The state of the plant-based food industry

Packages of Impossible plant-based meat on a grocery store shelf. Retail sales of plant-based meat grew 45 percent from 2019 to 2020.

We’re eating more meatless meat than ever, but it’s still not much.By Kenny Torrella  Apr 16, 2021, 8:30am EDT

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It can be hard to keep up with the plant-based food industry. Every month seems to bring buzzy product launches and press releases from startups about the millions of dollars they’ve raised from investors. At the same time, big-name traditional food companies continue to launch their own lines of dairy- and meat-free foods at a rapid clip.

Each year the Plant Based Foods Association and the Good Food Institute — the two main groups that advocate for meat and dairy alternatives — publish a state of the industry of sorts, analyzing how these products actually perform in grocery stores. It’s a useful zoom-out that helps put the blitz of plant-based food development into perspective.

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Their latest report looked at 2020 sales figures and found that — as with the previous year — plant-based food retail sales grew much faster (27 percent) than the total US retail food market (15 percent). And this wasn’t just on the coasts; there was more than 25 percent growth in all US census regions.

Plant-based meat sales grew by 45 percent and plant-based milk sales were up 20 percent from 2019.

The retail market for plant-based food grew significantly from 2019 to 2020.

The growth may be eye-popping, but there’s a big caveat here: Supermarkets had an unusually good year. Early in the pandemic, panic-buying sent grocery sales surging, and earnings remained high throughout 2020 as people cooked at home more to avoid crowds and save money, giving the sales of both plant-based and animal-based foods a big bump.

Another important caveat: The plant-based food category is starting from a very low baseline. A 45 percent increase in plant-based meat sales over one year is a big deal, but it can be brought back down to earth by a grim, stubborn fact: More than 99 percent of the meat we eat in the US still comes from animals.

But this continued year-after-year growth at the very least shows there is growing demand for alternatives.

Plant-based is now more than a trend

In the mid- to late 2010s, it was common for journalists and market research groups to predict plant-based as the next big trend. Years later, it’s clear that it’s more than a trend — it’s a sizable sector of the food industry, especially alternative dairy, which is becoming less and less alternative.

Fifteen percent of fluid milk sales in retail are now plant-based, plant-based butter is at 7 percent, and plant-based coffee creamer 6 percent. Some subcategories of plant-based meat are getting more and more consumer dollars, too — for example, 2.7 percent of packaged meat sales are now plant-based. To be clear, these figures are for sales, not volume. Since plant-based products tend to cost more than their animal-derived counterparts, the actual volume of plant-based milk and packaged meat that Americans are picking up at the grocery store is likely a good amount lower than 15 percent and 2.7 percent, respectively.

Despite the relatively small share of grocery dollars spent on plant-based foods, investors are confident that alternative proteins will continue to capture more and more of the overall food industry. Last month, GFI reported that in 2020 alone, the alternative protein sector raised $3.1 billion from investors. That’s more than half of all the money raised in this space over the past decade. Much of the $3.1 billion went to big names like Impossible Foods and Oatly, but many newer companies got a boost, too.

It will take many years to see if this investment — a lot of it likely to be used on R&D — pays off, but it sets up the industry to make headway on its biggest challenges: bringing down the cost of plant-based products, making them taste better, and making them more widely available.

On the price and availability front, Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat, and Eat Just have continually lowered prices while getting into more and more grocery stores (and restaurant chains) — though not quite enough to bring in lower-income consumers.

Compared to the popularity of meatless burgers and sausages (the products the biggest plant-based food companies have focused on), consumers aren’t buying a lot of plant-based chicken or fish alternatives, which is bad news for chickens and fish, as they’re killed in the highest numbers and typically raised in the worst conditions.

Better news for animals is the rise of plant-based eggs, which saw sales grow by 168 percent from 2019 to 2020. But more so than any other subcategory mentioned here, plant-based eggs were starting from an especially low baseline — Eat Just’s liquid plant-based egg only became widely available in late 2020, with practically no predecessors (or competitors).

Who’s buying plant-based food?

In addition to looking at in-store sales, PBFA and GFI also commissioned a consumer survey to look at who’s buying plant-based foods at the supermarket. They found that households with under $35,000 in income spend the least on these foods, while a little more than half of all money spent on plant-based foods comes from households making over $70,000 a year (the US median household income is $68,703).

Those who are purchasing plant-based foods the most? Consumers ages 35 to 44, consumers with graduate degrees, households with children, and households with income over $100,000.

This data underscores the importance of plant-based companies’ efforts to lower prices, and suggest that more companies ought to try to make plant-based meat as cheap as possible from the get-go, rather than creating an expensive, high-demand product at first in the hope it can scale and become affordable over time, the approach taken by most startups so far.

The survey also found that people of color overindexed on plant-based purchasing, meaning they were both more likely to buy plant-based foods and spend more on plant-based foods compared to the consumer panel, whereas white consumers underindexed.

The demographics of who’s buying plant-based foods at the grocery store.

This is not too surprising. A 2018 US Gallup poll found that nonwhite Americans were three times as likely as white Americans to identify as vegetarian, which could suggest that non-vegetarian people of color are more likely to buy plant-based food than non-vegetarian white people.

Overall, the share of households purchasing plant-based products went up only 4 percentage points since last year. Impressively, though, over half of American households reported buying a meat or dairy alternative in 2020 although only a small percentage of Americans identify as vegetarian or vegan. This could be caused, in part, by the widespread adoption of the term “plant-based” on package labeling — as opposed to “vegan” or “vegetarian” — as research has shown people are less likely to purchase food when it has a “v” word on it.

According to the report, the percentage of “plant-based” claims on packaging more than doubled last year compared to 2019. I’ve even seen this “plant-based” halo effect cross over to retail categories outside of food. Take, for example, Tide’s “plant-based” laundry detergent (I just hope nobody mistakes it for food).

It might be the case that non-vegetarians read “vegetarian” on a food package and dismiss it as something that isn’t for them, whereas “plant-based” is a more vague term, and rarely used as an identity.

The plant-based industry may be small, but that’s because it’s so new

These annual reports are released with a hefty dose of enthusiasm and optimism, which is warranted given how quickly the plant-based food sector is growing (and no surprise given the source).

But they also show just how far plant-based producers and advocates still have to go to achieve the enormous goal they’re setting out to accomplish: fundamentally changing how humanity has produced meat and milk for decades.

To do that, the plant-based food industry will need to see many consecutive years of significant growth before it can start to bring down the number of animals raised in factory farms.

That’s not happening, at least yet — meat consumption continues to rise slowly in the US while it explodes around the globe. But it’s also worth remembering that this new generation of the plant-based food industry is still in its infancy; it was only a couple of years ago when the sector’s biggest players even got their products on grocery store shelves.

It’ll be a while until we see if their efforts to transform the food industry gain serious ground. But the continual progress is encouraging.

There’s been a groundswell of investor funding in plant-based proteins. It hasn’t led to decreased meat consumption.

by Lela Nargi

04.08.2021, 12:57pmBusinessShareLink Copied!Save for laterBeyond Burgers next to a young red cow. April 2021iStock/Sundry Photography/PamWalker68

Will the alt-meat investment boom change our food system if we don’t invest in eating less meat, too?

In mid-March, alternative-protein-promoting nonprofit Good Food Institute (GFI) released data showing that investment in the alt-meat market surged in 2020, hitting a record high of $3.1 billion. Companies focused on plant meats, eggs, and dairy (as opposed to fermentation and cell-based-meat ventures) accounted for the lion’s share of that windfall, taking in three times the amount of capital they raised in 2019. Hot on the heels of GFI’s report, Boston Consulting Group and Blue Horizon Corporation predicted that alt meat would comprise 11 percent of the protein market by 2035—climbing to 97 million metric tons annually from 13 million now. And several days after that revelation, Food Dive reported that self-identified meat eaters dropped from 85 percent in 2019 to 71 percent in 2020.

All this news gave alt-meat proponents lots of reason for optimism. GFI released a statement from senior investor engagement specialist Sharyn Murray, celebrating the investor community “waking up to the massive social and economic potential of food technology to radically remake our food system.” David Benzaquen, who runs plant-based-consumer research company Moonshot Collaborative, told The Counter that the uptick in funding—mostly by “traditional institutional investors” in Asia—is the “culmination of more people wanting to eat flexitarian and investors recognizing the massive risk from the animal farming industry.”

Still, sales of meat were up 19.2 percent over the past year—including beef from Brazil, a high offender when it comes to chopping down forests for ranching. And while food industry giants like Tyson and Cargill have entered the alt-meat space—and/or, like McDonald’s, which just signed a three-year “McPlant” deal with Beyond Meat—they have yet to declare a synchronous commitment to decreasing livestock production. (The Counter reached out to all three companies; all declined to comment.) In a space initially forged by eco-conscious vegans interested in animal welfare and sustainability goals like lower greenhouse gas emissions and a decreased water footprint, there remains the question of whether expanded investment is reshaping a problematic food system—or just building up a parallel one.

“People going to McDonald’s and Burger King and finding plant-based burgers starts to normalize them as an option and makes them more accessible.”

“I wish these big corporate names would dive in and make a commitment to reduce beef production—we’re in the midst of a climate and extinction crisis and it’s urgent,” said Stephanie Feldstein, population and sustainability director for the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, Arizona. Still, she sees investment in plant-based meat as a “first step. This is where [corporations] can see that plant-based burgers are profitable, and at the end of the day that’s what they care about.”

Profitability, she said, is predicated on Americans making a “massive cultural shift” that starts with them being able to sample inexpensive alternatives to beef and chicken. “People going to McDonald’s and Burger King and finding plant-based burgers starts to normalize them as an option and makes them more accessible,” she said. 

Benzaquen said that the pandemic has helped speed this normalization process up. “No plant-based businesses had to [close] due to COVID,” he said (a reference to U.S. slaughterhouse shutdowns, which were also a factor in those increased Brazilian beef imports). As a result, he said, people were compelled to try veggie products when confronted with empty meat shelves at the supermarket. He insists this wasn’t an “Oh, this is cool, I will try it one time type of thing” but rather a “lightbulb moment” that goes hand-in-hand with consumer backlash against the meat industry and having the “extra time to be more conscientious about what you’re eating.” 

“Alt meat is not getting scaled up in a bubble; it’s happening with an increase in demand for more protein. That could come from alt meat or it could come from meat.”

Benzaquen also pushed back against the idea that industry players are greenwashing their businesses with alternative proteins, pointing to Tyson’s initial trouble with its Raised and Rooted line. The products were not 100 percent vegan as advertised, forcing the company to remove eggs when there was backlash. Furthermore, he said, food service operations have limited money and “slots in the fryers to put forward food. Before the veggie burger there were 10 spots” on a fast food menu, each of which was for meat. “Now there are nine or eight, and plant-based products are displacing things.” 

Feldstein is also loath to voice skepticism about corporate interest in fake meat. She believes “it’s always the industry” that benefits when doubt is expressed about whether their motives are pure enough. Feldstein thinks the importance of plant-based meats, no matter who is producing them, has to be considered in context. “Alt meat is not getting scaled up in a bubble; it’s happening with an increase in demand for more protein. That could come from alt meat or it could come from meat,” and the environmental impacts of the former are “negligible” compared to the latter, she claimed. (Although, plant-based diets can have a larger environmental footprint than someone choosing a vegan diet might realize, the BBC reported last year.)

To Feldstein, the larger issue of concern is that the industrialized food system that provides consumers with unsustainable beef is the same one that is locked into using “less-than-perfect ingredients like GMO soy that are destroying the Amazon—it’s the only source” companies like Impossible Foods have. “But the long-term ideal of getting to a more diversified regionally focused food system and away from our current model is a reason to support alt proteins now,” Feldstein added.

“It’s a balancing game between holistic political change and helping consumers make better [food] choices they actually enjoy.”

Linnea Laestadius, public health policy and administration professor at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, sees corporate greenwashing as potentially problematic in this sector. “People are noticing there’s a lot of money in [alt proteins] and as more money enters, the risk of actors [acting badly] increases exponentially,” she said. “We can never rely on corporations choosing to be good actors”—a proclivity she refers to as  criminogenic, “where everyone is cutting corners and needs to stay competitive, and that will never change unless we see policy change.”

Merely focusing on plant-based meat replacements is too narrow a goal, Laestadius believes. She’d like to see institutional purchasers demanding transparency from both meat- and plant-based companies about sourcing, and for that sourcing to include more ethical ingredients and better labor standards—issues that even vegan companies can tend to gloss over. “Unfortunately, we’re on a really tight timeline to figure stuff out, which means it’s a balancing game between holistic political change and helping consumers make better [food] choices they actually enjoy,” Laestadius said.

How much such concerns will impact future funding streams is anyone’s guess. However, said Benzaquen, “Institutional investors recognize that consumer [interest] is not letting up, and this is far beyond a fad. Everyone who bet against it before made a mistake.”

This Facebook Group Takes Seitan Worship To The Next Level

Love the wheat-based meat alternative? Meet The Seitan Appreciation Society.By Julia Tausch04/09/2021 05:45am EDT

In 2018, I joined The Seitan Appreciation Society, the greatest Facebook group on earth. Seitan ― pronounced “say-TAN,” not “satan” ― is an often misunderstood meat substitute, not to be confused with the devil. It also shouldn’t be confused with other meat substitutes like tofu and tempeh, in that seitan isn’t made from soy, but rather wheat.

Since joining the group, I’ve spent most Sundays whipping up scrumptious fake meat based on the group’s latest insights and ideas. I’ve upped my vegan cooking game tenfold, thanks to the group, but my obsession has always felt a bit niche and weird. When I tell my friends about The Society, I know I’m giving them “One time? At band camp?” vibes.

So, imagine how my heart leaped to discover that Gen Z has been happily making seitan on TikTok, inspired by user futurelettuce’s “two ingredient vegan chicken.” The trend’s been covered everywhere, and YouTube is ablaze with attempts. The moment I watched futurelettuce’s video, I knew he, too, was a Society member. He quickly confirmed this over email and agreed with me that some of the most innovative plant-based cooking going on today is happening in the group. Thanks to futurelettuce, seitan has entered the zeitgeist. It’s time to spread the word.THE MORNING EMAILWake up to the day’s most important news.Successfully Subscribed!Realness delivered to your inbox

But what the heck is seitan?

In much of the English-speaking world, seitan refers to a meat substitute made from gluten, the protein component of wheat. It can be made two ways: with vital wheat gluten, a powdered form of already-isolated protein; or by kneading a ball of dough underwater to wash the starch away. The latter takes longer, but it’s thrilling to watch the stretchy, protein-blob emerge, then cook it into fibrous “meat.”

(And if you’re wondering why vegans would want to eat something meat-like, futurelettuce puts it simply: “Veganism isn’t about not eating meat. It’s about not eating animals.”)

Seitan is nothing new, as many responders to futurelettuce were quick to point out; nor is it a “weird white vegan thing.” Of her Singaporean Chinese heritage, Society member Jaki Teo wrote on Instagram: “Mock meat is so common in our dietary culture that nobody gives a single f. Vegans eat it, non-vegans eat it, and we even offer it to dead people at their graves.”

Yancy Nurse, a commenter on BuzzFeed’s futurelettuce post, also reminisced about her Barbadian grandmother washing flour. “I never knew where she learned it from,” Nurse told HuffPost. “But when she made it, everyone showed up. Even meat eaters loved it!”

Futurelettuce told BuzzFeed: “People have [asked] ‘How did you figure this out?’ Which I feel bad about because these methods date back to China thousands of years ago.”

Indeed, gluten-based faux sausage and eel recipes appear in Chinese texts as early as 1301. In America, the 1930s gluten experiments of the Seventh-day Adventists birthed, among other curiosities, canned veggie hotdogs. A jerky-like product dubbed seitan was brought to America from Japan in the late 1960s by macrobiotics founder George Ohsawa, and the word evolved to refer to all gluten products in English. Western seitan recipes have become increasingly complex, but until I joined The Society I had no idea I could come close to the deliciousness I’d tasted at Buddhist vegetarian restaurants in my own kitchen.

<img src="; alt="The Farm Vegetarian Cookbook, 1975. Residents of the <a href="">famous Tennessee commune</a> learned to make gluten from the Seventh-day Adventist cookbook "<a href="">Ten Talents,"
The Farm Vegetarian Cookbook, 1975. Residents of the famous Tennessee commune learned to make gluten from the Seventh-day Adventist cookbook “Ten Talents,” according to former farm resident and current society member Nancy Jones Presley.

Enter The Seitan Appreciation Society

The first time I scrolled through the Facebook group, my jaw dropped. Home cooks from all over the world were making gluten-based steaks, turkeys, hams, lambs, spam, bologna, salami, bacon, bratwurst, pork belly, salmon, drumsticks, wings, nuggets, oxtails — any meat I plugged into the search bar brought back hits.

For flavor and texture, people used miso, wine, douchi, molasses, MSG, cocoa, coffee, marmite, rice paper, sourdough, sauerkraut, yuba, tapioca, “bones” made of parsnips, beetroot powder, and on and on. Techniques ranged from simple braising and roasting to sous vide and brining for days. I couldn’t sleep for inspiration.

The Society was created in May of 2017 by U.K.-based Mike Rigby, a tireless admin of many vegan groups. “Lacey Siomos was well-established as an amazing home chef, so I picked her straight away to help set it up,” Rigby said.

Siomos, the inventor of Chickwheat — a shredded chicken sub made from chickpeas, vital wheat gluten and a solid eight minutes in the food processor — was perfecting those elusive shreds when Rigby reached out.

“I’m a big fan of open source,” Siomos said. “We wanted a way to share ideas.”

Lacey Siomos’ chickwheat shreds.
Lacey Siomos’ chickwheat shreds.

“Once the geniuses of the seitan game moved in,” Rigby explained, “we had a lot of interest.”

Today, The Society has almost 80,000 members and grows every day. Though some early heavy hitters have moved on, there’s no shortage of geniuses. “Like, it’s actual food science. Molecular gastronomy. It’s fascinating,” Siomos said. “It started back with Buddhist chefs and now there are people all across the globe making amazing seitan.”

The Influencers:


Aleksandra Feodorovna’s ham, created using a pâte feuilletée technique.
Aleksandra Feodorovna’s ham, created using a pâte feuilletée technique.

No one in the group makes more elegant fake meats than Aleksandra Feodorovna. Her posts have included filet mignon, salmon en papillote, steak tartare, a turducken, and a pâte feuilletée-inspired ham.

“I started cooking with my grandmother when I was 5,” said Feodorovna, an addiction counselor born in Mexico, based in Houston. “She was the first person I ever saw washing flour — this is 1966. Meat in Mexico then was expensive. I was mesmerized that a ball of dough turned into something like that!”

“Cooking is my form of activism,” Feodorovna added. “I share my food with co-workers and friends. Pâte feuilletée isn’t a technique for everybody — it takes a long time. But the results are amazing. I took that ham to work and they were like, ‘This is meat.’ And I’m like, ‘No, it’s wheat.’”

Currently, Feodorovna is documenting her non-seitan cooking in a group of her own and is working on a cookbook. “Mike has provided a wonderful meeting place for everybody,” she said.

Kat Ott

Kat Ott’s deli turkey.
Kat Ott’s deli turkey.

Blogger and mom Kat Ott’s lunchmeat recipes have been many members’ (including futurelettuce’s) first seitans.

“I was inspired to dive deeper into experimenting once I joined The Society,” Ott said. “I was spending a lot on prepackaged vegan lunchmeats for my kids. I wanted to create a deli turkey that would slice super thin like the brands they liked.”

She nailed that and many more.

Yessica Infante

Yessica Infante’s washed flour brisket with chimichurri sauce.
Yessica Infante’s washed flour brisket with chimichurri sauce.

While Ott and Feodorovna remain vital wheat gluten devotees, the washed flour method is having a moment. Yessica Infante, a sports center employee and mom from California, eliminated meat and dairy for health, but her family once enjoyed wings and steak.

“I love the chewiness,” Infante said. “I was like, ‘If we’re going to make this work, I have to have some mock meat we’re all going to enjoy.’ When I learned to wash flour, I couldn’t believe it. The flavor was so good.”

Infante now has YouTube tutorials for drumsticks, brisket, tacos al pastor and oxtails in birria sauce (jicama and rice paper stand in for bones and tissue).

“My family has a rating system,” she said with a laugh. “If a recipe’s an 8 out of 10 or above, I post it. If not, I play around more.”

The Society’s support gave her the confidence to start her channel. “People in the group are asking for my recipe, so why not deliver?”

Mark Thompson, aka Sauce Stache

Mark Thompson’s latest seitan creation for his YouTube channel, Sauce Stache.
Mark Thompson’s latest seitan creation for his YouTube channel, Sauce Stache.

Like everyone else I spoke to, Infante cites as an influence Mark Thompson, aka Sauce Stache. And Thompson, when we chatted, cited Infante right back. “I hope her stuff takes off,” he said. “During this seitan boom people are sharing my videos, but it’s like, share hers! That brisket’s mind-blowing!”

This enthusiasm permeates his channel — a food-sciencey test kitchen devoted to plant-based everything (including cracking the code on Beyond Meat sausages’ snap).

During a bout of vegan bacon tests, commenter Nigel Frazer-Ashbrook, a sign language interpreter from Scotland whose butter beany creation was ripping through The Society, suggested Thompson try his recipe. Thompson did a riff and promptly joined The Society himself.

While Thompson’s experiments have brought ingredients like methylcellulose to the seitan sphere, the inspiration goes both ways. Society member Oncle Hu’s pastrami, which involves washing out less starch to create “fatty” pockets, was the latest innovation to inspire a Sauce Stache video. “That was something really wild,” Thompson said.

Back to the future(lettuce)

Futurelettuce, too, is an Oncle Hu fan: “We message back and forth, he taught me a lot.” When I ask how it feels to have made washed flour viral, he’s thoughtful. “If I were wanting to see something on TikTok that was surprising … well, washing flour was something that surprised me more than anything.”

“I have a bit of regret that I didn’t go into more detail in the first video,” he added. “Some people don’t wash enough. They end up with fried bread. My dream is that someone watches, goes, ‘That’s interesting!’ and looks it up. I didn’t even have measurements! It’s as basic as it gets.”

If you’re ready to get beyond basic, The Society is here for you. While it is full of geniuses, the soul of the group are the thousands of members who share daily encouragement, techniques, incredible tutorial recommendations and jokes about how stretched gluten looks like, well, see for yourself below.

Come join us (read the pinned FAQ!) and sink your teeth into homemade meat made of wheat!

Your Diet Is Cooking the Planet

But two simple changes can help.ANNIE LOWREY6:00 AM ET

A woven bag containing carrots, apples, two oranges, and some greens, against a lavender background

What’s for dinner?

On a planet wracked by rising seas, expanding deserts, withering biodiversity, and hotter temperatures, that’s a fraught question to answer. Food production accounts for roughly a quarter of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions, and scientists have found that limiting global warming will be impossible without significant changes to how the world eats. At the same time, climate change is threatening the world’s food supply, with land and water being exploited at an “unprecedented” pace.  

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Reforming the food system to save the planet is going to require new corporate practices, and new laws and regulations at the national and international levels. But individual consumer behaviors matter as well—more than you might think. Your diet is likely one of your biggest sources of climate emissions. But what should you do? Eat locally? Get your food from small-scale farmers? Choose organics and fair trade? Avoid processed foods? Eat seasonally?

The choices are many; the stakes are high. But experts on land use, climate change, and sustainable agriculture told me that two habits tower above all others in terms of environmental impact. To help save the planet, quit wasting food and eat less meat.

The conservation nonprofit Rare analyzed a sweeping set of climate-change mitigation strategies in 2019. It found that getting households to recycle, switch to LED lighting and hybrid vehicles, and add rooftop solar systems would save less than half the carbon emissions combined than would reducing food waste and adopting a plant-based diet.

Let’s begin with the role of food waste. Americans waste a lot of food. Nearly one-third of it, in fact. More than 130 billion pounds a year, worth roughly $160 billion. We throw away enough food to close our own “meal gap” eight times over. Food is the single biggest component of our country’s landfills, and the average American sends more than 200 pounds of food there every year. More than 1,250 calories per person a day, or more than 140 trillion calories a year, get tossed in the garbage.

Households, not restaurants or schools or corporate cafeterias, are the dominant wasters. The problem is worse in the United States than in most other countries, and it has worsened over time. When you toss a spoiled chicken breast or moldy tomato into the trash, you’re wasting a greenhouse-gas-intensive product. You’re also sending it to a landfill, where it will emit methane.

Addressing food waste would be low-hanging fruit: The country could save money, emit less carbon into the atmosphere, alleviate the burden on landfills, reduce the number of animals subjected to life on a factory farm, and address its hunger crisis just by eating all the food it makes. Households consuming more of what they buy, and thus buying less, would have a major effect on the whole food system. Food suppliers would produce less to meet the country’s more efficient demand. Supermarkets would stock less food. Fewer trucks would need to run from plant to store. Fewer refrigerators would be needed in stores and industrial facilities to keep groceries cold. Fewer cows would fill up feedlots. Fewer acres of corn and soy would be grown to feed them.

How to do it? For one, get wise about expiration labels and quit throwing out perfectly good food. Research shows that nearly all Americans misinterpret date labels and toss their groceries out prematurely, for fear of food poisoning, and understandably so. Retailers and production companies use 50 different use by–type labels, and none is federally regulated, except for those on infant formula. sell by stamps tend to be for inventory management, and have nothing to do with food safety; best if used by and use by stamps tend to be about freshness and food quality, not whether you are about to enjoy a serving of mycotoxins. As a general point, most food is safe to eat as long as there is no evident spoilage, such as visible mold or an off smell. “Use your senses,” says Yvette Cabrera of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the conservation nonprofit, noting that those senses were refined through millennia of natural selection in no small part to help us figure out whether food is safe to eat.


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Experts also point to a series of simple, old-fashioned techniques households can use to ensure that they eat more of the food they buy. They amount to thinking like your Depression-era forebears, pretty much. Figure out appropriate portion sizes; eat your leftovers; store food in appropriate containers and at the right temperature; prepare and freeze perishables instead of letting them linger and go bad; and shop in your refrigerator and cabinet before you hit the store.

And when you’re at the store, there is one dietary change to consider that beats all others in terms of its climate impact. It is not eating locally or seasonally. It is not eating organic or fair-trade. It is not eating unprocessed foods or avoiding big-box and fast-food retailers. It is eating less meat. Roughly three-quarters of the world’s farmland is used to pasture livestock or raise crops to feed that livestock. That contributes to deforestation, destroys the planet’s natural carbon sinks, erodes the planet’s biodiversity, and uses up fresh water.

The main, mooing offender is beef. Cattle are responsible for roughly two-thirds of the livestock sector’s greenhouse-gas emissions, while beef and dairy products are responsible for about one-tenth of global emissions overall. Gram for gram, beef produces roughly eight times more greenhouse-gas emissions than farmed fish or poultry, 12 times more than eggs, 25 times more than tofu, and even more compared with pulses, nuts, root vegetables, bananas, potatoes, bread, or maize.

Beef is so bad for two reasons, Michael Clark, a scholar of food systems and health at the University of Oxford, explained to me. The first is that it takes a lot of inputs to produce beef as an output: about 20 kilograms of corn and soy protein to produce one kilogram of beef, he said. The second is that cows produce methane as they digest their food. “Other types of animals don’t do that,” he said. “And methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.”

Trading your rib eyes and cheesesteaks for lentils and tofu is one of the best things you can do as a consumer for the environment; if all Americans did, the country would be roughly halfway to hitting its Paris Agreement targets. Still, the all-or-nothing way the choice is often presented is a mistake. There is enormous acreage between the Atkins diet, or even the meat-heavy diet of the average American, and full-on veganism, which remains a niche lifestyle choice that few follow for long. Better all Americans cut meat consumption by 40 percent than 3 percent of Americans cut it out completely. Experts encourage taking small, meaningful steps to reduce your meat consumption, and trying to find some joy in doing it. Participate in Meatless Monday; try learning to cook dishes from a plant-heavy cuisine you like; offer a vegetarian option at work events; opt for dishes where meat plays a supporting, rather than leading, role.

After wasting less food and eating less meat, all other changes a person might make are marginal, experts said, among them eating locally, organically, and seasonally. Moreover, the climate impact of those food choices is in many cases contradictory. “I work in food, and it’s confusing for me,” Cabrera, of the NRDC, told me. “Is this lettuce better than this lettuce? Consumers are faced with so many choices, and it is really hard to know.”

Humanely raised, local meat, for instance, can produce more emissions than meat coming from a concentrated industrial operation, Clark told me. Cows in concentrated animal-feeding operations are generally slaughtered at 12 to 18 months of age, while cows raised exclusively on pastures typically live twice as long. “The cow that lives for longer is going to emit more methane over the course of its lifespan,” he said, though he added that there were still compelling reasons to opt for the local beef.

Similarly, growing a given amount of organic produce usually requires more emissions and acres of land than growing the same amount using conventional farming methods. One study conducted in Sweden, for instance, showed that organic peas and wheat have a bigger climate impact than their conventionally farmed cousins.

That said, when it comes to the emissions related to shipping food around the world, experts argue that—surprisingly—local is not always better. There’s a certain uncanny decadence to eating Peruvian avocados and Chinese grapes in the dead of winter, or opening a bottle of French Beaujolais or a package of Scottish smoked salmon at will. But transporting food around the world tends to make up only a small share of a given product’s total greenhouse-gas emissions. What you are eating and how it was farmed is far more important than how it got to you, and imported food typically has a low carbon impact.

For all that, experts said there are good reasons to opt for organic, locally produced, seasonal food, even if it might not be as efficient to produce, or might not have the lowest greenhouse-gas emissions. Many smaller-scale operations outside Big Ag produce food without pesticides, without monoculture, with manure instead of chemical fertilizers, and with respect for biodiversity and soil health. Those are all important facets of environmental preservation too.

Complicating things, what’s good for the environment isn’t always what’s good for animal welfare. When it comes to eating animals, “unfortunately, the cruelty scale is the flip of the emissions scale,” Leah Garcés, the president of Mercy for Animals, a nonprofit that advocates for better conditions for animals raised in industrial environments, told me. A family can easily eat a chicken in a single night, but might struggle to eat a whole cow over the course of a year. Moreover, transportation and processing is much rougher on birds, which have delicate bodies. (Each year, more than 1 million chickens die en route to slaughter, and half a million are not actually dead when they hit the scalding tank.) For these reasons, a chicken breast represents much more suffering than a steak, even though the steak is worse for the planet. But the fact remains: The fewer animals you eat, the fewer die, and the better off the planet is.

Diets that are good for the planet tend to be good for people too. Research by Clark and his colleagues has shown that foods associated with good health generally have low environmental impacts, “indicating that the same dietary transitions that would lower incidences of noncommunicable diseases would also help meet environmental sustainability targets.”

Our diets are cooking the planet, and changing them, even in small ways, might help avert catastrophe. A burger for lunch, a bag of wilted greens in the trash—these may not be as obviously destructive to the environment as a private jet or a gas-guzzling car. But they are choices we make daily, and they matter.