The United Nations projects that by 2050, the world population will surpass 9 billion. A planet of 9 billion or more people presents human civilization with a host of massive problems to solve. But one of the biggest, and most pressing, is food.
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that to support this large population, global food production will need to rise by 70%. This could put “extreme pressure” on the global food system, leaving it vulnerable to threats ranging from depletion of underground aquifers to increased drought and flooding due to climate change. And with the length, complexity, and interconnectedness of modern global food supply chains, these problems only become more serious.
Now, a new crop of entrepreneurs are capitalizing on advances in food science to create that solution. In the process, they’re igniting a new war over the future of our food – and as unlikely as it may sound, the key to the future of global food stability may lie in the hands of their marketing departments.
Beef: A Briefer
To get to the answer of why, there are a few things we first need to understand about food production. Especially when it comes to America’s favorite animal: the cow.
In 2018, America was home to more than 94 million cows, the vast majority of which were raised for meat production. In the US, beef cattle are generally grown to a weight of about 1,250 lbs before slaughter. Getting them there requires a lot of food – and therein lies the problem.
Getting a steer to its desired finishing weight means feeding it a lot of corn. More than 90 million acres of US farmland are devoted to corn, with the majority of the crop going into livestock feed. Growing that corn requires a lot of water. Estimates vary widely, but this means that it takes as much as 1,847 gallons of water to produce one pound of grocery store beef.
While beef is the least efficient of almost all animal food sources, the same problem applies no matter where the meat comes from. Because raising livestock for food involves two “trophic levels” in a food chain, there’s always a massive energy loss that makes it a wildly inefficient food source.
In short, the problem isn’t the raising of the animals themselves. It’s growing all of the corn, soy, and other products needed to feed the animals. The leading cause of Amazon deforestation is beef cattle. The second leading cause is soybean cultivation – but those soybeans are only grown in order to feed livestock. Extrapolate this system of food production to an overpopulated world and it’s easy to see the issue.
A Solution in Taste and Technology
Time is running out for us to solve this problem. But entrepreneurs are now taking on the established world order of food, capitalizing on modern developments in food science that make it possible to create never-seen-before food substitutes.
Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, the two largest players in the plant-based burger space, are leading this charge. Both companies have used new techniques in food science to design plant-based (vegan) patties that look, taste, and feel like a beef burger: famously, the burgers sizzle as they cook and even “bleed” like real meat.
But the companies aren’t doing this solely to whet appetites. Beyond Meat explicitly states sustainability as part of their mission, and the data back them up. One report found that a Beyond Burger produced 90% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than a beef patty, and the United Nations even recognized Beyond Meat as a ‘Champion of the Earth’ company in 2018 for its sustainability efforts.
What’s been achieved in the plant-based meat space is impressive, but making the burger is one thing. Getting people to eat it is another story. Solving the future of food would require massive, widespread adoption of plant-based alternatives to meat, something that previous food substitutes have never achieved.
The new crop of companies are trying their hand at breaking this ceiling. And according to them, this time, it’s different.
The New Burger Wars
Companies like Beyond have largely solved the product problem for plant-based foods, but they now need to solve the problem of adoption. And to do it, they’re relying on marketing strategies that have never been employed by vegetarian meat products.
Instead of emphasizing no-meat ingredients, Beyond Meat has structured its marketing of the Beyond Burger to mimic traditional meat products. In grocery stores, it’s sold in the same see-through packaging as regular meat, making it appear remarkably similar to a traditional ground beef patty. We’ve seen the same with the Impossible Burger, which was even incorporated into an “Impossible Whopper” at Burger King.
The new approach is working. According to the CCO of Impossible Foods, 95% of people who regularly order the burger also eat meat, and Beyond reports that 93% of people buying the Beyond Burger patty also put meat in their grocery basket. In other words, Beyond and Impossible appear to have found the holy grail of plant-based meat substitutes: acceptance with regular meat eaters.
Now, new entrants are seeking to expand the impact, moving from product and marketing to distribution. Tommaso Chiabra, one of the early investors in Beyond Meat, has launched a chain of fast-casual plant-based burger shops called Neat Burger, aiming to disrupt the “burger joint” restaurant model in the same way the Beyond Burger disrupted meat patties. Once again, the branding steers clear of traditional veggie burgers, instead aiming to emphasize the food’s taste and closeness to real meat.
The new crop of meatless burgers are poised to usher in a new era of plant-based foods, and nothing short of the future of our food system may depend on them. But they’ll only succeed if they achieve true mainstream adoption, which has eluded veggie products for decades. To overcome this challenge, these companies are trying radical new marketing techniques well outside the playbook of their industry.
The plant-based burger wars are well underway, with the future of food hanging in the balance. And while it may seem unlikely, it may be marketing that saves the global food system.