It’s old news that the Impossible Burger tastes like beef. So, I was late to the hype when I recently, finally, sank my teeth into this plant-based patty for the first time, ordering it from Agra Culture Kitchen in Uptown. I already knew its story: protein from soy and potatoes; sizzle from coconut and sunflower oils; primal satisfaction from iron-rich heme. I could have gone to Red Cow, White Castle, Hell’s Kitchen, or more than two dozen other Twin Cities restaurants to try this meatless “meat”—unless they sold the Impossible Burger’s competitor, the bloody (with beet juice) Beyond Burger.
When they debuted in the mid-2010s, Beyond and Impossible lived up to their nonconformist names, but today are fairly ubiquitous, with Impossible available at about 30,000 national restaurants and 11,000 grocery stores as of 2020. Together, they emblematize a freshly inclusive movement: from “vegan/vegetarian” to “plant-based.” Omnivores are decentralizing meat, and reasons cited include an environment choked by livestock-produced methane; spotty cases of animal welfare; personal health (although plant-based meat alternatives are not always “healthy,” necessarily); and public health, since pathogens derived from domesticated animals have caused many a pandemic, including the current one.
Markets can be fickle, especially amid COVID-19, and plant-based meats have recently seen a downturn. Still, in every U.S. census region, retail sales of plant-based foods climbed more than 25% in 2020, according to data from the Plant Based Foods Association. That year, 57% of U.S. households bought plant-based foods—up from 53% in 2019.
Even as plant-based sales surpassed the $7 billion mark in 2020, however, meat consumption also rose. In the pandemic’s first week, meat-department sales nearly doubled over the previous year, according to a report by the Food Industry Association. Buckling down, U.S. consumers were cooking more, trying new recipes, and experimenting with different cuts of meat.
In fact, Americans have been slicing into animal protein more and more over the past half-century. Between 1960 and 2020, meat consumption per person rose roughly 30%. That figure (which excludes seafood) started trending downward in 2007 or so, only to tick back up beginning around the mid-2010s. (An outlier here is beef; consumption went up from 2015 to 2020, but beef is about 40% less popular today than at its mid-’70s peak.)
Last year saw a halt to that growth, with meat consumption down in 2021 for the first time since 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Still, despite the recent dip in consumption, meat clearly remains an American staple. “Without question, the USA is a protein market, whether it’s animal-based or plant-based,” says Tyler Lorenzen, CEO of Puris, a Minneapolis-based supplier of pea protein that works with Beyond Meat.
So, what can we make of these warring trends—a solid appetite for meat and an eco-conscious curiosity about plant-based alternatives?
“I think people are just way more interested in, you know, their food,” says Thom Petersen, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. “I always push that back to social media, because you look at when social media really took off—10 years ago, whether it was Facebook, or Twitter, Instagram—people are posting their meals; they’re seeing firsthand how farmers produce their cows, and so people can make those choices.” As an example, he points to a farmer in Finlayson who posts Instagram stories of her cows and sells out of her meat-based products.
Petersen doesn’t believe livestock farmers will have to worry about plant-based disruption anytime soon. “But what you do see is farmers changing their practices,” he says. That means grass-feeding cows to optimize energy efficiency, meeting animal welfare standards, and working on “digester” technology that catches methane in feedlots.
(In the meantime, a different type of industry disruption has absorbed attention: In response to COVID-19 outbreaks shuttering meat plants, livestock farmers across Minnesota euthanized many hundreds of thousands of animals, Petersen says. Meatpacking conglomeration took much of the blame, and Petersen has lobbied for funding for smaller-scale meat facilities, to diversify the market.)
Petersen gauges consumers’ evolving tastes during routine visits to Minnesota grocery stores. There, he asks owners what makes the most money. “And the first thing they always tell you is the edges—the deli, the fresh fruit, vegetables.” But lately, he continues, “they’ll say, ‘Oh, I’d like to show you our plant-based options.’ You know, maybe a year ago … we had half a cooler, where now we might have three coolers of [plant-based] options for consumers.”
New demand could simply mean new openings for farmers. “A farmer is always looking for an opportunity to diversify their operation,” says Gary Wertish, president of the Minnesota Farmers Union. “I think some farmers will see it as a threat”—namely livestock farmers, he notes—“and other farmers will see it as an opportunity.”
Puris, the pea protein producer, represents one new opening—and CEO Tyler Lorenzen talks about it in terms as forward-looking as the heads of Impossible and Beyond.
Before he founded the company in Iowa in 1985, Tyler’s dad, Jerry Lorenzen, flagged an inefficiency while hawking animal feed for Purina. “He did the math, looking at how much crops were grown to feed animals,” Tyler says. “And then, obviously, it takes a lot of crops to then grow the animal.” (According to the University of Minnesota in 2013, most of the nation’s agricultural yield goes to livestock.)
Jerry’s idea was to grow plants for human diets rather than for cows and pigs. So, he began breeding seeds to produce high-yield plants that taste better than typical animal feed.
Fast forward to the present day and Jerry “looks like a genius,” Lorenzen says, describing the company’s goal as “protein independence.” With Puris’ manufacturing at the front of a new industry, area farmers may see reason to add peas to their row crops.
“Of course, back then it was very odd, and even 10 years ago wasn’t looked at as the solution,” Lorenzen says. But earlier this year, Puris launched a facility in Dawson, Minn., with a major investment from Cargill, the Wayzata-based behemoth of agribusiness. This doubled Puris’ production capacity. “Cargill doesn’t partner with them if it’s not a big deal,” Petersen says. “It’s where the market’s going.”
For now, though, that future looks less certain. While two-thirds of Americans tried plant-based meat in 2021, detractors of the plant-based movement note that only about 40% eat it daily or weekly, according to the International Food Information Council. Mostly, we eat plant-based meat at home, and some have attributed a late-2021 drop in sales to consumers’ return to restaurants. Meanwhile, the meat industry has targeted the purported healthiness of meat alternatives, and others have suggested we’ve sated our “first-taste curiosity.”
As for my own curiosity, I will try the Beyond Burger next, to appreciate Puris’ work. Granted, as a “flexitarian” who eats burgers sparingly, the miracle of meat mimicry may be lost on me. Tender and greasy, the Impossible Burger was convincing, although I couldn’t help but think—“Are black-bean burgers really so bad?”