By Hannah Thompson-Weeman, Animal Agriculture Alliance
I recently attended the Wall Street Journal’s Global Food Forum in New York City. This event always features a fast-paced agenda packed with speakers ready to dive into the most pressing issues facing the food industry today and what food and agriculture might look like in the future. This year, I was glad to see several farmers taking a seat at the table. Hog farmer Wanda Patsche represented farmers on a panel about the farm economy, beef rancher Jennifer Houston tackled the issue of alternative proteins and food labels and dairy farmer and veterinarian Don Niles discussed sustainability and water quality.
One topic that continued to come up in various sessions was alternative protein sources – from plant-based burgers to cell-cultured meat. Alternative proteins seem to be a hot subject and if you only read the headlines, you’d think they’re poised to take over the meat case. That’s not really the case, and the other attendees at the Global Food Forum seem to agree. In an audience poll, attendees were asked for their thoughts of how the new wave plant-based burgers will change food. The majority of the audience answered, “be niche players like other veggie burgers” (40%) or “get real market share but stall” (35%). Virtually no one selected “decimate the meat industry” as their prediction.
It’s important for all of us in animal agriculture and meat production to make sure we are not adding to the hype of these plant-based products by disparaging them as a food choice. They present an option in the marketplace that may appeal to a certain segment of consumers, but most shoppers remain motivated by factors like taste, price and convenience. We should focus on ensuring we retain our competitive edge in those areas and dedicate efforts to innovation to make sure we’re meeting the demands of consumers who want to explore new food options.
Consumers who do turn to plant-based options may do so out of concern for environmental sustainability or animal welfare. We have great stories to tell in those areas and can gain more consumer confidence by addressing concerns rather than denigrating other food options. Most consumers probably have no idea that America’s pig farmers have decreased their carbon footprint by 7.7% and reduced their land use by 75.9% since 1960, or that Pork Quality Assurance is in place to addresses food safety, animal well-being, environmental stewardship, worker safety, public health and community. Amplifying these messages and similar ones about other industries will help reassure consumers that meat, poultry, dairy and eggs are ethical protein choices that are unmatched nutritionally (not to mention delicious).
Note: The Opinions in this commentary are expressly those of the author, Hannah Thompson-Weeman. She is the vice president of communications for the Animal Agriculture Alliance.