future, a warming climate threatens to reduce crop yields worldwide, while unpredictable severe weather will introduce many opportunities for localized crop failures and supply chain disruptions. One of the best ways to strengthen the globalized food system is to reduce our reliance on its most inefficient and highest-emitting sector: animal agriculture. 

THE FOOD ISSUE: This article appears in the Fall 2022 print magazine. Explore the issue.

Consider that, amid a critical shortage of grain, which threatens to destabilize entire economies in the Middle East and beyond, the global animal agriculture sector uses one-third of the world’s supply. Only a fraction of that is converted into edible protein. This contributes to global food insecurity by pushing prices for grains and other crops used as animal feed higher than they would be otherwise, making it harder for the world’s poorest people to afford staple foods and leaving more people hungry or malnourished. In addition, both directly and through its sizable contribution to tropical deforestation, animal agriculture accounts for about 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and one-third of the world’s emissions from methane, a climate superpollutant 28 times more powerful at warming the planet, over a 100-year period, than carbon dioxide.

The global food system is reeling from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the reverberating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and devastating droughts across Africa, India, and the Middle East. Looking to the future, a warming climate threatens to reduce crop yields worldwide, while unpredictable severe weather will introduce many opportunities for localized crop failures and supply chain disruptions. One of the best ways to strengthen the globalized food system is to reduce our reliance on its most inefficient and highest-emitting sector: animal agriculture. 

Consider that, amid a critical shortage of grain, which threatens to destabilize entire economies in the Middle East and beyond, the global animal agriculture sector uses one-third of the world’s supply. Only a fraction of that is converted into edible protein. This contributes to global food insecurity by pushing prices for grains and other crops used as animal feed higher than they would be otherwise, making it harder for the world’s poorest people to afford staple foods and leaving more people hungry or malnourished. In addition, both directly and through its sizable contribution to tropical deforestation, animal agriculture accounts for about 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and one-third of the world’s emissions from methane, a climate superpollutant 28 times more powerful at warming the planet, over a 100-year period, than carbon dioxide.

Animal agriculture’s impacts on food security and the environment are expected to grow in the coming decades. As billions of people adopt middle-class consumption habits, meat consumption will grow by roughly 70 percent by 2050, according to forecasts from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. Animal agriculture already accounts for three-quarters of all agricultural land use. With the existing demand for animal feed driving deforestation in the world’s tropical forest basins, this trend will lead to heightened competition for a limited supply of land and staple crops. And researchers have found that higher demand for animal products in developing economies leads to the increased diversion of human-grade crops toward animal feed.

Despite animal agriculture’s sizable effect on food security and climate change, a dearth of reasonable alternatives to animal protein has led to an uncomfortable silence from policymakers. Animals cannot be optimized for food production to the extent necessary to resolve the efficiency crisis at play, and the concept of reducing animal product consumption has been met with fierce resistance from producers and consumers alike for decades. However, with recent progress in food technology, a promising solution has emerged.

Alternative proteins are foods that create the experience of eating animal products without the inefficiencies and other harms involved in cycling crops through animals. Popular examples on store shelves include high-fidelity plant-based options from Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. Other alternative proteins still in development include cultivated meat—made with real animal cells grown in bioreactors—and precision fermentation-derived animal proteins for use as additives and ingredients. These products provide consumers with the culinary and cultural experience they desire without the environmental and food security costs of animal agriculture, allowing for extensive food system reform without the need for significant behavioral shifts by consumers. 

But though the world is innovating rapidly on electricity and transportation, food production’s inefficiencies and external costs have been largely ignored. The analogy with renewable energy is apt: Mainstream goals for renewable energy and electrification of transport are to reduce environmental impacts, not to try to convince the world to consume less energy and drive less. Governments should think about alternative proteins the same way. Instead of trying to convince consumers to eat less meat, alternative proteins can mitigate the harms of animal protein production with a product that tastes the same or better and costs the same or less. 


Impossible Foods plant-based meat patties.
Impossible Foods plant-based meat patties.

Impossible Foods plant-based meat patties. Impossible Foods

Alternative proteins have three key advantages over traditional animal protein sources. First, these products are far more resource-efficient than animal foods. Today’s plant-based alternatives to beef use up to 99 percent less land per unit than their conventional counterparts, and an assessment of cultivated beef commissioned by the Good Food Institute found that it could require 93 percent fewer input calories and 95 percent less land than conventional beef. These efficiency increases would eventually allow the global food system to create more food for a growing population using less land than it does now. A large-scale switch to alternative proteins would allow billions of hectares of land to be repurposed for ecosystem reconstruction, reforestation, or human food cultivation and free up enough of the world’s staple crop supply to lower prices by as much as 12 percent. With one-third of the global grain supply no longer diverted to animals, essential foods would become not only more plentiful but also cheaper.

Second, the supply chains for alternative proteins are simpler and less vulnerable to disruption than those of animal products. Alternative proteins concentrate production entirely in local factories with no need for feed mills, hatcheries, industrial barns for raising animals, fleets of tractor-trailers to haul livestock for slaughter, slaughterhouses, or post-slaughter processing. Because the supply chain for creating alternative proteins has so many fewer links, requiring less coordination, transportation, and fewer perishable components, the system is more resilient to shocks. 

As livestock animals die by the thousands in heat waves, a protein system with fewer chinks in its armor against climate disruptions shows promise. Further, the timeline to produce alternative protein products is much shorter than that of conventional animal products, allowing for more rapid adjustments to changes in the market. In a complex economy in which demand for some kinds of animal products may surge while others dwindle, alternative protein producers can easily meet demand without producing an entire animal including unwanted byproducts. The problem of byproducts has plagued animal agriculture and inspired Winston Churchill, writing in 1931, to hope that “we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.”

Animals cannot be optimized for food production to the extent necessary to resolve the efficiency crisis at play.

Third and finally, alternative proteins produce a fraction of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production of traditional animal protein, helping to mitigate the effects of climate change at the same time as they help the food system weather them. Business-as-usual increases in animal product consumption could raise annual global emissions by about 12 metric gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent by 2050, almost twice the United States’ entire 2019 emissions and enough to preclude the Paris Agreement’s 1.5 degrees Celsius benchmark on its own. Meanwhile, a transition to alternative proteins has the potential to deliver 14 to 20 percent of the emissions mitigation the world needs by 2050 to stay below 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming. 

In a major departure from other sectors in which new green technology promises disruptive reform, the major players in the animal agriculture industry largely support alternative proteins as the food of the future—not just with words but with investments. To date, all five of the world’s largest meat companies have invested in or are developing alternative protein products. Cargill, one of those five, recently made a $100 million investment in a pea protein processing facility in rural Minnesota, replacing a dairy processing facility on the same site. JBS, the largest meat company in the world, invested $100 million to purchase its own cultivated meat company and launch a pilot facility in Florianópolis, Brazil. Both are examples of established corporations leaning into the positive system transformation heralded by alternative proteins. 

Early investments in the new sector of alternative proteins could be lucrative for governments and local economies as well. A report co-funded by the U.K. Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office and the ClimateWorks Foundation posits that with modest worldwide government support of $10.1 billion per year, alternative proteins could employ between 9.5 million and 9.8 million people by 2050, with up to $1.1 trillion in gross value added to the global economy. Even in the fairly short term, agricultural research pays dividends. As U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has noted, “Studies have shown that every dollar invested in agricultural research creates $20 in economic activity.” All of this can happen through the free market, with no need for consumers to pay more or sacrifice their taste preferences.


But while a systemwide transition to alternative proteins would benefit people and the planet, it is not inevitable. Moreover, it will not proceed rapidly enough on its own to counteract the dangers of a changing climate and growing demand for protein.

Right now, the primary obstacles to wider uptake of alternative proteins are that they cost too much and don’t taste as good as conventional meat. Importantly, the key to scaling these innovative protein technologies is emphatically not government action to replace, restrict, or disincentivize animal products in the marketplace. Nor is it browbeating and moralizing to consumers. Rather, what’s needed is concerted government action to accelerate the innovations needed to reduce costs and improve how these proteins taste. 

In this respect, too, the state of alternative proteins today is comparable to that of renewable energy. Renewable energy was once generally more expensive than fossil fuels. Now in many, maybe even most, parts of the world, wind and solar are actually cheaper than new fossil fuel power plants. That same rapid innovation is transforming the transport sector, with electric vehicles moving into the mainstream. While the private sector deserves the bulk of the credit for innovation in these sectors, government policies—such as public research and development and tax credits—have been important factors, too. To make alternative proteins less expensive, that sector needs the same type of government action. Crucially, creating new financial incentives for alternative proteins would merely level the playing field with livestock production, which receives considerable subsidies in many countries. New policies encouraging innovation would expand consumer choice and speed consumer acceptance.

In addition, on the supply side, governments need to help alternative protein producers scale up production to meet burgeoning demand. While alternative protein production is much more efficient and scalable than conventional animal agriculture, programs to fund, finance, and insure early capital expenditures are needed to help the industry increase production capacity rapidly.

What specific policies are most needed? To make progress, countries should take four steps. 

First, governments should begin a concerted and well-funded research effort aimed at making alternative proteins taste as good or better and cost the same or less as traditional animal proteins. Funding public, open-access research that benefits the entire sector can address the industry’s biggest technical challenges, inspire additional research, and create new opportunities for growth. As detailed in the Good Food Institute’s forthcoming State of Global Policy Report, the U.S. government has to date allocated only $25 million to alternative protein research, compared with $473 million in animal agriculture research in 2019 alone. Governments should at the very least provide the same funding for alternative proteins. Even better would be if they allocated funding for alternative protein research on the scale that they provide to other major innovation priorities, such as renewable energy. 

Protein innovation can be the next big step that nations take toward a vibrant, secure, and green economy. 

Second, strategic incentives—investment tax credits, loan guarantees, demonstration projects, and other forms of financial support—have catalyzed explosive growth in the renewable energy sector and can stimulate similar progress for alternative protein infrastructure. As with renewable energy, the key challenge to systemic reform is the vast scale of production that will be required on a short timeline. The Good Food Institute has done modeling on capital requirements for plant-based and cultivated meat, and it’s clear that setting up factories and building out the infrastructure for alternative protein production would profit from government incentives similar to those that were essential to the growth of renewable energy and electric vehicles. More specifically, government investment assistance will help alternative protein companies purchase or lease expensive processing equipment or manufacturing facilities for a lower cost than is available via private equity financing. 

Third, a switch to alternative proteins can revitalize rural economies by bolstering rural manufacturing and food processing—so long as policymakers prioritize training for the alternative protein technical workforce. For example, programs could train existing agricultural and meat processing workers to transition from conventional to alternative protein manufacturing, while public-private partnerships could be used to create apprentice programs for alternative meat production facilities. 

Finally, governments should pursue multilateral R&D partnerships among leading countries that will advance global alternative protein science. Mission Innovation, a multinational partnership that works to accelerate innovation on clean energy, should expand its scope to include alternative proteins, or a similar but parallel initiative should be created. Climate Advisers and the Good Food Institute, with which we are affiliated, are calling on nations participating in this alliance to mobilize a combined $10.1 billion a year toward alternative protein research and commercialization by 2025—the amount needed to scale alternative proteins to meet their food security and climate potential. Also at the international level, alternative proteins should be integrated within the Agriculture Innovation Mission for Climate, an initiative currently led by the United States and the United Arab Emirates to reduce agricultural emissions through innovation. The more than 40 nations that have signed on to this effort should embrace collective goals on alternative proteins.

As the world grows, develops, and warms, our reliance on conventionally produced animal protein increases food prices, makes our food system more vulnerable, and exacerbates climate change. And with demand for meat set to rise inexorably for decades, these external costs will only increase. The growth of renewable energy and the emerging success of electric vehicles have shown that the global economy can transition in ways that spur economic growth, create new jobs, and add choices for consumers. Moreover, as growing demand for electric vehicles makes clear, this transition can happen even in the face of long-standing cultural preferences. With strong domestic leadership and global cooperation, protein innovation can be the next big step that nations take toward a vibrant, secure, and green economy.

This article appears in the Fall 2022 print magazine. Subscribe now to support our journalism.

Nigel Purvis is the CEO of Climate Advisers and a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for oceans, environment, and science. Twitter: @Climate_Intel

Bruce Friedrich is the CEO of the Good Food Institute. Twitter: @BruceGFriedrich

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