By Don Close, VP & Protein Analyst,  RaboResearch Food & Agribusiness

I have continuously been asked about alternative and plant-based proteins and what impact I foresee these products having on the conventional livestock and meat business. 

Well, here it goes: if we truly believe there will be 9.5 billion people on the planet by 2050, just 30 short years from now, we had better be embracing all the protein production we can.

Many of the food futurists I have read and talked to are convinced that alternative proteins will be the choice of the elite, upwardly mobile, high income folks. That is where I disagree. This exclusive pool of eaters appears to be driven by social media and will follow whatever the diet craze of the day may be. They are fickle and will be on to whatever the next fad may be as soon as the novelty wears off the alternative proteins. 

Last fall I had the privilege to listen to Dr. Lowell Catlett discuss the bright future in cattle feeding and the livestock industry. When talking about today’s elite consumers, Catlett talked a lot about Maslow’s Theory of Basic Human Needs. He talked about the excess wealth and abundance in the U.S. and the developed world, and he kept talking about the peak of the pyramid. To paraphrase Catlett, when people get to the peak of the pyramid, they make a very specific set of decisions, following the latest trends and fads. An example is the current interest in grass fed beef, organics and the emerging plant-based and alternative proteins. 

There is a part of this whole discussion that is causing me a great deal of confusion. Michael Pollan first published “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” in 2006. While the goal of the book is multi-pronged, the real point was how modern agriculture has changed the way people eat and that consumers should all go back to raising at least a portion of their own food or buying direct from the farmer. 

The two main takeaways, from my perspective, are:

1. If your grandmother would not recognize it as food, you probably shouldn’t either.

2.  Never buy any processed food that contains more than five ingredients or contains anything you can’t readily pronounce. 

Now suddenly we have advanced to the point that there are companies launching alternative and plant-based proteins. Three of the leading companies are Beyond Meat, Impossible Meat and Memphis Meats. As I look at the ingredient list of the plant-based products from these manufacturers I see 17 to 21 ingredients including several ingredients you can’t readily pronounce. The question that comes to my mind is how can the same elite, upwardly-mobile, high income folks who were moved into action by reading “The Omnivore’s Dilemna” and similar books and are convinced that simple, minimal ingredient foods are better, be so enamored with a highly processed protein alternative that contains 21 ingredients?

It seems the better choice, in this context, would be single ingredient proteins.

That said, I do see a role for plant-based and alternative proteins. The primary role for these alternative proteins is with the emerging middle class in China, Southeast Asia and particularly in parts of developing Africa. It has been proven repeatedly that as people’s incomes rise from bare minimal existence to the middle class, the very first thing they want to do is eat better and that is exactly what we are seeing. As plant-based and alternative products become more established, prices are expected to decline, making them more affordable and an option for a limited (but steadily increasing) income.

NCBA is working from a policy perspective to not allow the manufacturers of these alternative proteins to call the products either meat or beef; in other words, to accurately label the product. I believe the protein industry learned a valuable lesson from the dairy industry. The first is to stop the false labelling of the alternative products before they become established in the marketplace. Look at all the milk variations that are out there today, products that contain no milk at all but are all labelled as milk. 

I have little doubt these alternative products will have a place in the market. Certainly, when you look at the list of investors, such as Bill Gates and Richard Branson, these products have the freedom to have a long burn rate before becoming economically viable. They also can use the influence of those investors to get a place in the market.

Based on the number of questions I have been getting from people in the livestock industry, there is a great deal of concern. It is my opinion that fair labeling will be a requirement – the alternative products should not be allowed to be called beef or meat. These emerging products will also need to be monitored to see how they develop in the marketplace. I am not concerned these products will take enough market share to have a meaningful impact on the existing livestock industry. 

This article originally appeared in the National Cattlemen publication and is reprinted with the author’s permission.