No matter how hard you try, you just can’t beat real meat

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent in any way the editorial position of Euronews.

At this point it looks like most of our protein will be sourced from animals for some time to come, whether we like it or not, as it has for the past 100,000 years. Luckily, we can do this in ways that meet our climate goals and boost nutrition and animal welfare, Eurof Uppington writes.


2021 saw a strange and short-lived celebrity phenomenon. Out of nowhere, Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert Downey Jr, Katy Perry, Serena Williams and other A-listers announced personal investments in plant-based foodtech startups alongside venture capital funds and philanthropists.

They were on a mission to save the planet, and the hype was real. 

It was part of a huge uptick of interest in the neo-meat category; Beyond Meat launched a spectacular IPO. Oatly spent gazillions on a Superbowl TV spot — “Wow, no cow”.

Supermarkets cleared shelf space for plant-based burgers, sausages and mince, and fast-food brands offered vegan alternatives next to Whoppers and Big Macs. Entire foodtech “impact” funds were launched based on novel proteins.

Environment and justice warrior George Monbiot wrote a bestseller on how precision fermentation would fix climate and “feed the world”. It was the vegan moment; the decline and fall of the meat industrial complex looked inevitable.

Then, it all fell down

Fast forward to 2024. Beyond Meat is a penny stock, and the company is in danger of failure. The meat substitute category in the US is shrinking by a double-digit percentage. VC-funded plant-based startups are announcing bankruptcy at record rates.

Shelf space devoted to animal-free meat alternatives has shrunk to pre-frenzy levels. Finally, Downey Jr has fallen off the wagon and, according to his new book Cool Food (subtitle: “Erasing your carbon footprint one bite at a time”), now eats fish.

The motivations behind the weirdness were noble, if misplaced and slightly holier-than-thou. Meat, especially beef, was portrayed as cruel, inefficient, and, through methane emissions and land over-use, a climate killer.

We now understand the science better, know there are ways of producing beef that net sequester greenhouse gas, and, as many pointed out at the time, for marginal land, pasture is the only efficient land use.

However, the movement continues; “meat causes climate change” remains a universal, if deeply problematic, truism. 

The other motivation was financial. These new processes could be patented and defended (unlike, say, steak), and acceptance driven by climate guilt and the need to “do your bit” for the planet.

Food scientists could make the products indistinguishable from meat.  It was the application of technology to food, with iPhone-like growth potential. Share gains from meat and dairy would drive sales and margins. There were vast riches to be made from being virtuous. It was perfect.

Why did it all go wrong?

Firstly, plant-based meat wasn’t that novel. It had been tried before in the 1990s and had become a settled, if very niche, grocery category. 

Secondly, the taste promises weren’t met; meat is not simple stuff, like soy exudate. It’s life itself, and we don’t understand it. The mix of fats, nutrients and proteins in real flesh comes from genetics evolved over billions of years across trillions of organisms. The idea that even tens of millions of euros in R&D over a couple of years would reproduce this was, with hindsight, a particularly deranged form of techno-optimism.

The recipes were varied, but had also missed their moment. “Plant-based” players, like Impossible or Beyond Meat, generally use extruded pea or soy isolates to mimic the taste and texture of animal products.

“Precision fermentation” uses fungal or bacterial derivatives to make textured flesh. Quorn is an example. The newest category, “cell-based”, like UPSIDE Foods, plans to grow flesh in vast reactors from tissue samples. In-betweens exist, too, like those who mix some cell-based tissue into plant-based substrate and lots of plant-based dairy substitutes. 

But all have one thing in common. To achieve animal protein consistency and mouth-feel— at an acceptable price — from plants, miracles of modern food manufacturing are necessary.

Meat substitutes tend to be ultra-processed, containing refined fats, gums, lecithins, and myriad isolates. Plant-based health claims don’t feel right today when we’re encouraged to eat more clean-label, whole foods.


Why try to find a way around nature?

But most of all, the economics didn’t work. Who were these foods aimed at? Vegans and vegetarians generally don’t want to eat things that remind them of meat.

The revolution would meet resistance from markets with a real food culture, like Italy or France, and a hard core of carnivores would stick around.

That left a transitional, flexitarian segment of unknown size as the market for these products. It turns out that the segment is small.

Initial growth rates flattered the industry, driven by curious purchasers and initial stocking by supermarkets. When the curious didn’t bite, as it were, the amount of inventory supermarkets wanted plummeted. Massive disappointment was inevitable.

What’s left is a bunch of zombie startups orbiting the black hole of bankruptcy with little hope of escape.


Their techno-optimist cheerleaders, like Bill Gates, have moved on to back cell-based meat startups, which seem even more forlorn — at least the plant-based guys had products on shelves.

Unlike RDJ, Monbiot hasn’t given up veganism but hasn’t written on fermentation lately. Attention seems to be switching to other food-based planet-saving themes, such as regenerative agriculture, which at least has a basis in climate science. 

At this point it looks like most of our protein will be coming from animals for some time to come, whether we like it or not, as it has for the past 100,000 years.

Luckily, we can do this in ways that meet our climate goals and boost nutrition and animal welfare. The lesson: we need to invest in nature, not try to find ways around it.

Eurof Uppington is the CEO and Founder of Amfora, a Switzerland-based importer of extra virgin olive oils.


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