For the past 50 years, Americans have responded to the case against eating animals mostly by eating more animals.
They have heard again and again about the moral and ecological costs of eating meat—from philosophers like Peter Singer and polemicists like Jonathan Safran Foer; from viral documentary footage of slaughterhouses and tortured poultry; from activist organizations like PETA and scientific reports on the fossil-fuel cost of producing a medallion of beef.
The collective sum of all these books and films and eco–guilt trips has made little difference. The share of Americans who call themselves vegan or vegetarian hasn’t increased in the past 20 years. In the 1970s, the typical American ate about 120 pounds of meat each year. In the 1990s, she ate about 130 pounds annually. Today, she eats more than 140 pounds a year, or about 2.5 pounds of meat every week—a record high, according to government estimates.
But something is changing nonetheless.
Although nine in 10 Americans don’t consider plants an acceptable substitute for meat, they increasingly consider plant-based “meat” products—like burgers from Impossible Foods, and sausages from Beyond Meat—an acceptable complement. The investment firm UBS projects that the plant-based meat market will grow by a factor of 20 this decade, reaching $85 billion in annual sales by 2030. Cases of plant-based proteins shipped to commercial restaurants rose last year by more than 20 percent, while regular meat’s sales grew by only 2 percent.
If these trends continue, per-capita meat consumption in the United States is all but certain to peak this decade. “Peak meat” won’t happen because tens of millions of carnivores suddenly got religion on animal rights, but rather because they were motivated by the opposite of a collective sacrifice: the magic of a longer menu.
Factory farming may be the epitome of capitalist excess, an inferno of needless suffering and environmental degradation for the pursuit of profit. But the plant-based revolution, too, is driven by a set of highly capitalist forces: technology, choice, and transnational corporate power. In the past decade, total venture-capital investment in plant-based meat has exceeded $2 billion, led by Impossible Foods, with $700 million in venture funds, and Beyond Meat, which went public in 2019.
These companies have partnered with some of the largest fast-food chains in the world to serve plant-based alternatives for each of the three most popular meats in the West—chicken, beef, and pork. This week, KFC announced that it would test a new vegan chicken sandwich at nearly 1,000 locations, starting in the U.K. In the past year, plant-based options have grown more than 250 percent at all burger-serving restaurants in the U.S., according to the food-research company Datassential. Burger King’s meatless “Impossible Whopper” powered the company to its strongest sales growth in four years. McDonald's has responded by partnering with Beyond Meat to test its own version of plant-based burgers in the U.S. Beyond Meat also provides plant-based sausages for breakfast sandwiches at Dunkin’ and Tim Horton’s, while Burger King is testing imitation ground pork on its breakfast menu with something called the “Impossible Croissan’wich.”
What’s immediately obvious from this long list of meatish items is that investors, corporate executives, and consumers—including, crucially, those who say they would never become vegetarian—are excited about meat produced from plants. But these developments have a more radical implication: Plants are becoming the fourth meat.
That sentence will register as absurd to many people—and for carnivorous gourmands, it will smack of outright heresy. But it’s not an extravagant prediction, once you shake off the obvious paradox. Within the next decade or two, if the typical American eats 10 pounds of plant-based meat each year (essentially, the weight of one Impossible Whopper every week) plant-based meat will replace seafood as the fourth-most-popular “meat.”
Another lesson in the rise of plant-based meat is one about ethics and the evolution of modern habits. Animal-rights activists, such as Singer, have often likened their cause to the anti-slavery movement and urged Homo sapiens to consider the pain and suffering of other species. Future generations may regard Singer and his crew as Cassandras, like early-19th-century feminists who were ignored because they were ahead of their time. But successful moral revolutions—including the abolitionist movement, the civil-rights movement, the victories of the suffragettes and 20th-century feminists, and the triumph of gay marriage—have tended to expand the scope of human choice and freedom rather than restrict it.
The case against eating meat is a case for the mass renunciation of real human pleasure. (Yes, this is coming from someone who delights in little more than a well-cooked ribeye.) Like the case for reducing our carbon footprint, the vegan argument requires that the large majority of people sacrifice their lifestyle for outcomes that are often invisible to them as individuals. A cultural or moral revolution designed around the elimination of pleasurable options and the restriction of individual human choice is a hard sell, particularly in a country like the U.S., where materialist choice has been elevated to a kind of civic religion.
But if the vegetarians and animal-rights activists are right—if the mass torturing of animals is a rolling moral catastrophe that will shame our grandchildren and slow-cook the biosphere—their cause must be won through innovation rather than argument alone. In 10 years, we may look back on the decade of peak meat in the U.S. and recognize that Americans finally reduced their meat consumption, not because they were browbeaten into crossing off their favorite option on the menu, but because the menu got one item longer.