By Amelia Kent
Alternative protein products are making their way into retail markets in multiple forms. Whether in the form of a plant-based protein looking and tasting like beef or a product grown from beef cells in a lab, beef as we know it has some new competition in the retail marketplace. In many respects, this shouldn’t come as a surprise to farmers and ranchers as the spectrum of consumer products, services and technology has experienced more compounded growth in the past century than in the all of the previous history.
However, as these alternative proteins are gaining traction in the meat cases and menus our beef occupy, we have a new competition with which to contend. For many, this is an uncomfortable threat, but I see it an opportunity. I heard the example of a group choosing to eat at a burger joint that also serves the alternative burger allowing for a vegetarian choice instead of another more-vegetarian restaurant that wouldn’t serve the group as much beef. For me, as a beef producer, that’s a win.
These choices are also offering cattle producers a chance to highlight the sustainability of beef production. Contrary to significant public perception, beef production is incredibly sustainable and conservation focused. Most people are not aware that most of the land cattle graze is not suitable for other types of production. Something I’m just starting to learn about is how to achieve carbon sequestration through rotational grazing. I firmly believe that farmers and ranchers more intimately know the land they manage, the ecology and their environment than many of our urban counterparts. Given much of the marketing rhetoric about alternative proteins hinges on “being better for the environment,” we all must speak up. We have to share, and even brag, about the conservation measures we take, how much those aspects mean to us, and how we weave conservation and sustainability into our business models.
Three additional aspects to consider are labeling, nutrition and the ingredient list. When comparing those three lists side by side for all three of the said products, the all-beef burger has the most protein and the only ingredient is ground beef. In comparison, the alternative protein burgers have at least 5 grams less protein, more than 100 additional calories, and over six times as much sodium. Additionally, the ingredient list for each of these options has more than TWENTY items! Considering how much of the interest surrounding these alternative proteins is driven by health conscious marketing, we should be screaming from the rooftops about how healthy our beef is!
In all of this, we must not be disrespectful of consumer choice. I know it’s easy to disparage these competing products, but I caution against doing so. First, there are farmers growing and selling many of those products listed in the ingredient list. There are too few of us in the agricultural community to be fighting in and amongst ourselves. If these alternative protein products offer additional market outlets to farmers growing other crops, I’m glad for that. Goodness knows we all need all the help we can get! Another fact to remember is that taste wins in the marketplace. We may not sell our beef to vegans and vegetarians. But for those consumers who are buying and eating with health and environmental priorities in mind, we need to convey to them the healthful and sustainable aspects of our industry we know to be true. Taste can carry the rest of the sell.