A dive into the evidence of alternative protein displacing demand for animal products by Abby Couture and Researcher Network member Chris Bryant.
Yes, alternative proteins do displace demand for animal products
Some critics of alternative proteins have argued that plant-based meat and dairy alternatives do not actually displace demand for animal products, but simply add to it. Rather than being purchased in place of meat and animal products, these critics say, alternative proteins are just adding another item on consumers’ shopping lists. In this article, we will review the evidence for this claim, and argue that alternative proteins, in fact, do displace demand for meat and animal products.
Addressing the case against animal product displacement
There is some evidence cited which appears to support the view that alternative proteins fail to displace demand for animal products. However, on closer inspection, this evidence does not support the position.
1. Most consumers of alternative proteins also buy animal products (Neuhofer & Lusk, 2022). The problem with this argument is that this fact says nothing about the quantity of either product that they purchase. For example, somebody might replace some of their household dairy milk consumption with soy milk. In this case, the alternative would have displaced some of the animal product, even though the household still buys both.
2. Sales of some animal products have continued to rise (Statista, 2023) The problem with this argument is that it does not consider that these sales could have risen even more without the presence of alternative proteins. The global population is demanding more protein (Henchion et al., 2017), so even if the total meat consumed increases by 10% over the next 5 years, it could be the case that total meat consumed would have risen by 20% if we did not have alternative proteins.
3. Some government or industry actors say that alternative proteins do not displace animal product demand (NAMI, 2021; Houlton, 2023; Simon, 2023). Of course, such actors saying it does not make it so, and it is often not clear what evidence they are citing. Moreover, there are political incentives to say this, even if it is not the case, for example to avoid upsetting farming communities who may feel threatened by investments in alternative proteins. A recent re-launch attempt of ‘Got Milk’ by MilkPEP reflects these attempts to downplay the success of plant-based milk in their recent ads that mock these dairy alternatives (Hart, 2023).
4. Existing alternatives – for example, beans and legumes – can displace demand for animal products just as effectively. The issue here is that consumers generally do not find these options tasty and prefer meat substitutes that resemble the taste, smell and texture of meat (International Food Information Council, 2020). Taste is a crucial determinant of meat abstention and substitution (Koning et al., 2020; Szejda, 2020).
A lot of the purported evidence against displacement does not work out. We can also consider some things that would be true if alternative proteins were only adding to (rather than displacing) demand for animal products.
1. Assuming the overall quantity of food consumed has not increased, alternative proteins must be displacing demand for some other foods (perhaps beans and legumes). However, it appears more likely that a plant-based burger would replace a beef burger in a given meal plan rather than replacing beans, especially given that (a) alternative proteins are designed to be similar to animal products in terms of taste and role in the meal, and (b) the vast majority of plant-based purchasers (over 90%) are meat eaters and flexitarians (Good Food Institute, 2022).
2. It would mean that the conventional animal industries had wasted enormous sums of money on expensive advertisements to discourage people from buying alternative proteins. Prominent campaigns against plant-based meat alternatives have been the subject of Superbowl adverts, full-page New York Times adverts, and significant lobbying efforts (Perrett, 2018; Reiley, 2021; Reuters, 2020). This expenditure would be a remarkable waste, from the animal industry’s perspective, if these products were not displacing demand for animal products.
The evidence for animal product displacement
On the contrary, there is plenty of evidence for the opposing view – that is to say, alternative proteins do displace (not merely add to) the demand for animal products.
At the individual consumer level, analyses from a recent paper show significant negative correlations between change in consumption of animal products and change in consumption of alternatives in the same category. In other words, those people who increased their consumption of plant-based meat and dairy alternatives were significantly more likely to have decreased their consumption of meat and dairy respectively (Bryant, Ross & Flores, 2023). This supports the view that there is displacement of animal products by alternatives.
Consumer reports that examine product specific behaviour reveals that among consumers who buy plant-based meat, 49% of these individuals said they would have bought beef otherwise, and 38% said they would have bought chicken otherwise (Tonsor, Lusk & Schroder, 2021). Survey data also shows that 59% of those who have meat-free days use meat substitutes (Profeta et al, 2021). Consumers themselves are indicating that the plant-based products they purchase are not a supplementary snack to the meat in their carts, but rather, a substitution.
Other evidence on cross-price elasticity shows more directly, that reductions in the price of plant-based meat lead to reductions in domestic cattle production (Lusk et al., 2022). Recent findings published in the Journal of Agricultural and Applied Economics found that a one gallon increase in non-dairy milk sales is associated with a 0.43-0.6 gallon reduction in dairy milk sales (Slade, 2023). This, again, supports the view that alternative proteins tend to displace animal products. However, it is important to note that according to the authors, the inverse relationship between dairy and non-dairy sales explains a small amount of declining dairy sales. Another caveat for consideration is that the researchers only examined household purchases, making it difficult to examine precise units of dairy milk being displaced by plant-based alternatives among individual consumers.
The markets for animal products and alternatives
An examination of market trends for both animal product and plant-based substitutes reveals significant differences in both consumption and revenue changes over the past decade. For instance, while processed and fresh meat revenues have grown by 13% and 56% respectively in the last decade, meat alternatives have grown by an enormous 400% between 2014 and 2023 (Statista, 2023). As mentioned above, it is likely the plant-based protein market is attenuating the growth of conventional animal products. In other words, sales of animal products would have been growing at a faster rate without the presence of alternatives.
Market insights on dairy and dairy alternatives show a decrease in dairy sales and an increase in sales of dairy alternatives. For the average consumer, dairy milk consumption has been steadily declining throughout the past two decades – the annual rate of decline being 1.2% (IBISWorld, 2022). Meanwhile, sales of dairy alternatives have been expansive with an annual growth rate of 15% and an annual consumption increase of 15% (Statistia, 2023). This suggests that increased demand for plant-based milk is providing some competition for dairy producers.
Similar differences between animal meat and plant-based meat consumption by overall volume consumed in the UK can be seen in recent reports. The average amount of plant-based meat consumed per person increased by 8.1% in 2022 (Statista, 2023). Conversely, fresh meat consumption decreased 7.3% and processed meat consumption decreased by 2.6% in 2022 (Statista, 2023).
Recent consumer surveys have examined attitudes among dairy ditchers, reducers, and individuals considering reducing their intake. Although roughly 52% of UK adults consume dairy milk, nearly half of dairy milk consumers (48%) also incorporate plant based milk in their diet (Ipsos, 2022). A similar number of Brits also intend to reduce their animal-product consumption – 46% (Ipsos, 2022). The most common reasons given for limiting dairy included personal health and animal welfare (Kantar, 2018; Gillison, 2022).
When consumers are asked what prevents them from ditching dairy, a frequently cited barrier is the sensory differences of dairy alternatives, namely, taste (Gillison, 2022). While many plant-based milk consumers have no such objections, this indicates that some regular dairy consumers who decide to purchase more dairy alternatives perceive the added benefits of plant-based milk in terms of animal welfare, the environment or personal health to outweigh perceived tradeoffs such as taste.
Research indicates that many individuals are interested in reducing their meat consumption and increasing their consumption of alternative proteins. For instance, global consumer research from Credit Suisse revealed that around 65% of UK consumers intend to spend more money on plant-based meat products (Credit-Suisse, 2022).
With regards to meat reduction intentions, flexitarians make up roughly 23% of UK consumers and 30% of Europeans, accounting for nearly half of consumers of plant-based meat (Smart Protein Project, 2021). According to a survey from YouGov, 68% of ‘flexitarians’ in the UK are actively trying to improve their current efforts to reduce their meat consumption (YouGov, 2021).
Collectively, these insights show that a significant portion of the public intend to allocate more of their grocery bill to plant-based products (Credit Suisse, 2022). Although flexitarians still make up a minority of consumers in the UK (23%), they account for a significant share of the alternative protein market (Stannard, 2022), indicating that displacement can be attributed to this growing group of reducers.
Survey data suggests that flexitarians and reducetarians have steadily been on the rise (Smart Protein Project, 2021). Although meat eaters continue to account for the majority of UK diets, flexitarians have been growing in numbers since the pandemic (AHDB/ YouGov, 2022). In tandem, overall meat consumption has dropped nearly 17% from 2008-2019 (Stewart et al., 2021). Clearly, significant portions of the public make conscientious efforts to reduce their meat intake and many identify as reducetarian or flexitarian.
The Green Premium
Currently, there is a ‘green premium’ on plant-based products, meaning they are often more expensive than their conventional animal product counterparts (Rhodium Group, 2020) – but this could change. Conventional meat prices have risen, and are expected to continue to rise at a faster rate than alternative protein prices. This is because meat alternatives are far more resource-efficient, and are less reliant on raw materials, whereas conventional meat production uses more raw materials like grain, and thus is more likely to be impacted by inflation due to supply chain disruptions (Dongoski, 2023).
Last year, it was reported that plant-based meat was cheaper than animal meat in the Netherlands for the first time (Southey, 2022). Research comparing the costs of various meat products in the UK show that, while plant-based meat costs have increased in price since 2014, meat prices, particularly processed meat, have increased at a faster rate - and some are now less affordable than plant-based alternatives. In 2014 the cost per unit of fresh meat was £1.53 cheaper than meat substitutes. As of 2023, the cost of fresh meat has become slightly more expensive than meat substitutes by £0.22 per unit sold (Statista, 2023).
The green premium that plant-based products currently carry is going to disappear, and after that, these products will tend to become cheaper than their animal-based counterparts. Needless to say, the implications of this for relative demand could be vast.
There might be incentives for meat industry actors, governments, and even some plant-based eating advocates to argue that alternative proteins including meat and dairy substitutes are not in fact disrupting or displacing animal products. Industry actors may fear that consumers will lose trust in animal products. Governments and policy makers may fear disruptions to the livelihoods of farmers. Some vegan advocates may even be concerned that little progress is being made from an advocacy standpoint if alternative proteins do not displace demand for meat.
However, the available evidence suggests that alternative proteins are, in fact, displacing demand for animal products. As consumers turn towards increasingly meat-free and flexitarian diets, sales growth of alternative proteins has outpaced that of animal products. This trend is expected to continue, especially as alternative proteins continue to get better and cheaper.
The views expressed by our Research News contributors are not necessarily the views of The Vegan Society.