As a result of growing issues ranging from population growth to climate change and food waste, the transition of agricultural practices away from meat-based systems and towards alternative methods such as plant-based foods are increasingly necessary.
Although this transition may provide a viable solution to pressing agricultural, ecological, and economic issues, many challenges remain to be addressed for plant-based foods to replace meat-based systems.
The emergence of plant-based alternatives
Modern agricultural practices are facing an increasing number of challenges, from the decrease in soil health and arable land available to changing climatic conditions. Animal agriculture is particularly susceptible to such challenges, as issues of sustainability are rapidly accumulating. As a result, alternative meat products, such as plant-based and cultured meat, are promising substitutes that are gaining approval and are made using innovative, cost-effective, technologies.
The growing popularity of plant-based diets demonstrates the shift in consumer perspective away from meat-based agriculture, which is discussed in a 2021 review by Alcorta et al. Authors discuss how plant-based diets typically represent a means of reducing environmental footprint of the human diet and promoting human health and animal welfare. Although the proportion of vegetarians and vegans remains low compared to omnivores, their numbers have increased significantly in the last few years.
In America alone, the number of vegans increased by 500% between 2014 and 2017 to reach nearly 20 million. In the UK, nearly a quarter of the population describe themselves as flexitarian, with 1 in 8 people describing themselves as vegetarian or vegan. Similar trends have been observed in many other counties, with a 2019 global survey reporting that 40% of meat consumers are reducing their consumption of animal proteins and 10% are avoiding red meat entirely.
However, the authors highlight that despite rising popularity and the emergence of new and improved plant-based meat alternatives, several limitations hold back the potential success of plant-based alternatives.
Sustainability, consumer health, and emerging issues of plant-based meat alternatives
Authors of the review highlight how despite the fact that plant-based meat alternatives are focusing on being alternative solutions to meat, the techniques and methods used do not address all the problems tied to the meat industry. Specifically, not all animal food substitutes are developed sustainably, and some are even ultra-processed. This can make certain plant-based alternatives unappealing and does not improve issues of sustainable production, since unsustainable post-harvest practices (e.g., packaging, transportation, recycling, etc.) remain to be addressed.
In addition, consumers are often faced with issues of food safety and labeling when purchasing plant-based alternatives to meat. Clear information and regulation remain limited with such foods, and choice is primarily focused on meat and milk alternatives. In turn, this may push consumers away from certain plant-based meat alternatives, as food processing, choice, sustainability, and regulation are key concerns for modern consumers.
Challenges to plant-based foods are closely associated with food design and technology, as well as nutrition and dietetics. Indeed, certain plant-based foods lack the nutritional composition to fully replace meat or other protein sources. For instance, soy products are close to eggs in terms of amino acid profiles, but phytates, tannins and saponins, often used in other plant-based foods, actually reduce protein absorption and act as anti-nutrients.
As a result, low consumption of lysine and methionine amino acids have been observed in vegetarians compared to omnivores, and nutritional deficiencies are a key concern for consumers. However, when the diet is planned and balanced to avoid deficiencies, plant-based foods most often do not result in protein deficits.
This is particularly significant as a large part of the population requires knowledge about different foods and how to maintain a balanced diet using plant-based foods, and plant-based foods may provide the opportunity for better education related to nutrition, food, and dietary habits in general.
Further issues of plant-based alternatives; business, sociocultural, and other applications
A 2020 study by Ascheman-Witzel et al. sums up the issues of plant-based foods as researchers review the global drivers, market trends, market data observations, and consumer behavior factors for different plant-based food sectors. The findings suggest that the business environment is favorable for such foods in the near future, but that consumer beliefs, perception and understanding have to change further for the business opportunity to grow on a larger scale. The authors highlight the need for innovative meat alternatives that are healthy, regulated, and produced sustainably.
Another study by Newton and Blaustein-Rejto published in 2021 considered the social and economic impacts of meat alternatives in rural communities, which may be directly impacted by reduced meat consumption, investment, and stakeholder support. The authors conducted interviews with representatives of cultured meat companies, plant-based meat companies, non-profit organizations, funding agencies, governmental agencies, and the beef, soy, and pea sectors, as well as researchers and farmers. Results reveal that opportunities and threats are equally present for rural producers in the US, and that considering the threats may play a significant role in the successful spread of plant-based foods.
The need to transition away from meat-based agriculture toward plant-based alternatives also provides the opportunity to develop parallel technologies. For instance, a 2016 study by Laere et al. found that plant-based vaccines using agrobacterium-mediated gene transfer may provide an efficient method of developing vaccines.
The growing awareness and interest in plant-based technologies, foods, and materials, could therefore represent a technological revolution in various interconnected fields of science, which may eventually contribute toward more sustainable, healthier, and more productive systems.
- Alcorta, A., Porta, A., Tárrega, A., Alvarez, M. D., & Vaquero, M. P. (2021). Foods for Plant-Based Diets: Challenges and Innovations. Foods, 10(2), 293. https://doi.org/10.3390/foods10020293
- Aschemann-Witzel, J., Gantriis, R. F., Fraga, P., & Perez-Cueto, F. J. A. (2020). Plant-based food and protein trend from a business perspective: markets, consumers, and the challenges and opportunities in the future. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, 61(18), 3119–3128. https://doi.org/10.1080/10408398.2020.1793730
- Laere, E., Ling, A. P. K., Wong, Y. P., Koh, R. Y., Mohd Lila, M. A., & Hussein, S. (2016). Plant-Based Vaccines: Production and Challenges. Journal of Botany, 2016, 1–11. https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/4928637
- Newton, P., & Blaustein-Rejto, D. (2021). Social and Economic Opportunities and Challenges of Plant-Based and Cultured Meat for Rural Producers in the US. Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, 5. https://doi.org/10.3389/fsufs.2021.624270