The Future Looks Green: Plant-based, Sustainable Eating on the Rise
Jan 13, 2021
After a year that gave rise to a global pandemic, record numbers of job losses and business closures, and unprecedented social unrest, it’s hard to find much to look forward to in 2021. But in one sector – that of plant-based, sustainable eating – there is reason to hope. An increase in plant-based products and sales is one of many positive food trends Meatless Monday participants should look out for in the coming year, as well as carbon-conscious brands, culturally diverse cuisines, the growth of home cooking, and heightened awareness of food insecurity.
So far, over 500,000 people have signed the pledge for Veganuary, a UK-based global campaign that encourages participants to go vegan for the entire month of January. The number marks a 1,000-person increase from last year, and the greatest number of pledgers since the campaign began. Dozens of major supermarket and food retail brands are running TV and web ads to promote Veganuary, and there is evidence to suggest that the movement will persist after the month ends: one survey found that the number of vegans in the UK has increased by 40% over the past 12 months, and could increase by up to 132% by the end of 2021.
Luckily, new vegans – and even those wanting to try to incorporate some plant-based meals into their week – have plenty of options. The global plant-based meat market was valued at $4.3 billion in 2020, and is projected to grow 14% over the next five years. This growth has been driven by increasing awareness of the health benefits of plant-based meat over animal meat, which has been associated with type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and cancer. Sales of plant-based meat were rising even before the pandemic hit, but meat shortages and concerns over the state of the meatpacking industry prompted more people to try plant-based meat products such as the Beyond Burger. This trend is mirrored by the plant-based dairy industry, which is expected to grow 10% per year between now and 2024. This growth is driven primarily by environmental and health concerns, as well as massive marketing pushes by companies such as Oatly.
A flurry of plant-based products have entered restaurants and supermarket shelves during the past year, including Kellogg’s Incogmeato plant-based burgers and sausages, Gardein’s Ultimate Plant-Based Burger, JUST Egg’s folded egg product, and Planterra Foods’ OZO line of plant-based meats. Restaurants both fast-casual and sit-down alike have jumped on the trend. Burger King was one of the first eateries to enter the fray, rolling out its Impossible Whopper across the U.S. in summer 2019, with McDonald’s, Hard Rock Cafe, The Cheesecake Factory, Qdoba, TGI Friday’s and many more following close behind. Even IKEA joined in, developing a plant-based version of their famous Swedish meatballs. In December, cultured meat – manufactured from real cells without any animal slaughtering involved – was approved in Singapore and is available to consumers exclusively at the restaurant 1880.
As the end of the pandemic draws closer, concerns about sustainability and the climate crisis that have been sidelined for the past few months are likely to come back into focus. Over 100 countries have pledged to become carbon neutral by 2050, including Korea, Japan and the United Kingdom, as well as the European Union. In order to achieve net zero emissions, these countries may need to reform the animal agriculture industry, which is responsible for 14.5% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. Consumers are making the environment a priority as well: According to one survey, 59% of Americans say it’s important that their food be produced sustainably. In 2021, we’ll be paying more attention to the environmental impact of the food we eat, as well as making an effort to cut down on food waste and single-use packaging.
Even though many of us have been working from home and staying inside for months, we’ve managed to broaden our horizons. Social media and virtual cooking classes have enabled chefs and restaurant owners from all over the world to share cuisines from different cultures, and meal kits allow home cooks to recreate their favorite restaurant dishes from the comfort of their own kitchens. The Black Lives Matter movement fueled an interest in traditionally Black and African ingredients, as well as support for minority- and women-owned restaurants. The pandemic also exposed deeply-rooted social and economic divides and brought the issue of food insecurity to the forefront, as farmers were forced to destroy their products due to lack of demand while elsewhere people waited hours in food pantry lines and millions of food industry workers were laid off. Consumers took notice, and will likely continue to advocate for more equitable food and worker protection policies.
It is too early to say for certain whether the trends that took hold amid the unprecedented events of 2020 will continue through the rest of the decade, but for now, sales of plant-based meats are rising, concern for sustainability, diversity and equity is growing, and food’s ability to bolster communities and lift spirits even in the darkest of times remains strong.