The hottest topic within the beef industry is fake meat and meat alternatives. I am definitely not an expert on this subject – but I would like to share a few thoughts. I guarantee this will be totally different from everything else you have heard or read about fake meat. I’m quite sure I will upset some – but it won’t be the first time.
Veggie burgers have been around for over 30 years – but they never did gain much popularity. When I first heard the latest talk about creating fake meats, I thought it was ridiculous. Why would anyone want to waste time and money producing a product no one wants? I had no concern because I thought this whole notion would be short-lived. Guess what? The concept of producing fake meat is not going away. If anything, it is escalating. Already in 2018, retail sales of fake meat have increased 24% over last year. Total sales for fake meat products so far this year is $670 million. That’s not chump change! Why is this happening?
I am a meat producer and a meat consumer. Most of our subscribers are meat producers and meat consumers. There is little chance we will ever change. Our ancestors have been eating meat almost forever. We often poke fun at those who do not eat meat. Perhaps we should consider why some people don’t eat meat and why they are looking for meat alternatives. If we, as meat producers, don’t understand why a growing number of people don’t want what we produce, we have good reason to feel threatened by this movement.
The world is constantly changing. People are constantly changing. In some ways, the people of today are vastly different from the people of yesterday. In 1900, for example, 40% of the total US population lived on farms and 60% lived in rural areas. Today, only 1% of the US population lives on farms and only 20% live in rural areas. It would be ridiculous for today’s meat producers to think everyone sees things the same way we see things. As we move forward, I’m afraid less and less people will see things the way we see them.
I have concluded most of the fake-meat movement has been driven by the Millennials, otherwise known as Generation Y. This includes people who were born between 1981 and 1996 (ages 22 to 37). In the United States, there are over 80 million people in this age group. As meat producers, we simply cannot afford to ignore that many people. The Millennials, however, are not the only ones involved in this movement. There are people from all ages and walks of life involved in this movement. I think it would be prudent for us to find out why there is a noticeable shift away from the consumption of animal products.
For the most part… the increasing demand for meat alternatives has been driven by health, environmental and animal-welfare concerns. The same can be said about natural, organic and grass-fed beef. There are several things about the status quo beef industry that concern people. I will try to provide a few examples. Some of these concerns are valid and real. Others may just be a matter of perception. However, perception is reality for most people.
Today’s status quo beef production is centered around the production of genetically modified crops – corn and soybeans. There is a growing number of people who are very concerned about the use of genetically modified crops. Crop production requires a tremendous amount of water and fossil fuel. Crop production is damaging the ecosystem. In the US, fertile topsoil is being swept and washed away 10 times faster than it is being replenished.
More and more people are concerned about the misuse of antibiotics in beef production, as well as the noticeable increase in antibiotic resistance. Antibiotic resistance has become one of the biggest health challenges. Every year in the US alone, at least two million people get an antibiotic-resistant infection – and at least 23,000 die. The use of hormones in beef production is another major concern. In 1989, the European Union banned the importation of beef that contains artificial growth hormones. Many are concerned that hormones in beef are contributing factors to cancer, early puberty in girls and other health problems.
People love animals. A few mistakenly consider animals to be on the same level as humans. Perception is reality. Nearly everyone is concerned about the health and wellbeing of animals – including the animals we eat. Every now and then, some idiot producer is caught on film abusing and mistreating a farm animal. This gives all of us a bad name. We don’t need the Humane Society or the government telling us what we can and cannot do. We just need to do a better job of policing ourselves. We need to show the world how well we treat our animals.
Right or wrong, many people view putting cattle in a confinement feedlot as a mistreatment of animals. Back in my early days, I cowboyed at a feedlot for six years. Feedlots can be pretty disgusting at times. Deep mud (manure) is often a problem. Manure dust can be suffocating. Blizzards can quickly kill hundreds of cattle. Preventing the spread of sickness can be a challenge. I asked someone once why he prefers grass-fed beef. He quickly responded by asking, “Have you ever driven by a feedlot?”
You may not agree with all of the concerns I shared above. You don’t have to agree. However, if you are a beef producer, I think it is imperative for you to understand what the concerns are. There is clearly a growing movement away from what I refer to as status quo beef. A growing number of people want natural beef, organic beef, grass-fed beef – and even fake beef. More and more people want to know where their beef came from. They want to connect with the family that produced it. They also want to know how it was raised.
Like it or not… changes are taking place within the beef industry. We should not expect things to stay the same forever. I’m afraid many beef producers are taking the “stick your head in the sand” approach to dealing with these changes. Ignorance may be bliss – but it is a very poor management strategy. Instead of hoping people will continue to purchase what we produce, we should produce what people want. Long-term success will require a knowledge of what consumers want, along with an understanding of why consumers want what they want.
This is a great post. There is a tremendous tendency to simply write of folks with whom you disagree. Well, as you astutely point out, that means you’re writing off a bunch of potential customers.
Kit, I TOTALLY agree with your post. I have had this conversation with dairy and beef producers so many times over the years that it frustrates me that producers just don’t want to accept the changing world when it comes to food. I left the dairy industry here in Australia after many years because of the reasons you mentioned in your post : Animal welfare , Environmental issues and the corrupt service industry.
Keep up your good work.
I agree with much of your post and all of the thoughts about public perception. I don’t agree with all the statements about crop production and the loss of topsoil, at least in my part of the world. Farmers are using less fuel due to no-till and minimum till practices. In many cases, topsoil loss is LESS than what is being gained so topsoil is actually being replenished rather than lost. Public perception of crop farming, like ranching is years out of date and agriculture continues to change and improve at a rapid pace.
My thoughts above only highlight that one of the bigger challenges is true ignorance on the part of our customers. They will buy fake meat because they don’t realize every product has an environmental story. Many of the food illnesses in the past few years have been linked to organic production, yet consumers think it’s safer. I’m all for consumer choice but too often farmers and ranchers attack each other to gain market share so grass fed producers highlight problems with feedlots, organic producers incorrectly claim their product is more environmentally friendly etc. The 1% of the population that actually produces food and fiber needs to work together to promote all agriculture, conventional, organic, grass fed, free range etc. rather than putting each other down with outdated information.
Kit, I so enjoy your posts and the amazing way you and your team effectively communicate your ideas. As a small seed stock producer, we use your genetics and feed only grass, hay when necessary, minerals and no growth hormones. Our cattle are happy and the bulls grow more slowly, but our customers love their performance.
Please keep up the great work!
Mark at Stagecoach Cattle in Western Missouri
Green house gas production, desertification,inhumane treatment seems fake meat is the solution. NOT! A few years back at a grazing conference met a lady from India, she attended on her own dime. She was Hindu.(they don’t eat cows they worship them). She attended to learn about intense rotational grazing and how managing cows in this manner could improve the soil and reverse desertification.Soil microbes-plants-ruminate animals(cows) are all required to keep this symbiotic system functioning. Some future time we will learn the most value from ruminants is their symbiotic affect on plants and soil organisms.
Best article yet- I cant agree with you more
Not sure why Kit thought this was different than anything else we were seeing…it is mostly all pretty obvious stuff…it is indeed too bad people believe falsehoods and distortion….for ex. 90 plus percent of all antibiotic resistance can be directly traced to improper HUMAN use (and the remainder can not be definitively traced or attributed to animal use) and there is no provable or measurable health benefits to organic, non-GMO, natural, or many other marketing tools..and the environmental benefits are often very debatable also…..but as he says, perception (and distortion) is often reality (look at the circus going on in Washington!)…so we better address some of these things….
What about are Beef Check Off dollars? They should be helping educate the public. Or at least that’s what I thought they where for. This would be the perfect opportunity for us as an industry to get are story out there in front of the public. But all I can see is the Beef Check Off money be wasted on golf tournaments and what ever else they do. Probably serving fake meat at there retreats.
Always good reading Kit! Always something to contemplate…
My wife and I own a flaxseed and garbanzo bean processing plant in the northern plains. Much of what we process is organic specialty grains and that sector is continually growing. Part of our business promotion includes attending Natural Products East (Baltimore) and West (Anaheim). The west show has had attendance of over 100,000 people. It is really interesting to see the next big thing in natural and organic food trends. This year, for the first time, we noticed animal products making a huge comeback. Things like collagen and bone broth are included in so many products for food consumption and Heath and Beauty products. We are seeing interest in preparing food the way our grandparents did and eating like cavemen (paleo). The beef industry should continue educating the public on the health benefits of beef. We beef producers know our story is good but we need help in research and promotion. At the show, I heard of a beef and bison jerky company that was started by 24 year old vegans that were suffering health consequences from avoiding meat and took doctors advice to eat meat. They started their company and sold it to General Mills for 100’s of millions of Dollars.
WOW! Good for them! My fear is that most beef producers will grump around thinking the world should buy what they produce. It ain’t gonna happen that way.