Why Plant-Based Meats Are Having a Moment

These tacos are made with jackfruit, one of a variety of base ingredients behind ever-more-popular plant-based meats. (Photo: shellygraphy/Shutterstock)

There's never been a better time to cut meat out of your life or at least limit it significantly.

There's a plethora of meat substitutes on the market, some more affordable than others, but all with a lower environmental impact than meat produced from cows and pigs. In the '90s, I was usually unable to find anything to eat at many restaurants aside from French fries or a salad. But the widespread acceptance and availability of tasty plant-based foods has been nothing short of a miracle.

Meat consumption overall and per-capita is still rising as population increases, so actual reductions in meat-eating on a large scale have yet to happen. But more people seem concerned about eating less meat as the connections between industrial meat production and climate change have become more obvious. The long-term trend may be reduced meat eating — and the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated that trend. How much? Nielsen reported that in the two-month period ending May 2, sales of alternative-meats in grocery stores increased by 264%.

That's in part due to the disturbing stories of meatpacking facilities closed because they're located in coronavirus hotspots. Nearly 60% of the employees at one Tyson plant in Iowa, and almost 50% at another tested positive for the virus. A pork plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, is in another virus hotspot — and 5% of the nation's pork moved through that particular plant. At least 20 meat-processing plant workers have died from coronavirus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The reason these numbers are so high is directly related to the work of slaughtering and processing animals, which makes physical distancing difficult for workers. Also, to keep industrial meat cheap, the working poor make up most of the employees of these plants, and they endure crowded living and transportation conditions — the perfect environment for coronavirus.

When those plants and dozens of others shuttered, farmers didn't have anywhere to send their animals, and so the cows, pigs, and chickens were gassed or shot and disposed of. Meat is, of course, inherently a wasteful way to get calories — growing crops to feed animals, then killing those animals to eat them is inefficient (not to mention the water pollution and greenhouse gases they create), but when animals aren't even eaten, it's a special shame.

Changing habits

Photo: koi88/Shutterstock

But the rise in consumption of alt-meats might have less to do with climate-change guilt and more to do with all the tasty alternatives that people have been buying during the pandemic. There are veggie-based cold-cuts (hard to tell the difference when they're stacked on a sandwich), mycoprotein chicken nuggets, tofu hot dogs, red-meat substitutes like Impossible Burgers that "bleed" heme (though I liked these better as meatballs than a burger, personally). And of course there's a variety of dairy-free cheeses in all kinds of tasty formulations, far beyond those mock American cheese slices. My favorites are made by Treeline, especially the soft spreadable cheeses, which layer beautifully with fresh veggies, pickles, and onions for a killer sandwich.

The growing popularity of plant-based foods is good news for the long-term. The coronavirus will have plenty of lasting negative impacts, but a very real, positive one could be a reduction in the greenhouse gases and the water pollution these operations produce. As Jonathan Safran Foer wrote in The New York Times, "Whether they become Whoppers or boutique grass-fed steaks, cows produce an enormous amount of greenhouse gas. If cows were a country, they would be the third-largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world."

It's interesting that as we've had more time to think about what we eat during our stay-at-home moment, vegetarian foods have gained popularity. That's good for our health, and the planet's. It's also good for the animals — not just the cows that are killed to make burgers, but wildlife as well. Ranchers notoriously shoot wolves, coyotes, and other predators when those animals do what comes naturally, which includes hunting cows if they're in their range, doubling the animal body count of that steak. And outside the United States, "Cattle ranching is the largest driver of deforestation in every Amazon country, accounting for 80% of current deforestation rates," according to Yale's Global Forest Atlas.

Only time will tell if this recent uptick in plant-based food buying continues, but here's hoping it does — especially for the world's children, who will inherit a planet transformed by human desire for a cheap burger.