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Updated October 25, 2023

Executive summary

Plant-based meats, like the Beyond Sausage or Impossible Burger, and cultivated meats have become a source of optimism for reducing animal-based meat usage.

  • Public health, environmental, and animal welfare advocates aim to mitigate the myriad harms of meat usage.

  • The price, taste, and convenience (PTC) hypothesis posits that if plant-based meat is competitive with animal-based meat on these three criteria, the large majority of current consumers would replace animal-based meat with plant-based meat.

  • The PTC hypothesis rests on the premise that PTC primarily drive food choice.

The PTC hypothesis and premise are both likely false.

  • A majority of current consumers would continue eating primarily animal-based meat even if plant-based meats were PTC-competitive.

  • PTC do not mainly determine food choices of current consumers; social and psychological factors also play important roles.

  • Although not examined here, there may exist other viable approaches to drive the replacement of animal-based meats with plant-based meats.

There is insufficient empirical evidence to more precisely estimate or optimize the current (or future) impacts of plant-based meat. To rectify this, consider funding:

  • Research measuring the effects of plant-based meat sales on displacement of animal-based meat.

  • Research comparing the effects of plant-based meats with other interventions to reduce animal-based meat usage.

  • Informed (non-blinded) taste tests to benchmark current plant-based meats and enable measurements of taste improvement over time.

Introduction

Plant-based meats, like the Beyond Sausage or Impossible Burger, and cultivated meats[1] have been identified as important means of reducing the public health, environmental, and animal welfare harms associated with animal-based meat production (Rubio et al., 2020). By providing competitive alternatives, these products might displace the consumption of animal-based meats. Since cultivated meats are not currently widely available on the public market, this paper will focus on plant-based meats, although many of the arguments might also apply to cultivated meats.

Animal welfare, environmental, and public health advocates believe plant-based meats present a valuable opportunity to mitigate significant negative externalities of industrial animal agriculture, like animal suffering, greenhouse gas emissions, and antimicrobial resistance. For example, Animal Charity Evaluators lists "[cultivated] and plant-based food tech" as a priority cause area (Animal Charity Evaluators, 2022b), and a 2018 survey of 30 animal advocacy leaders and researchers ranked creating plant-based (and cultivated) meats third (after only research and corporate outreach) in their top priorities (Savoie, 2018). Non-profits working to research and support plant-based and cultivated meat production have received millions of dollars in funding (Animal Charity Evaluators, 2022a; New Harvest, 2021). Hu et al. (2019) describes plant-based meats as a potentially "vital" means to reduce the risks of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and some cancers. Others have focused on reducing the climate impact of food production and "the need to de-risk global food systems" (Zane Swanson et al., 2023). The private and public sectors have taken note as well; in 2022, the "plant-based meat, seafood, eggs, and dairy companies" foods industry attracted at least $1.2 billion in private investment activity and at least $874 million in public funding (The Good Food Institute, 2022, pp. 55, 85–88).

This enthusiasm has been propelled in some significant part by the informal hypothesis of price, taste, and convenience (henceforth, PTC hypothesis). Put succinctly by a leading non-profit in the space, the hypothesis proposes that plant-based meat "can compete on the basis of price, taste, and convenience, and just remove animals from the equation altogether" (Anderson, 2019). More specifically, the hypothesis first builds on the PTC premise that PTC are "what dictates consumer choice for just about everybody" (Anderson, 2019). Next, plant-based meats must have the same or better price, taste the same or better, and be as or more convenient compared to animal-based meat. According to the hypothesis, if plant-based meats were PTC-competitive to animal-based meats, then there would be no remaining reason for consumers not to abandon meat en masse.[2] Thus, just as cars replaced horses drawing carriages (Friedrich, 2020) and electricity replaced the slaughter of whales for oil used in lamps (Shapiro, 2018), it is supposed that plant-based meat would replace animal-based meat.

The PTC hypothesis has become pervasive in the discourse on plant-based meats, spreading beyond its origin within the farmed animal advocacy movement. As an informal hypothesis, the exact components are often modified, sometimes adding health or nutrition, subtracting convenience, or distinguishing between taste and texture. Major banks have weighed in, with Barclays declaring "taste and price will ultimately dictate whether or not alternative meat gains widespread acceptance" (Theurer et al., 2019, p. 3) and ING Group claiming "future growth" will depend on "the price gap," "better taste and nutritional profile," and "increase[d] distribution and availability" (Geijer, 2020). Boston Consulting Group advises companies to "improve taste, texture, and price" and "remove perceived barriers (such as feeling that alternative meat products are difficult to cook)" (von Koeller et al., 2023). Similarly, other researchers and non-profits reiterate the view that consumer behavior around plant-based meats is primarily driven by PTC (Bryant, 2022; McHugh, 2022; ProVeg, n.d.). Finally, the popular press has adopted PTC as the key factors in analyzing plant-based meat (Graham, 2023; Splitter, 2020). In total, it is clear that PTC have been elevated as the key determinants of the impact of plant-based meat.

While the PTC hypothesis is widespread, it has received little scientific scrutiny. We fill this gap here by aiming to evaluate whether a large majority of present-day consumers would be expected to switch from animal- to plant-based meat if it were PTC-competitive. In doing so, we necessarily discuss possible operationalizations of PTC and evaluate the premise that PTC are the main determinants of food choice. In parallel, we review the nascent empirical literature addressing the effects of each factor individually before reviewing studies that test all three factors in conjunction. Important limitations of the reviewed literature will also be discussed before concluding with an overall assessment of the PTC hypothesis and recommendations.

The PTC premise

Before examining the PTC hypothesis in full, we will examine the evidence supporting the key motivating premise that PTC are the primary determinants of food choice. Of course, there is no dispute that PTC are important factors in people's food choices, but research in food psychology demonstrates these are not the sole or primary factors. Intuitively, this fact is apparent when considering basic consumer behavior: any given grocery store likely offers thousands of cheap, tasty, and convenient products, and yet, consumers decide to purchase only some of these products, without gathering any information on the large majority of them. Presumably, consumers do so by relying on factors well beyond PTC. Indeed, the psychological literature has identified myriad influences of food choice spanning psychological, biological, physiological, situational, and socio-cultural factors in addition to product characteristics (Köster, 2009). Furthermore, a rich literature on the psychology of meat consumption has identified factors particular to the consumption of meat and animal products. For example, people feel a peculiar personal attachment to meat (Graça et al., 2015), believe that meat is necessary for health, feel that meat consumption is socially normative, and perceive meat as a nice and natural component of a healthy diet (Piazza et al., 2015).

Indeed, the notion that PTC are the primary causes of food choice does not arise from the academic literature but seems to have been popularized in a paper by a non-profit promoting the PTC hypothesis, which argues "[t]he three foundational motivations for food choice are taste, cost, and convenience" (Szejda et al., 2020, p. 5). The report reviews three studies to support the primacy of PTC. However, none of these studies finds PTC to be the top three factors in determining food choice. All are cross-sectional surveys of adults in the United States (US) and ask participants to rate the impact or importance of four to seven factors on their food purchasing decisions. Rankings were then determined based on the average of the responses. The first study was conducted in 1998 and found, in descending order of importance: taste, cost, nutrition, convenience, and weight control (Glanz et al., 1998, p. 1122). The second survey was administered annually from 2007 to 2010 and found, in descending order of importance: taste, nutrition, cost, and ease of preparation (convenience) (Aggarwal et al., 2016, p. 14). Finally, the third survey was performed annually from 2012 to 2019 and consistently found, in descending order of impact: taste, price, healthfulness, convenience, and environmental sustainability (2019 Food & Health Survey, 2019, p. 12). In 2019, the same survey added two additional factors: "your trust in the brand," which ranked second below taste, and "recognizing the ingredients that go into the product," which ranked fourth after price (2019 Food & Health Survey, 2019, p. 13). While these three surveys are the most frequently cited in support of the PTC hypothesis, there are others; however, they generally share the same methodological limitations.

First, as the authors of the original report acknowledge, these surveys are "best-suited for understanding attitudes rather than for perfectly predicting behavior," and future research should "focus on studies of actual behavior rather than self-reported behavior" (Szejda et al., 2020, pp. 7, 11). Thus, critically, the rankings in these studies reflect what people perceive as the most important factors rather than what would actually cause them to change their diets. Second, the cited studies were designed primarily to investigate the role of a few particular factors in food choice rather than to identify the most important factors. For example, one abstract indicates the study's objective is "to examine the self-reported importance of taste, nutrition, cost, convenience, and weight control on personal dietary choices" (Glanz et al., 1998, p. 1118). This explains why the studies examine only a handful of factors rather than the myriad influences of food choice. Third is a relatively minor issue, but these studies analyze the average ranking of each factor rather than how individual consumers rank the factors. Interpreting these averages as the preferences of individuals invokes the ecological fallacy: even if PTC were the most important factors on average, this does not imply that individual participants would each rank PTC as most important. In summary, there is little compelling evidence to nominate PTC as the primary causes or drivers of food choice.

Producing compelling evidence to substantiate just the premise of the PTC hypothesis would require an ambitious experimental effort. Before addressing each of the above three methodological issues, the hypothesis would need to be properly operationalized. The aforementioned surveys leave the meaning of PTC open to interpretation. For example, respondents might interpret convenience to mean either "easy to prepare" or "readily available." Taste might capture a wide array of concepts from flavor to texture or, in a different sense, personal aesthetic preference. Therefore, each factor must be carefully operationalized into specific empirical measurements. Next, to strongly support the hypothesis, factors must be tested experimentally rather than relying on merely asking people to report what they find most important since these self-reports are likely unreliable. To identify the most important determinants of food choice, it is necessary to contrast the many different potential causes and their combinations: appearance, odor, health, sustainability, social norms, familiarity, food safety, religion, and so on. Finally, there is the challenge of defining the "most important" set of factors for any given consumer, which becomes more difficult when testing numerous factors. For example, for some consumers, an allergy or religious belief might dominate all other factors in their food choices. Of course, this varies by food: allergies are quite important in choices about peanut products but less relevant for black beans. Which set of factors are reasonably deemed most important then depends on both the individual and the product in question.

Operationalizing and testing PTC individually

Given the lack of experiments systematically testing PTC in general as determinants of food choice, we will instead initially focus on each factor individually. In the context of choosing between plant- and animal-based meat, we will operationalize and review empirical evidence in turn for each factor. While this approach does not directly test the PTC hypothesis, which requires that competitiveness be obtained for all three factors in conjunction, it allows a larger body of evidence to be adduced. Furthermore, it seems reasonable to posit that a marginal improvement in any one factor, thus approaching but not necessarily obtaining PTC-competitiveness, might still result in some of the hypothesized reduction in animal-based meat usage.

Price

Price is the most clearly defined component of the PTC hypothesis, referring to the differential in retail prices for a pair of animal- and plant-based meats. Price might also seem to have the most straightforward case in its favor: decreases in plant-based meat prices presumably lead to more sales and, ultimately, less animal-based meat sales. However, this hypothesis is not guaranteed. For example, a lower price may lead some consumers to treat plant-based meats as inferior goods—or cheap substitutes—rather than a better deal. This effect might contribute to the lower popularity of margarine, which was designed as a substitute for butter at the time of its development in the 1880s (Dupré, 1999). Alternatively, consumers simply may not treat the two products as substitutes. Whatever the reason, the extent of price substitution behavior can be measured via cross-price elasticity of demand estimates emerging in the economics literature. Our research has reviewed estimates of cross-price elasticities between margarine and butter (Mendez et al., 2023) and plant-based and dairy milk (Mendez & Peacock, 2021). The results suggest that behavior might be inconsistent across studies. Many estimates suggest that decreased margarine or plant-based milk prices result in increased consumption of the corresponding animal product (known as complementarity, the opposite of substitution). While the studies we reviewed had important methodological limitations, this evidence casts doubt on the general notion of price substitution between plant-based analog products and their animal-based counterparts.

The two existing cross-price elasticity studies of plant-based meat sold in US grocery stores are consistently inconsistent. (A third study is forthcoming (Hirsch, 2022).) Zhao et al. (2022) found that plant-based meat (75% of which was the beef-like Impossible and Beyond Meat brands) acts as a complement for beef (cross-price elasticity ) and pork () and a substitute for chicken (0.008), with each elasticity reaching statistical significance at the 1% level. Meanwhile, Tonsor & Bina (2023) found basically the opposite, with plant-based meat acting as a substitute for beef (0.01) and pork (0.11) but a complement for chicken (), with all but beef reaching statistical significance at the 5% level. The two studies are not perfectly comparable and have certain methodological limitations, but they do agree that any effects of changes in plant-based meat prices seem to have only very small effects on animal-based meat sales. Note that some earlier estimates of plant-based meat cross-price elasticities use different study designs and analyses that constrain cross-price elasticities to substitution (examples reviewed in Lusk et al. (2022) Supplementary Table 5). Since study designs like discrete choice experiments are often analyzed so as to assume products are substitutes (Caputo & Scarpa, 2022, p. 82), estimates from these studies should not then be taken as evidence against complementarity. While new methods relax this assumption, the results are again inconsistent, finding substitution for the Beyond Burger with beef and chicken but complementarity for the Impossible Burger (Tonsor et al., 2022, Table 7). Thus, while price is well-defined, its role in helping plant-based meats displace animal-based meats is not.

Taste

Taste here means the gustatory perception of flavor via the tongue and mouth rather than the aesthetic or preferential meaning of the word. While further operationalization of taste competitiveness is not usually explicated, product pairs meeting the criteria are described as "the exact same product" and "indistinguishable" (McKenzie, 2022). This description has been understood to mean the products will pass a blinded taste test of some sort (Stevens, 2021). For example, one classic design would give each blinded taster a sample of plant- and animal-based meat and ask them to correctly classify which was which. If half or less of the participants can classify them correctly, the test is passed, and the products are equivalent! However, this operationalization does not capture the idea of tasting the same or better; the results only show whether or not the two products were indistinguishable. Further note that this operationalization includes assumptions about other characteristics of the products besides taste: the products must also have identical texture, smell, shape, etc., to pass. These characteristics fall outside most people's conception of "taste" and thus are not likely captured by the survey evidence intended to support the PTC premise.

However, more importantly, blind taste tests may lack external validity, as, outside an experimental setting, plant-based meat consumers will never be blinded. Instead, consumers will be informed of what it is they are eating, as is necessitated by food labeling laws, allergies, dietary restrictions, and ethical norms. Informed taste tests further probe the question of how to operationalize the concept of "taste competitiveness," as one can no longer meaningfully use participants' ability to classify plant- and animal-based meats as an outcome measure. Instead, one might ask how similar an animal and plant-based product taste, which product tastes better, or to rate each product's taste on a Likert scale.

Regardless of how exactly taste is operationalized, for these distinctions to matter, blind and informed taste test results must substantively differ. Indeed, this possibility is generally recognized (Garber et al., 2003) as taste is understood to be determined only partly by the contents of food; consumer psychology, context, and environment are also important causes of taste perception (Krishna & Elder, 2021). Research on plant-based meats so far has not focused specifically on contrasting taste perception in blinded and informed conditions. However, the available evidence generally finds modest but meaningful effects on related measures of consumer acceptance, although some studies are small and potentially underpowered.

In Sogari et al. (2023), 175 American consumers were randomized to blind and informed conditions, tasted four burgers (Beyond Burger, called "pea protein"; Impossible Burger, called "animal-like protein"; "hybrid meat-mushroom" burger; and "100% beef" burger), and then ranked their preference for each burger. Informing participants of the burgers' identities (for example, "pea protein burger") caused a statistically significant drop in the Beyond Burger's rank from third to fourth most liked, while the Impossible Burger remained first. In Caputo et al. (2022), 86 American consumers were randomized to blind and informed conditions, tasted four burgers (Beyond, Impossible, hybrid meat-mushroom, and 100% beef burger), and then participated in an experiment to measure willingness-to-pay for the burgers. Differences in willingness-to-pay between conditions did not reach significance given the small sample size; however, the point estimates suggest information caused willingness-to-pay to increase for the Impossible Burger by $0.91 and decrease for the Beyond Burger by $0.22 and the beef burger by $0.77. In Martin et al. (2021), 102 French consumers sampled both an animal- and plant-based sausage, first blinded and then with packaging information, and marked the strength of their preference on a scale ranging from animal-based () to plant-based (). After seeing the packaging, a statistically significant shift in preferences in favor of the plant-based sausage was detected (from to ), although consumers still strongly preferred the animal-based sausage. Finally, in Schouteten et al. (2016), 53 consumers sampled both an animal- and plant-based burger, first blinded and then with packaging information. In contrast to the previous results, a meaningful effect of information was not detected, with average overall liking on a 9-point scale increasing by 0.2 from 4.7 for a plant-based burger and increasing by 0.2 from 6.5 for an animal-based burger. Note that this plant-based burger was slightly disliked, and the confidence intervals for these effects would be wide.

Given these results, even plant- and animal-based meats which are indistinguishable in a blind taste test might still be experienced differently in an informed test. While the idea that plant-based meats must pass a blind taste test to be taste-competitive is intuitively appealing, informed tests have the benefit of reflecting consumers' naturalistic experience of purchasing plant-based meats. However, ultimately determining which approach identifies plant-based meats that are most effective in displacing animal-based meat is an empirical question largely lacking direct evidence. What evidence we do have suggests that tasting identical to meat may be less important than posited by the PTC hypothesis. Michel et al. (2021) surveyed 1,039 German consumers on whether "meat alternatives should taste identical to meat (0) or not at all like meat (100)." The mean response of 46 and standard deviation of 33 suggests a large degree of ambivalence, although this self-report should be regarded critically. A study of 93 Dutch meat consumers found wide differences in participants' perception of plant-based meat's similarity to animal-based meats but found little resulting association with subsequent liking of dishes incorporating that plant-based meat (Elzerman et al., 2011, p. 239). This is, to some extent, good news: perhaps plant-based meats may not need to perfectly emulate animal-based meat in order to compete, but only to be tasty in their own right.

Convenience

Convenience tends to be the least elaborated factor and has been discussed less in recent years. It is also the broadest in its possible interpretations, potentially applying to every step of obtaining and consuming food. Convenience might be considered in two parts: availability and functionality. Competitive availability would then entail plant-based meat needing to be available everywhere animal-based meat is sold. Furthermore, purchase must be as or more convenient; for example, products must be available on the same menu or in the same part of the store (rather than a separate menu or aisle). Competitive functionality might include as or more functional packaging, similar (or lower) levels of perishability, and preparation that requires the same or less effort and time. Plant-based meat might need to be as or more functionally flexible in forming different end products, like how beef can be used whole or ground. Finally, convenience might be interpreted as individuals' knowledge and skills for obtaining and preparing plant-based meat.

Unlike price or taste, the availability component of convenience is not an attribute of the product itself but its ubiquity and physical surroundings. Thus, while scenarios invoking competitiveness on price and taste require only imagining a superior product, convenience-competitiveness could require an effective doubling of the animal-based meat supply chain. Of course, ideally, the displacement of animal-based meat would lessen the burden, but this nonetheless could represent a much larger change to the world than price or taste competitiveness. Given the breadth of feasible operationalizations of convenience, no empirical work has probed convenience-competitiveness generally. Some work has focused on availability within grocery stores, moving plant-based meats to the (animal-based) meat aisle from devoted 'vegan' aisles. A non-randomized study of 108 grocery stores found the move increased sales of plant-based meat but did not decrease sales of animal-based meat (Piernas et al., 2021). Another smaller non-randomized study of nine stores found a very small increase in plant-based meat sales and no evidence of an effect on animal-based meat sales (Vandenbroele et al., 2019). In summary, there is a lack of clarity on what exactly constitutes convenience equivalence, and what little evidence might be relevant does not find a meaningful impact of increased convenience on animal-based meat usage.

Empirical tests of the PTC hypothesis

Thus far, neither a strong motivation for the premise that PTC largely determine food choice nor evidence in favor of the impact of PTC individually have been found. However, this is not sufficient to reject the PTC hypothesis, which holds that if plant-based meat is PTC-competitive with animal-based meat, the large majority of current consumers will shift from animal- to plant-based. To test the PTC hypothesis directly, we will focus narrowly on studies where participants choose between an animal-based meat and a putatively PTC-competitive plant-based meat. This approach aims to test the implication of the PTC hypothesis that closely similar plant- and animal-based meats will serve as substitutes.

However, it is crucial to note that these narrow outcome measurements focused only on the choice between target products do not accurately capture the impact of plant-based meats. A counterfactual scenario must be considered to understand the full impact of plant-based meats: what would have happened in the absence of a plant-based meat? For example, suppose a study found that 25% of consumers order a plant-based rather than animal-based burger. A naive interpretation of this result is that the availability of a plant-based burger causes a 25% reduction in animal-based burgers. However, the result could, in fact, represent no effect at all if, given the option, those consumers would not have purchased an animal-based burger anyway. Instead, they may have chosen a different plant-based meal or purchased nothing at all. We will revisit this issue later to illustrate how it can significantly alter estimates of impact.

Hypothetical discrete choice experiments

Hypothetical discrete choice experiments (HDCEs) provide some relatively weak tests of the PTC hypothesis. HDCEs generally ask consumers to imagine hypothetically picking a plant- or animal-based burger from a menu. The menu usually includes randomly selected prices, which are then analyzed to produce estimates of selection rates when prices are equal. Participants are often told that the burgers taste the same or similar, and they are presented as if they are prepared and ready to eat. Thus, at least in a hypothetical setting, these studies obtain PTC-competitiveness.

One such study offered US consumers two plant-based, one animal-based, and one cultivated meat (labeled "lab-grown") burger. The results suggested that about 19% of consumers might purchase an equally priced plant-based or cultivated meat burger instead of an animal-based burger, with 10% making no purchase (Van Loo et al., 2020, fig. 3A).[3] An otherwise identical version of the experiment provided respondents with assurances that the "plant-based burger patty [...] mimics the taste of an animal meat burger" and information about the production process of the different burgers (Van Loo et al., 2020, fig. 2). Together, this information increased purchases of plant-based or cultivated meat to 27%, with 8% making no purchase (Van Loo et al., 2020, fig. 3A). A second study indicated that "all burgers taste the same" and found that 70% of a Canadian sample would purchase the beef burger, 25% the plant-based burger, and 5% would make no purchase when prices were equal (Slade, 2018, Table 5). However, when asked, only 8% of respondents believed all the burgers would taste the same. The author notes that "to some extent, this is representative of the actual choice environment—even if burgers did taste equivalent, many consumers may not believe this to be the case" (Slade, 2018, p. 431). A third study compared a "Beef Burger" and "Beyond Meat Burger" without any indication of taste equivalence. At equal price, 22% of US grocery shoppers (excluding participants who would opt to buy neither) would select the Beyond Burger (Tonsor et al., 2021, fig. 20; Tonsor et al., 2022, p. 5). A fourth study compared "plant-based meat-like burgers" and conventional hamburgers at equal prices after providing participants with information about both, including that the plant-based meat was "very meat-like in terms of texture, color and taste" (Carlsson et al., 2022, p. 24). Only 11% of Swedish hamburger consumers selected the plant-based meat option (Carlsson et al., 2022, Table 2).

Although not precisely an HDCE, a series of surveys asked a similar question: whether participants preferred "real meat from animals" or "meat-like alternatives made from plants," without reference to specific products or the option not to purchase (Miller, 2021). Conducted in June 2020 across 27 countries, 27,000 meat-eating participants were told to assume plant-based meat and animal-based meat "tasted equally good, had equal nutritional value and cost the same." 41% of the total sample preferred plant-based meat; a slight majority (51–55%) in five of the countries preferred plant-based meat, 63% in Mexico, and 66% in Vietnam. However, the design of this study likely increases these estimates: the addition of "equal nutritional value" likely increases the attractiveness of the plant-based meat; the environmental framing and questions used earlier in the survey might increase social desirability bias; using a text description rather than pictures of the possible items and broad non-specific question wording might elicit more hypothetical bias; and participants are forced to choose one or the other of animal-based meat or plant-based meat. That said, the study included only self-identified meat eaters, which would generally push the estimates towards animal-based meats, as might excluding assurances of competitive convenience. Indeed, estimates from Miller (2021) tended to be higher than estimates from other studies (Figure 1), although the comparisons are imperfect. For example, Carlsson et al. (2022) found 11% of Swedes preferred plant-based meat, while Miller (2021) found 45%. In summary, the results of HDCEs conflict with the hypothesis that consumers largely prefer PTC-competitive plant-based meats over animal-based meat.

Figure 1: Percentage of participants choosing plant-based meat instead of animal-based meat during either an HDCE (denoted "H") or a commercial case study ("C"). Error bars are not included, as no studies reported standard errors. Flags denote the country in which participants were recruited. Supporting data available at https://osf.io/5cqem/. *All stores globally. **Second Van Loo et al. (2020) study with additional information. ***Average across 27 countries.

Commercial case studies

Of course, the results of HDCEs may not translate to actual behavior. Hypothetical choice and self-reports of diet change likely tend to exaggerate the extent of meat reduction: one comparison found that in a hypothetical choice, 59% of meals selected were meat-free, while in actuality, sales data found only 36% of meals to be meat-free (Brachem et al., 2019, p. 22). For data on actual behavior, we can look at the introduction of plant-based meats in commercial contexts, although price details are not always available. Furthermore, unlike the previous HDCEs, which often rely on representative samples of the population, these commercial case studies necessarily include only customers who self-selected to make a purchase at that particular restaurant. Thus, these estimates may still be somewhat optimistic.

To start, the home-goods-retailer-cum-cafeteria Ikea sells plant-based hotdogs that are equally or lower-priced, readily available alongside animal-based hot dogs, and "received a 95 percent approval rating" in taste testing in Sweden (Webber, 2019). In September 2019, Ikea's plant-based hot dogs composed about 8% of annual hot dog sales globally (Southey, 2019).[4] Similarly, a sample of 350 locations of the fast-food chain Burger King indicates that Impossible Burgers represent about 15% of total burger sales,[5] and the sales of beef burgers "had not fallen as a result" (Mehta & Balu, 2019). However, the Impossible Burger was generally slightly more expensive and may sometimes take longer to prepare than the beef burger, which could be especially important to fast food customers. In terms of taste, Sogari et al. (2023) found the Impossible Burger's mean preference ranking in a blind taste test was not statistically significantly different than a beef burger (2.1 vs 2.5, respectively, indicating both burgers ranked around second on average). That said, the beef burger may have been significantly less salty than the Impossible Burger, potentially lowering the bar for taste equivalence. Another blind taste test found that the Impossible burger patty had a similar average liking score to a beef burger (Chicken and Burger Alternatives, 2018).[6] Moreover, complete meals containing plant-based meats tend to be somewhat better liked than plant-based meats on their own (Hoek et al., 2012, Table 6; Qammar et al., 2010, p. 554), although this trend may not be universal (Elzerman et al., 2011, fig. 2). As such, taste competitiveness or near competitiveness is likely a reasonable assumption about prepared Impossible burgers but does remain an unanswered empirical question. As a final example, the burger restaurant chain Umami Burger introduced the Impossible Burger in 2018; in the six weeks following, it represented ~20% of burger sales (Cameron & O'Neill, 2019, fig. 17). These case studies again suggest that most consumers do not prefer plant-based meats, even for relatively PTC-competitive products.

Malan 2022 field experiment

The strongest evidence of actual behavioral impacts of PTC-equivalent plant-based meats likely comes from a study introducing Impossible Foods' plant-based ground beef to a University of California Los Angeles dining hall (Malan et al., 2022). Impossible ground beef was introduced at two stations in the dining hall. On Thursdays, students had the option of receiving prepared burritos with either Impossible ground beef, animal-based cubed steak, or veggies, while the build-your-own entree line offered Impossible ground beef every day alongside animal-based cubed steak, shredded beef and other animal products.

In this study, price is almost always equivalent since students pay for dining hall access for the entire semester, not individual meals; a negligible proportion of meals were purchased with other means of payment. With regards to taste, Impossible ground beef is not directly comparable to either the cubed steak or shredded beef served in the study, nor has it been subjected to any public taste tests comparing it with ground beef. However, as reviewed above, the Impossible Burger, which is made of similar ingredients, has been found to taste equivalent to ground beef burgers in some studies. Furthermore, Malan (2020) includes a survey on taste perceptions of 215 participants at the intervention site, although some of the question phrasing might evoke slight agreement or social desirability bias, and the survey may be affected by selection bias. Of the 96 surveyed participants who self-selected to try the Impossible ground beef, 86% agreed or somewhat agreed it was delicious; 85% that Impossible ground beef "is a satisfying alternative to animal meat" (Malan, 2020, Table 20); and 71% choose to eat it more than once (Malan, 2020, p. 189). Of the 89 open-ended responses describing what was liked about the Impossible ground beef, 52% mentioned the flavor, feel or texture and 30% its similarity to animal-based meat (Malan, 2020, Table 27). Conversely, of the 49 open-ended responses on what was disliked, 29% mentioned the flavor or feel and 24% the texture (Malan, 2020, Table 28). Given these results it may be reasonable to conclude the Impossible ground beef was fairly well-liked among those participants who consumed it, although it is not equivalent to the other beef products offered. Finally, convenience is likely equivalent since all meals are prepared for students by dining hall staff.

The study measured how many beef-containing meals were distributed at the intervention dining hall, where the Impossible ground beef was available, as well as distribution at two other dining halls as controls, which we refer to as A and B. For all dining halls, data on how many meals of each type were served was available before and after the intervention. Dining halls were not randomized to intervention and control status, and participants were known to cross over between dining halls (Malan et al., 2022, p. 226), both factors that could bias effects in either direction. Control dining hall A was adjacent to the intervention dining hall, and some intervention materials were thus visible (Malan, 2020, p. 119), while control dining hall B was isolated from the intervention. In addition to making plant-based meat available, the study employed several co-interventions designed to reduce meat consumption (Malan, 2020). These included environmental education, low carbon footprint labels on menus, and an advertising campaign to promote the new product, all of which have some evidence demonstrating their effectiveness (Bianchi, Dorsel, et al., 2018, p. 11; Brunner et al., 2018; Jalil et al., 2019; Osman & Thornton, 2019). Thus, the study's results cannot be entirely attributed to the addition of plant-based meat options to the intervention dining hall's menu.

To begin, we focus only on the burrito station of the intervention dining hall. In the ten weeks after adding the Impossible burrito to the intervention dining hall's menu, 26% of burrito purchasers chose the Impossible, 7% the veggie, and the remaining 67% the steak burrito (Malan, 2020, Table 12). Consistent with previous results, in a scenario that ensures price, convenience, and potentially taste competitiveness, the portion of consumers selecting the plant-based meat option remains modest.

Figure 2: Percentage of each burrito type selected before and after intervention.

The before and after, as well as control, data available in this study also demonstrate crucial shortcomings in the HDCEs and commercial case studies: they do not compare against a counterfactual where plant-based meat is unavailable. Thus, it is unclear what would have happened otherwise, which is crucial for understanding the causal effect of plant-based meat on animal-based meat usage. One approach to estimate the outcome of such a counterfactual scenario is to use the before-intervention data in Figure 2, which shows the veggie burrito comprises 15% of selections in the absence of the Impossible burrito. With the Impossible burrito available, this share declines to 7%, suggesting the Impossible burrito partially replaced the demand for veggie burritos rather than animal-based beef. Thus while 26% of burritos distributed were Impossible burritos, using the before-intervention data suggests only a 19 percentage point decline in steak burritos.

The control dining halls in the study provide a more rigorous approach to estimating a counterfactual than the before and after analysis. However, to make the control and intervention dining halls comparable, we must expand our focus to all Impossible ground beef meals, not just burritos. Since Impossible ground beef is designed to be a substitute for animal-based beef, we expand our analysis to all animal-based beef meals (rather than just steak burritos) but exclude impacts on other meats like poultry or pork. For comparison's sake, we can repeat the analysis in Figure 2 using this new outcome measure (Figure 3). As before, we first consider a naive analysis that assumes every Impossible ground beef entree displaced an animal-based beef entree. Since 11.4% of entrees in the intervention dining hall were Impossible ground beef, we would assert an 11.4 percentage point reduction in beef entrees. Next, we look at actual beef demand before and after adding Impossible ground beef to the intervention dining hall and find a much smaller decline of 3.3 percentage points.

Figure 3: Six different analytic approaches to calculating the effect of adding Impossible ground beef to the menu, among other interventions, on demand for beef entrees. Supporting data and calculations are available at https://osf.io/5cqem/.

To compare the intervention and control dining halls, we will compute a difference in differences. That is, we will first compute changes in the proportion of beef entrees distributed before and after intervention in each dining hall. Second, we take the difference of the before-and-after changes between the intervention and control dining halls.[7] When comparing the intervention dining hall against control dining hall A—where the percentage of beef entrees actually increased—the effect of Impossible ground beef looks somewhat better, resulting in a 4.0 percentage point decrease in beef entrees. Conversely, beef demand went down in control dining hall B, so the estimated effect of Impossible ground beef looks somewhat smaller at 2.1 percentage points. Lastly, comparison to both control sites combined yields an effect in between the others, a 3.2 percentage point decline. While these are small numbers, the relative effect of different approaches to estimating a counterfactual is large, which underscores the importance of appropriately measuring what would have happened otherwise.

Nonetheless, this variation in the control dining halls is surprising: after all, in the absence of intervention, we might expect no change. In this case, the prominent launch of Impossible ground beef at the intervention dining hall may have affected which of the three dining halls the students chose. Looking at the change in the number of entrees distributed at each dining hall suggests one possible story of spillover. Control dining hall A, which was adjacent to the intervention dining hall, saw a 12,432 entree decline in overall meals distributed, a 2.4 percentage point decline in demand for other vegetarian options (besides Impossible ground beef), and a 0.7 percentage point increase in beef entree demand. Meanwhile, the intervention dining hall saw a 16,529 meal increase. Together this points to the possibility that the intervention, in fact, concentrated students likely to eat Impossible ground beef at the intervention dining hall while encouraging beef-eating students to go next door, without having much effect on total consumption. Control dining hall B, which was further away, also saw an 8,775 entree decline in the overall number of meals distributed. However, this control saw a small increase (1.1 percentage points) in demand for other vegetarian options and a small decrease (1.2) in beef demand, opposite of the changes at control dining hall A.

One way to account for this potential spillover of students between intervention and control is to simply ignore the distinction between intervention and control sites. Instead, the study sites can be combined in a single before and after analysis. This yields a very small change in beef entree selection, only 0.3 percentage points, compared to a 5.0 percentage point increase in Impossible ground beef entree selection. There was also a 2.6 percentage point decline in other vegetarian selections. This analysis supports the idea that introducing Impossible ground beef may have primarily attracted students already willing to eat vegetarian entrees from other dining halls. While Malan (2020) is not straightforward to interpret, it illustrates the importance of making comparisons to counterfactual scenarios and demonstrates that only a small share of consumers might prefer PTC-competitive plant-based meat.

Further caveats

In reflecting on the evidence considered here—from commercial case studies to controlled experiments—we should consider several caveats that may make these early estimates of the impact of plant-based meats overly optimistic. First, all the eateries in these studies ultimately choose to provide plant-based meats and are thus potentially subject to selection bias in favor of eateries with customers likely to enjoy plant-based meats. For example, Malan et al. (2022) was conducted with college students, who are usually under the age of 35, and at the University of California, Los Angeles in the western US, both demographics which are more likely than average to select plant-based meats in HDCEs (Tonsor et al., 2022, Table 1). Second, many, if not most, of the reviewed studies likely included numerous and sometimes extensive additional co-interventions also designed to increase sales of plant-based meat and/or decrease sales of animal-based meat, like promotions, ad campaigns, and environmental information. These will presumably reduce in intensity over time, as might their effects.

Third, these early studies may represent novelty effects and tap into consumers' curiosity to try something new. One survey identified "I like to try new foods" and "I've been hearing a lot about them and was curious" as the two most popular factors in a self-report of why customers tried plant-based meats (A Consumer Survey on Plant Alternatives to Animal Meat, 2020, p. 5). This effect would also be expected to fade over time. Indeed, this decline may already have been observed. In 2019, sales of the Beyond Taco at the fast-food chain Del Taco declined from 6% to 4% of the sales mix (Maze, 2019), and across two samples of Burger King stores, sales of the Impossible Burger declined from 30 per day per store to 20, and from 32 to 28, in the weeks following introduction (Shanker & Patton, 2020).

Fourth, effects could be reduced by spillover, where an intervention has an impact outside the expected context. Plant-based meats may affect the consumption of animal products besides the one they are intended to emulate or affect subsequent food choices. Mechanistically, spillover can occur in individuals or institutions. For example, moral licensing could occur, with an individual consumer's virtuous plant-based eating at lunch resulting in feeling entitled to indulge in more meat for dinner. A lack of satiation could also lead to spillover: an unsatisfying plant-based meal might leave the consumer craving animal products. Positive spillover could also occur, with a tasty plant-based meal inspiring further plant-based consumption. As an example of institutional spillover, a university dining hall might add a plant-based burger to the menu on Mondays but simply serve animal-based burgers on Tuesdays and displace another vegetarian option.

However, the extent to which spillover occurs is an empirical question. One study of the cross-price elasticity of plant-based meats already suggests spillover. In Zhao et al. (2022), at least 75% of the plant-based meat in the study was beef-like, but the study found unexpected complementarity for beef and substitution for chicken instead. Another study measured spillover effects of increasing the availability of vegetarian options at lunch on consumption at the subsequent dinner. There was little evidence for spillover, but the estimate was relatively uncertain (Garnett et al., 2019, Supplementary Table S21).[8] Detecting spillover effects requires comprehensive measurement of relevant outcomes; in this case, animal product usage both at the time and location of intervention, but also usage afterward and elsewhere. Without such careful measurements, the size and direction of spillover effects, and thus the total impact of plant-based meats, will remain uncertain.

Fifth, the body of research reviewed here is subject to publication bias, whereby we are likely more aware of results perceived as positive rather than negative. For example, companies are less likely to highlight failed product launches, and academics are less likely to publish results that do not find an effect. Sixth, the body of literature largely lacked pre-registration and analysis plans and thus is vulnerable to reporting bias, where authors selectively report favorable results. That said, for some studies, it's unclear which direction would be "favorable." For example, some authors were funded by the animal agriculture industry, and an incentive could conceivably exist to either exaggerate or minimize the impact of plant-based meats. In any event, there was no direct evidence of reporting or publication bias. In total, these six caveats suggest the reviewed studies might be optimistic yet.

Conclusions & recommendations

Collectively, these results show that the PTC hypothesis, in its current form, is likely false. The underlying premise of PTC as the key determinants of food choice is not supported by evidence from cross-sectional surveys on consumers' self-reported determinants. The little available evidence thus far suggests PTC do not individually significantly reduce animal-based meat usage. HDCEs find that a minority of consumers select PTC-competitive plant-based meats instead of animal-based meats. (Miller (2021) adduces two countries where plant-based meat selection nears two-thirds when health equivalence is also assured. However, the study design is especially subject to hypothetical and social desirability biases and likely yields estimates that unrealistically favor plant-based meats.) Data from introducing plant-based meats at particular restaurants suggests that they draw only a modest portion of customers. Finally, a controlled experiment introducing high-quality plant-based meat to a dining hall—at almost always equal price and convenience to animal-based meat—shows that most participants did not choose plant-based meat. Across five lines of evidence, it is clear that the empirical evidence opposes the PTC hypothesis.

This result does not imply that plant-based meats have no role in animal, environmental or public health advocacy. Instead, new, evidence-based theories of change about the role of plant-based meats must be advanced and rigorously evaluated rather than simply assuming that creating and selling PTC-competitive plant-based meats will result in the widespread displacement of animal-based meat. Important alternatives to the PTC hypothesis might consider the role of future consumers rather than present-day consumers, who have been the focus of this paper. Future consumers might experience a large change in social norms or otherwise shift their preferences toward consuming plant-based rather than animal-based meats. This is a common feature of many animal advocacy theories of change (Delon et al., 2022), and advocates will potentially find it difficult to shift social norms in favor of plant-based meat.

Next, a more expansive notion of taste should be considered rather than a narrow focus on developing products that taste identical to animal-based meat. Of course, plant-based meats need to taste good to gain consumer acceptance, but there is little evidence that tasting identical to animal-based meat is essential. Furthermore, meat is not a monolith but a wide target with diverse taste profiles. This provides an opportunity to produce plant-based meat that tastes as "good as a meat" rather than "the same as meat." Generally, more taste tests of plant-based meats would be beneficial. Given the $7.8 billion in investments in plant-based food companies (The Good Food Institute, 2023, p. 55) and calls for further large-scale government research and development funding (Friedrich & Purvis, 2022), additional funding might reach diminishing marginal returns in improving taste. Without appropriate baseline taste tests, it will be impossible to determine if improvements were realized.

Given the scale and breadth of investment—spanning non-profits; for-profits; and, increasingly, governments—the sparsity of research evaluating the effectiveness of plant-based meats in serving their stated goal of reducing animal-based meat usage is notable. While this review focused only on work relevant to the PTC hypothesis, recent systematic reviews reveal only a handful of additional studies testing the effect of plant-based meats on animal-based meat usage (Bianchi, Garnett, et al., 2018; Grundy et al., 2022; Taufik et al., 2019). Few resources are currently devoted to the scientific testing of any theories of change involving plant-based meats, let alone the PTC hypothesis. What research exists has not been a focus of discussion among advocates. It is crucial, then, that future research empirically evaluates the effects of plant-based meats on the displacement of animal-based meat and compares these effects with those of other interventions to reduce animal-based meat usage. Furthermore, advocates must engage with this work and adjust their strategies accordingly. Ultimately, advocates and researchers must develop and test alternatives to the PTC hypothesis rather than adhere to a status quo that is contradicted by the evidence.

This paper is a project of Rethink Priorities—a think tank dedicated to informing decisions made by high-impact organizations and funders across various cause areas. If you are interested in Rethink Priorities' work, please visit our research database and subscribe to our newsletter.[9]

Disclosures

Author information

Jacob R. Peacock, jacob@rethinkpriorities.org, https://orcid.org/0000-0002-4834-8132

Acknowledgements

Thank you to Ben Stevenson for research assistance. Thank you to Lewis Bollard, Marcus Davis, Kieran Greig, Janosch Linkersdörfer, William McAuliffe, Jared Piazza, David Reinstein, and Jacob Schmiess for their helpful feedback and Toni Adleberg, Ashley Chang, and Adam Papineau for editing.

Funding

This paper was initially funded as a project of The Humane League Labs. Neither The Humane League Labs nor its parent organization, The Humane League (https://thehumaneleague.org/), have reviewed or endorsed the final version of this paper.

Conflicts of interest

Jacob R Peacock serves as a trustee at the Food Systems Research Fund (https://www.fsrfund.org/) and an advisor to New Roots Institute (https://www.newrootsinstitute.org/). These organizations were in no way involved in this paper.

Open science

All supporting data and calculations are available at https://osf.io/5cqem/.

Update history

Updated October 25, 2023, with changes emphasized below:

  1. Correction to Figure 1 to indicate Ikea 2019 data represent all stores globally, rather than just the United States.

Corrections and updates in the "Malan 2022 field experiment" section:

  1. Replace "On Thursdays, students had the option of receiving prepared burritos with either Impossible ground beef, animal-based steak, or veggies, while the build-your-own entree line offered Impossible ground beef every day alongside animal-based ground beef." with "On Thursdays, students had the option of receiving prepared burritos with either Impossible ground beef, animal-based cubed steak, or veggies, while the build-your-own entree line offered Impossible ground beef every day alongside animal-based cubed steak, shredded beef and other animal products."

  2. Replace the second paragraph in this section. Briefly, this updates and corrects the text to indicate that a negligible portion of participants did pay for meals; an animal-based ground beef equivalent to the Impossible ground beef was not served; and dining hall staff served all food. Furthermore, it adds information on a survey of participants' perception of the taste of Impossible ground beef. The paragraph previously read:

    In this study, price is entirely equivalent since students pay for dining hall access for the entire semester, not individual meals. With regards to taste, Impossible ground beef specifically has not been subjected to any public taste tests. However, as reviewed above, the Impossible Burger, which is made of similar ingredients, has been found to taste equivalent in some studies. The study does not describe exactly the form of the beef in the steak burrito, making its taste equivalence less certain but probably still a reasonable inference. For the ground beef served on the build-your-own entree line, taste equivalence seems very likely. We can further surmise that the Impossible ground beef meals in the study were at least desirable: a follow-up survey found that 71% of purchasers were repeat purchasers (Malan, 2020, p. 189). Convenience is likely equivalent as well since the burritos are prepared for students by dining hall staff, and the build-your-own entree line is self-serve for both animal- and plant-based ground beef.

    It now reads:

    In this study, price is almost always equivalent since students pay for dining hall access for the entire semester, not individual meals; a negligible proportion of meals were purchased with other means of payment. With regards to taste, Impossible ground beef is not directly comparable to either the cubed steak or shredded beef served in the study, nor has it been subjected to any public taste tests comparing it with ground beef. However, as reviewed above, the Impossible Burger, which is made of similar ingredients, has been found to taste equivalent to ground beef burgers in some studies. Furthermore, Malan (2020) includes a survey on taste perceptions of 215 participants at the intervention site, although some of the question phrasing might evoke slight agreement or social desirability bias, and the survey may be affected by selection bias. Of the 96 surveyed participants who self-selected to try the Impossible ground beef, 86% agreed or somewhat agreed it was delicious; 85% that Impossible ground beef "is a satisfying alternative to animal meat" (Malan, 2020, Table 20); and 71% choose to eat it more than once (Malan, 2020, p. 189). Of the 89 open-ended responses describing what was liked about the Impossible ground beef, 52% mentioned the flavor, feel or texture and 30% its similarity to animal-based meat (Malan, 2020, Table 27). Conversely, of the 49 open-ended responses on what was disliked, 29% mentioned the flavor or feel and 24% the texture (Malan, 2020, Table 28). Given these results it may be reasonable to conclude the Impossible ground beef was fairly well-liked among those participants who consumed it, although it is not equivalent to the other beef products offered. Finally, convenience is likely equivalent since all meals are prepared for students by dining hall staff.

  3. Replace "Dining halls were not randomized to intervention and control status, and participants were free to cross over between dining halls during the study, both factors that could bias effects in either direction. Control dining hall A was adjacent to the intervention dining hall, so intervention materials were potentially visible, while control dining hall B was isolated from the intervention." with "Dining halls were not randomized to intervention and control status, and participants were known to cross over between dining halls (Malan et al., 2022, p. 226), both factors that could bias effects in either direction. Control dining hall A was adjacent to the intervention dining hall, and some intervention materials were thus visible (Malan, 2020, p. 119), while control dining hall B was isolated from the intervention."

Clarifications and a correction in the "Conclusions & recommendations" section:

  1. Clarify "The underlying premise of PTC as the key determinants of food choice is not supported by evidence from cross-sectional surveys on consumers' self-reported determinants."
  2. Correct "Finally, a controlled experiment introducing high-quality plant-based meat to a dining hall—at almost always equal price and convenience to animal-based meat—shows that most participants did not choose plant-based meat."
  3. Correction to replace "six" with "five" in "Across five lines of evidence, it is clear that the empirical evidence opposes the PTC hypothesis."

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  1. Also known variously as "cultured," "clean," "cell-based," "lab-grown," or "lab" meat. ↩︎

  2. "When we're thinking about what it is that we want to eat, every single one of us thinks about the price of the food, we think about how it's going to taste. We may not be thinking about convenience but convenience is going to be a central factor. [...] We want to actually create plant-based alternatives and clean meat alternatives to conventional animal agriculture that compete on the basis of those factors and shift the world away from industrialized animal agriculture"(Cargill & Wiblin, 2018). "Despite rising awareness of the global impacts of our dietary choices, consumers continue to base their purchasing decisions primarily on price, taste, and convenience. Quite simply, reducing animal protein consumption is intractable for most people due to a lack of appetizing and affordable products that could serve as alternatives to conventional animal protein products. The challenge, then, is to innovate and bring to market diverse protein alternatives that are as delicious, price-competitive, and convenient as animal-derived food products are currently. By making healthy and sustainable alternative proteins comparable to conventional proteins in the areas of flavor, price, and ubiquity, alternative proteins become the default choice" (GFI Research Program, 2019, pp. 4–5). Other researchers offer similar descriptions of the PTC hypothesis (Anthis, 2018; Kankyoku, 2022). ↩︎

  3. This figure is likely an overestimate (in favor of the PTC hypothesis) since it also includes the cultivated meat burger. ↩︎

  4. 8% = 10,000,000 veggie dogs / (10,000,000 veggie dogs + 110,000,000 conventional dogs) ↩︎

  5. The source indicates 230 "signature beef Whoppers" were sold daily. It is unclear whether this figure includes, for example, the "Double Whopper." With 40 Impossible Whoppers sold daily, the percentage is calculated as 15% = 40 / (230 + 40). ↩︎

  6. Burger identity was provided in personal correspondence with the author, David Meyer (2023). ↩︎

  7. For example, . ↩︎

  8. The 95% confidence interval for the odds ratio was [0.795, 1.141], with a point estimate of 0.953. ↩︎

  9. Rethink Priorities website https://rethinkpriorities.org/, research database https://www.rethinkpriorities.org/research and newsletter https://www.rethinkpriorities.org/newsletter links. ↩︎

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Isn't the argument more that once alternative proteins reach close to parity on PTC they will be easy to move over the finish line / induce a change in norms and in adoption?

I am a bit skeptical that (quasi-)experimental methods on currently available alternative proteins can tell us much about societal shifts in norms and adoption in 10+ years.

(it reminds me a bit of saying in 1995 that solar will never succeed or in 2000 about electric cars, underestimating how a change in cost and convenience induces an entirely new trajectory in terms of norms, adoption, etc., that would not have been predictable by hypothetical individual-level experiments in 1995 or 2000, respectively).

Hi Jack, thank you for your comment! I largely agree the future prospects of plant-based meat might be quite different from the current prospects and write:

Important alternatives to the PTC hypothesis might consider the role of future consumers rather than present-day consumers, who have been the focus of this paper. Future consumers might experience a large change in social norms or otherwise shift their preferences toward consuming plant-based rather than animal-based meats. This is a common feature of many animal advocacy theories of change (Delon et al., 2022), and advocates will potentially find it difficult to shift social norms in favor of plant-based meat.

I specifically do not believe that plant-based meats will necessarily never succeed. However, as noted in Footnote 2, historically, the PTC hypothesis has not been presented or understood as a multi-decade proposition, but a rapid transition driven by the likely false premise that PTC dictate food choice.

Whether plant-based meat is more promising than other theories of change in the long-run is an open, and, in my opinion, quite difficult, question. I generally think it's hard to make a strong case for or against any particular animal advocacy theory of change on a 20-100 year time scale. Nor do I think the evidence to favor plant-based meats over other long-term theories of change for animals is all that strong.

I have lots of more thoughts on long-term prospects of alt proteins and animal advocacy I'd like to write, but that may have to wait for the next paper :) In the interim, if there are particular sources you think make a strong case for plant-based meat in the long-run, I'd be keen to read them!

Hi Jacob,

thanks for your reply -- a couple of reactions, hopefully quite nuanced (I agree with you a bunch, and disagree on others).

1. I did not mean to imply that you do not consider this possibility at all (you do!), but rather was reacting to the general rationale of the piece of using present-day evidence on behaviors as informative with regards to long-term prospects.

One could go away from your piece thinking there is a lot of evidence that should have one update against long-term PTC and alternative protein transition which seems not warranted by most of the kind of evidence you cite (I think).

2. I should note that my exposure to alt proteins is mostly from engaging with alt proteins arguments in the context of climate, I am not an animal welfare person so I am not so aware of how the issue has been framed in these contexts. From studying the modeling from groups like BCG and Blue Horizon it has always been clear to me that most of the benefits accrue more than a decade hence and that this is not a rapid transition issue and this is the frame from which I commented that I think current experimental evidence is not that informative. I agree it is misleading if the dominant narrative is one of rapid transition now.

3. I also agree with you that some of the arguments of the form "alternative proteins is definitely the most cost-effective animal advocacy opportunity" are likely overstated because it will take a combination of cheap substitutes (alt proteins), persuasion,  norm change, etc. and there is no argument I am aware of that establishes the marginal dominance of further accelerating alt proteins.

4. That said, I do think we know more about how the transition away from animal proteins will go (conditional on it happening) than what you seem to suggest, if I understand you correctly. In particular, it seems clear that a substitute that is close to PTC conditions will be needed, where then regulation, norm change, etc. can do the rest to lead to widespread adoption. 

At least that is the what the outside view from other recent transitions to socially more beneficial technologies would suggest, i.e. protecting the ozone layer, scaling renewables, electric cars, etc. and, conversely the failure to do achieve other transitions as of yet (say, industrial decarbonization, meat consumption, etc.). In none of those cases was it only the technological change towards PTC conditions (or their respective equivalent) that drove the change, but it was always necessary. And in all of those cases there were also norms and other non-PTC patterns against diffusion of alternatives that were more overcomeable (?) once we were closer to PTC-like conditions.

5. I think a crisper way to state 4 would be to say "from what we know from other transitions, we know that reaching a state close to PTC explains a lot of the variance in adoption so it seems reasonable as a best-guess prior that this will be the case for the animal protein transition as well." That doesn't mean other factors don't matter, but I think it puts thing in perspective with regards to relative importance (again, this makes no statement about the marginal effectiveness of different actions).

Thank you, I appreciate the nuance! [Also, I realize it’s a long paper, so I quote some relevant passages, but apologies if you already read them. I figure it might help other folks following our thread as well.]

  1. "One could go away from your piece thinking there is a lot of evidence that should have one update against long-term PTC" Reasonable, although I did try to avoid this and emphasize the results apply to current consumers. So I also agree it "seems not warranted by most of the kind of evidence you cite" and specifically didn't cite evidence that focused on future prospects to maintain a narrow focus on current prospects. That said, all else equal, I do think a worse current situation is evidence in favor of a worse future situation.

  2. That makes sense! I want to spend more time with those two reports if I have more time to focus on long-term plant-based meat prospects; thanks for pointing me towards them specifically.

  3. Concur.

  4. I think this is probably the crux of the our disagreement :) First, I think the PTC conditions you're referring to are under-specified as I elaborate here, so it's hard to refute without knowing specifically what you have in mind for PTC. (In the paper, I tried to focus on particular cases that limit the definitional issues or relied on working definitions that I specifically criticize, like passing blinded taste tests.) Second, I don't think the sustainable innovations reference class is especially compelling: for example, most people had ~no understanding of CFC in refrigerants and didn't think they were a basic necessity of a healthy life. Similarly, few people celebrate holidays that explicitly focus on the act of consuming fossil fuels. In contrast:

    People feel a peculiar personal attachment to meat (Graça et al., 2015), believe that meat is necessary for health, feel that meat consumption is socially normative, and perceive meat as a nice and natural component of a healthy diet (Piazza et al., 2015). [And celebrate Thanksgiving where they ritualistically eat a turkey :)]

    Some of my other work has touched on what I think is a more relevant reference class: plant-based analogs to animal products:

    Our research has reviewed estimates of cross-price elasticities between margarine and butter (Mendez et al., 2023) and plant-based and dairy milk (Mendez & Peacock, 2021). The results suggest that behavior might be inconsistent across studies. Many estimates suggest that decreased margarine or plant-based milk prices result in increased consumption of the corresponding animal product (known as complementarity, the opposite of substitution).

  5. "From what we know from other transitions, we know that reaching a state close to PTC explains a lot of the variance in adoption" indeed is the core claim that I don't think there's actually much clear evidence on. Attributing causation in these sorts of transitions is very difficult; I try to lay out some of the challenges for PTC in particular the last paragraph here. I'd be interested what evidence supports this claim.

Hi Jacob,

thank you -- strongly upvoted for quality of exchange!

In the interest of time (this has to be my last comment), I ignore the smaller disagreements and focus on what seem like the two cruxes we have here (opposite sequence in your comment, but I think answering in this order is easier here):

(a) Does PTC or PTC-likeness causally drive adoption?

(b) Are clean energy technologies a good comparator?


On (a), here is a visual from the latest IPCC report:


Of course,  correlation does not equal causation, but we know from many richer accounts than those simplistic curve displays that the story usually goes (a) high-income country heavily subsidizes R&D and/or deployment of tech, (b) tech gets cheaper, (c) we get a self-amplifying dynamic that drives cost reductions and adoptions, (d) an increasing share of adoption is in countries without those high subsidies, i.e. in settings where the cost reductions (P) but also other improvements (e.g. C-like range for electric cars) drive increased adoption, i.e. it is not just "green subsidies everywhere, all at once" but rather "green subsidies drive cost reductions that enable global diffusion".

For example, I don't think anyone doubts that solar will expand massively and that this was causally enabled by cost reductions which were a function of early investments. It is clear that the world could have turned out different here for example if the conservatives had won the German elections in 1998.

On (b), if I understand you correctly you seem to be saying that there are a lot of food-specific considerations that make food special and clean energy comparators inappropriate.
That may be and I am not a food system expert enough to weigh the Thanksgiving holiday vs. other forms of cultural lock-in for fossil fuels.

But I would be a bit cautious here as well because there are also many ways in which the food transition is easier than the energy transition so I think a list of ways in which the food transition feels less tractable feels incomplete. Here are a couple of ways how food could be easier: alternative proteins are a better meat replacement than renewables are replacements for coal (no equivalent to intermittency), the food industry is smaller and less powerful than the energy industry, changing protein sourcing is easier than changes in the energy system that require more infrastructure, etc. The point here is that I think focusing on particular considerations only becomes really convincing, I think, when you do a fairly complete accounting in all directions.

My personal take is that including evidence from technologies that have undergone those transitions feels important and that the lack of comparability because they are of a different domain is indeed a limitation but that the effects from undergone transitions provide important additional evidence to form expectations about the future.
 
 

Ditto, really appreciate your taking the time to so thoughtfully engage. :) A good day on the Forum! I'll try to wrap up here as well.

(a) Thanks for this reference—I wasn't aware of it! This definitely seems like useful evidence in the right direction and I agree with the XKCD's comic sentiment. That said, it seems like there are still many possible contingencies where price might be a partial rather than full cause. This seems like a ripe area for further research.

(b) I agree, my list is incomplete, and these are good considerations. By the same token, I am no expert in clean power, so hadn't thought about some of these challenges like intermittency. Along the same lines of this issue, focusing only on successful technologies also introduces a bias—for example, I imagine a similar graph as above which included nuclear would tell a different story.

I also agree there's evidence to be gleaned from studying other sustainability technologies; we certainly shouldn't ignore these other transitions. But I would like to see them studied more rigorously and systematically, including positive and negative instances; analogies and disanalogies; and contemporary techniques in causal inference.

I also think that the energy tech analogy might be useful, in particular the case of solar panels, which, unlike nuclear and other energy sources, are also consumer products that went from "rich persons vanity project" to "you'd be dumb not to buy one". 

Decades ago, solar cells were highly expensive, and mainly used for niche applications. There was environmentalists pressure towards clean energy, but the high cost meant only a few wealthy enthusiasts would undergo the switch, and the industry was small and non-influential. 

The environmentalist movement was influential in changing this in several ways, first by getting funding for R&D into developing cheaper, more efficient solar panels, second by subsidizing solar energy so it was more cost competitive for consumers, third by encouraging governments to directly build solar farms, and fourth by increasing public support for clean energy so people felt good about buying solar. 

The result of this was a feedback loop. Solar was cheaper to buy, and more fashionable, so more people bought it. And the more people bought it, the cheaper solar got, thanks to mass production techniques, so the more people bought it. And then the industry became large and influential. Eventually, solar became cost-competitive without subsidies in many places, so consumers felt it was a good investment, and then everyone in the neighborhood had it, so it became a normal thing that everyone did. (I'm thinking here of parts of australia where pretty much everyone has solar). 

I wonder if you polled people about switching to solar in 1990, whether they might seem as reluctant as people are about substitute meat today. 

The big difference between PTC meat-substitutes and solar might be in the effect of mass production: could a "feedback loop" of cheaper meat-substitutes causing more consumption causing cheaper meat-substitutes occur? I think there could also be a social feedback loop, where the more people go veggie, the more normalised it becomes, leading more people to go veggie, etc. 

In my (non-expert) opinion, PTC in addition to public pressure and opinion changing movements could be much more effective than either of the two on their own. It seems obviously easier to persuade people to make easier changes, but you actually have to persuade them. 

I could even imagine PTC parity being enough to cause fairly widespread adoption in the longer run (how much and how long? I don't know) without further push, besides the usual marketing companies will do anyway, and preventing legislation against plant-based meat. We might expect adoption to mostly occur between generations instead of within generations, because it's hard to change people's habits and prejudices (e.g. food neophobia or against unnatural food) and norms, but new generations will grow up exposed to plant-based meat, so it will seem more normal to them. Like Max Planck said about progress in science:

A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.

In the UCLA study, unfamiliarity was also one of the main reasons (39%) for not even trying the Impossible option (table 23 in Malan's PhD thesis).

That being said, I expect conservatives to be much more resistant to plant-based meats than liberals or others left of center, and could probably hold out for a long time. Plant-based meat becoming (more) partisan could spread its adoption among liberals but limit its adoption among conservatives.

Thanks for this article, I agree with a lot of the takeaways, and I think that more research into developing an evidence-based theory of change for short- and long-term uptake of alt proteins is very valuable.  

But I think the problem with arguing against an informal hypothesis is that I don't think you're actually arguing against a commonly-held view. 

This is how you frame it: 

"The price, taste, and convenience (PTC) hypothesis posits that if plant-based meat is competitive with animal-based meat on these three criteria, the large majority of current consumers would replace animal-based meat with plant-based meat."

I'll call it the "positive-PTC hypothesis", the idea that if we achieve PTC-parity, the market will automatically shift. I don't think anyone in the space holds this view strongly. To the extent that they do stress PTC over other factors, the sources you quote seem to put more emphasis on the 'negative-PTC' hypothesis- achieving PTC-parity is a necessary but not sufficient criteria for people to start considering PBM. 

Szejda et al. say:

"... only after a food product is perceived as delicious, affordable, and accessible will the average consumer consider its health benefits, environmental impact, or impact on animals in the decision to purchase it."

This negative-PTC hypothesis also seems to be implied more to some extent in the Friedrich 80k podcast you refer to. He also says explicitly that he doesn't think everyone would switch to PTC-matched PBM (hence the need for cell-cultured meat).

There's a bit of positive-PTC in the GFI research program RFP (2019) claim that "alternative proteins become the default choice" (both cultured and PBM), but even then it's not exclusively PTC, they also refer to these proteins winning out on perceptions of health and sustainability, and requiring product diversity. 

As well as this, every source you quote, and every paper I've ever read on PB meat acceptance, also stresses a bunch of other factors besides PTC. In particular, the main report you associate with PTC (Szejda et al. 2020) stresses familiarity throughout the report.  "While many people have favorable attitudes toward sustainability and animals, the core-driver barriers to acting on these attitudes are too strong for most. More than anything, products that meet taste, price, convenience, and familiarity expectations will reduce these barriers". Familiarity in itself could go a long way to explaining the negative results in all the studies you refer to: all are comparing an unfamiliar product with a familiar product.

So I'd argue that very few people in this space actually support the PTC hypothesis as you frame it. Few people think that PTC-parity is sufficient for widespread PBM uptake. 

Having said that, I think there probably is an interesting, genuine divergence of views with people who hold a PTC+ hypothesis and those who hold a more "holistic" view. So if a diverse range of alt proteins achieve parity in price, taste and convenience, while also being positively perceived in terms of familiarity, health, environment, status, safety etc., some might believe that there will be an inevitable shift to these products, while others would think that meat and carnism is so embedded within our cultural and social norms that even if we get overwhelming good alternatives, the majority of the population would still be very unlikely to stop eating meat. It's an interesting question, but one that I don't think you've answered in this piece.
 

I'm not sure about the academic literature, but will add anecdotally that my impression is that the PTC hypothesis is extremely widespread within the advocacy space - people talk about it a ton.

I'll also add that the "necessary but not sufficient" line feels hard to interpret without more clarification (and a bit meaningless on its own because of this). It would be helpful if people pushing this position could clarify how much of the effort PTC is doing to reach sufficiency. E.g. if one thinks that if we reach PTC parity, and its done like 90% of the work to cause widespread adoption, I think they're basically agreeing with the positive-PTC hypothesis. But, if PTC parity is required, but is like, 5% of what's needed, that's a very different claim.

Finally, the podcast referenced is very much positive-PTC. It feels really misleading to me to claim that podcast is negative-PTC. To the extent it isn't, it's strongly in the "PTC is doing 90%+ of the work" direction. E.g., to quote it directly:

...I was on the panel at a Future Food-Tech conference in San Francisco maybe six or eight months ago with Mary Kay James who runs Tyson New Ventures with Tyson Venture Capital Fund and she said, “We are absolutely looking at clean meat,” which she called it clean meat, “as one of the things that we want to invest in.” And she said, “For us, it’s all about choice. We will provide the meat that consumers want.” Well, price, taste, convenience. When clean meat is price and taste competitive, Tyson, Perdue, Hormel, everybody just moves in that direction.

...

when we’re thinking about what it is that we want to eat, every single one of us thinks about the price of the food, we think about how it’s going to taste. We may not be thinking about convenience but convenience is going to be a central factor. If it’s not there, we’re not going to consume it.

...

The main thing that The Good Food Institute works on, when we say alternatives to the products of conventional animal agriculture, basically what we’re looking for is products that will compete on the basis of price, taste, and convenience as I mentioned.

(Abraham and I both work for Rethink Priorities.)

I agree, especially with your points on "necessary but not sufficient." In my view, this represents mostly a pivot from the PTC hypothesis. I'm not sure whether to view this as post hoc hypothesizing (generally bad) or merely updating-on-evidence (generally good).

I do think the question of "what percent of the 'work' is PTC?" is probably not well-defined, but is likely a worthwhile starting point for disagreement.

Thanks for both of your responses (@Jacob_Peacock and @abrahamrowe). I was going to analyse the podcast in more detail to resolve our different understandings, but I think @BruceF 's response to the piece clarifies his views on the "negative/positive" PTC hypothesis. The views that he would defend are: (negative) "First, if we don’t compete on price and taste, the products will stay niche, and meat consumption will continue to grow." and (positive) "Second, if we can create products that compete on price and taste, sales will go up quite a lot, even if other factors will need to be met to gain additional market share.” 

I expect that these two claims are less controversial, albeit with "quite a lot" leaving some ambiguity. 

My initial response was based on my assumption that everyone involved in alt protein realises that PTC-parity is only one step towards widespread adoption. But I agree that it's worth getting more specific and checking how people feel about Abraham's "how much of the work is PTC doing- 90% vs 5%?" question.   

I assume if you surveyed/ interviewed people working in the space, there would be a fairly wide range of views. I doubt if people have super-clear models, because we're expecting progress in the coming years to come on multiple fronts (consumer acceptance, product quality, product suitability, policy, norms), and to mutually reinforce each other, but it would be worth clarifying so that you can better identify what you're arguing against. 

From my own work on alt-protein adoption in Asia I sense that PTC-parity is only a small part of the puzzle, but it would also be far easier to solve the other pieces if we suddenly had some PTC-competitive killer products, so PTC interact with other variables in ways that make it difficult to calculate. 

Overall, I stand by my criticism that I don't think the positive PTC-hypothesis as you frame it is commonly held. But I'd like to understand better what the views are that you're critiquing. It would be interesting to see your anecdotal evidence supported- what people actually think when they say they (previously) bought into PTC, and who these people are. It could be true, for example, that people who work in PBM startups tend to believe more strongly that a PTC-competitive product will transform the market, but people working on the market side tend to realise how many barriers there are to adoption beyond these factors. 

Thanks! My subsequent reply to Bruce might be helpful here—while Bruce doesn't defend the claim here, I do think he says things that strongly resemble it elsewhere.

Hi Jack, thanks for your comment and so thoroughly checking my sources!

I agree with your interpretation of Szejda. I intended to cite this study with regards to the PTC premise—that PTC primarily determine food choice—not the PTC hypothesis in full (that PTC-competitive PBM would largely displace animal-based meat).

However, I don't agree that no one holds this view. I'd refer to three lines of evidence:

  1. Direct textual evidence. In particular, I think the main source I cite is pretty clear cut:

the hypothesis proposes that plant-based meat "can compete on the basis of price, taste, and convenience, and just remove animals from the equation altogether" (Anderson, 2019).

I also don't quite see your points played out in the other two main sources I cite. That said, it has been a while since I read them cover-to-cover, so if there are passages you think conflict with those I cited, I'd welcome them :) Here are the other two main citations.

When we're thinking about what it is that we want to eat, every single one of us thinks about the price of the food, we think about how it's going to taste. We may not be thinking about convenience but convenience is going to be a central factor. [...] We want to actually create plant-based alternatives and clean meat alternatives to conventional animal agriculture that compete on the basis of those factors and shift the world away from industrialized animal agriculture"(Cargill & Wiblin, 2018).

Despite rising awareness of the global impacts of our dietary choices, consumers continue to base their purchasing decisions primarily on price, taste, and convenience. Quite simply, reducing animal protein consumption is intractable for most people due to a lack of appetizing and affordable products that could serve as alternatives to conventional animal protein products. The challenge, then, is to innovate and bring to market diverse protein alternatives that are as delicious, price-competitive, and convenient as animal-derived food products are currently. By making healthy and sustainable alternative proteins comparable to conventional proteins in the areas of flavor, price, and ubiquity, alternative proteins become the default choice" (GFI Research Program, 2019, pp. 4–5).

  1. "Other researchers offer similar descriptions of the PTC hypothesis (Anthis, 2018; Kankyoku, 2022)." So there's at least a perception among other researchers as well that some people hold these views.

  2. My anecdotal experience since publishing the paper. I've received comments from both people who ~believed the PTC hypothesis and from people who agree the view is prevalent. Similarly, see other posts in this thread agreeing that this view is widespread. (Noting that Abraham Rowe and I both work at Rethink Priorities.)

I’ve now read through all the comments, and I find the discussion super-useful, so thanks for prompting it, Jacob. 

Here are five points from me - apologies in advance for the length here. 

First: I think our main disagreement is over how important taste and price are to food choices. 

We agree with your thesis (that strong-form PTC is not defensible), though we also agree with the multiple commenters who suggest that you’re arguing against a view that almost no one holds. 

I’ll start my response by just reiterating our view that taste and price are critical to food choice, both generally (cite) and with regard to plant-based meat specifically (cite). That is, we don’t see a way to convince consumers to stop eating animal products unless we give them something that tastes at least as good and that is competitively priced.

Second: I don’t think you offer convincing evidence to the contrary. 

In attempting to cast doubt on the importance of taste and price to food choice, you discuss: 1) ten discrete choice experiments; 2) three commercial case studies; and 3) the Malan 2022 field experiment. I think that the discrete choice experiments indicate the opposite of what you suggest, and so too the three commercial case studies and Malan field trial, once more information is added to the analysis. 

The ten hypothetical discrete choice experiments (HDCE): In these experiments, consumers said they would prefer plant-based (or in a few cases cultivated) meat over conventional meat at rates of 11% 19%, 27%, 25%, 22%, 41%, 45%, 51%, 63%, and 66% percent. These displacement numbers strike me as quite remarkable for a product that does not exist, in a world where (as you rightly note), people really like meat. And we get these very impressive numbers even though consumers were dubious about the question’s premise (plant-based meat at taste parity); as you note, the one time the premise was tested, “only 8% of respondents believed all the burgers would taste the same.” 

As an illustration of why there may be such variance: The 11% number comes from a Swedish study that called the comparator “plant-based meat-like burgers" that are “very meat-like” (“meat-like” is not the same as taste parity, and still 11% said they would switch). You note that another Swedish study found 45% - I’m guessing the framing was better on that one.

You conclude: “In summary, the results of HDCEs conflict with the hypothesis that consumers largely prefer PTC-competitive plant-based meats over animal-based meat.” 

I’ve never seen anyone defend that hypothesis (that consumers largely prefer PTC-competitive plant-based meat over animal-based meat), but to me, these studies prove - rather than disprove - the importance of taste and price to consumer choice. There is no incentive for consumers to believe that plant-based meat will actually taste good (the one study that asked that question found that they don’t believe it) and no incentive for consumers to claim they’re excited about plant-based meat. And yet we still get extremely impressive hypothetical displacement numbers.

The three commercial case studies: You look at Ikea hot dogs, Umami’s launch of the Impossible Burger, and Burger King’s Impossible Whopper. Your assessment is that these case studies “suggest that most consumers do not prefer plant-based meats, even for relatively PTC-competitive products.” 

I don’t know if the Ikea hot dog competes on taste, but here’s why I’m dubious: A recent (this year) Food System Innovations taste test of the most common plant-based hot dogs didn’t find anything that compared to conventional hot dogs (nothing even came close - consumers really disliked all the plant-based hot dogs). If none of the current commercial products come anywhere near competing on taste, I doubt the Ikea hot dog does (would be delighted to be wrong, obviously); I imagine it's eaten by vegetarians, almost exclusively.

I don’t think the Burger King or Umami Burgers prove your point either: You describe the difference in price between the Whopper and Impossible Whopper as “slight,” but I disagree: When these results were compiled, the Impossible Whopper cost 43% more than the regular Whopper: $4.19 v $5.99. That’s a pretty massive premium for a fast food burger, it seems to me; regardless, it’s definitely not close to price parity. At my local BK, the current numbers are $5.69 v $6.69, so still at 17% premium. 

You also don’t mention price w/r/t Umami, despite the fact that the sentence immediately following your discussion implies price parity. In fact, when that Umami survey was done, the Impossible burger cost 37% more ($7.99 v. $10.99). Today, it’s 16% more; you can still get a double burger or a deluxe burger for less and a truffle or bacon ranch burger for the same price. It doesn’t seem reasonable to me to suggest that a product that costs 37% more has anything to say about how a product would do at price parity. 

Far from contesting the PTC hypothesis, I’d suggest that sales of 15% (Burger King) and 20% (Umami) are pretty great. Regardless, nothing about these three examples appears (to me) to cast doubt on the importance of taste and price parity to maximum plant-based meat displacement.

The Malan 2022 field experiment: Of course, we agree that taste and price parity, without more, are not enough for the kind of displacement we’re aiming for. The products need to be familiar, consumers need education about the healthfulness of the products, the products will have to be heavily marketed, and so on - none of that has happened much (if at all) in the Malan study.

Most fundamentally, as Jack_S notes: “Familiarity in itself could go a long way to explaining the negative results in all the studies you refer to: all are comparing an unfamiliar product with a familiar product.” That seems right: As MichaelStJules notes w/r/t the Malan study: “In the UCLA study, unfamiliarity was also one of the main reasons (39%) for not even trying the Impossible option (table 23 in Malan's PhD thesis).” It was actually the top reason. 

An important step that I think is missing from your analysis is looking at why consumers skipped the Impossible ground beef or only tried it once: In short, the students who only tried it once or didn’t try it at all (more than half didn’t try it at all) don’t think it competes on taste. BradWest notes that “Probably if you were to survey the steak burrito eaters, they would say they got it because it tastes better.”

Those data actually are in the paper, and that’s right: First, of people who tried but didn't like the Impossible ground beef, with open ended responses, taste parity was the reason (taste and texture: 53%; preparation: 10%) (table 28). And of the people who didn’t even try Impossible, just 11% thought it would be delicious, corroborating BradWest’s intuition (even as 59% thought it would be healthy and 82% thought it would be good for the climate). 

In short, I don’t think your interpretation of Malan, that it “demonstrates that only a small share of consumers might prefer PTC-competitive plant-based meat,” is correct. In my view, once key data from the study with regard to taste parity is provided, Malan strongly indicates the critical importance of taste w/r/t the success of plant-based meat. 

Third: The animal, environmental, and global health communities have been trying to convince the world to eat less meat for at least 50 years, and meat consumption continues to rise. 

The book that turned me vegan 36 years ago is now more than 50 years old (here). And in that time, even per capita meat consumption has skyrocketed, with no signs of letting up (cite). Even in the United States, the five highest years for per capita meat consumption are the most recent five (cite). We need a solution that can scale globally, and we have not heard of anything that seems likely to work, other than price and taste competitive alternative proteins.

We like the analogy to renewable energy and electric vehicles (EVs): Renewables give consumers what they want w/r/t energy consumption, EVs give consumers what they want w/r/t personal transport, and alt proteins need to give consumers what they want from animal products. W/r/t animal products, if we can make something that is indistinguishable to consumers and that costs less, then over time (perhaps fairly quickly, especially with cultivated meat), we can replace the harmful products with products that cause far less harm (this is not all that's required, but this is required). 

While campaigns focused on energy efficiency, walkable cities and public transportation, and reduced meat consumption are valuable, we are unlikely to convince a majority of consumers almost anywhere (let alone globally) to consume less energy, drive less, or eat less meat. Just as we need to change how energy is produced and vehicles are powered, so too we need to change how animal products are made. 

That said, of course we still need to do more - none of this happens magically. And that means:

  • touting the health benefits of plant based meat (e.g., here)
  • addressing concerns around the healthfulness and safety of cultivated meat (e.g., here)
  • contextualizing alt proteins alongside renewables and EVs in terms of need for government support (e.g., here and here and here)
  • thinking a lot about framing. For example, making clear that alt proteins support consumer choice and jobs in the heartland, stressing the economic value of these industries, and so on (see, e.g., this report that GFI & FSI sponsored from the Center for Strategic & International Studies, this paper we co-authored with the Breakthrough Institute, and our principal lobby leave-behind - the most prominent quote is from Donald Trump’s agriculture secretary). 

While these and many other factors will determine how many consumers shift away from industrial animal products, none of these factors works without price and taste competitive products. To get there, we need a lot more science and a lot more government support, so that’s where we focus. 

In the Sentient Media interview, the reporter indicates that your solution to skyrocketing meat demand is to “integrate natural plant-based foods — based on whole proteins like lentils, nuts and soy — into the larger food landscape.” Is that right? If so, I’m curious about your support for this strategy: Is this different in some way from what has been tried over the past fifty years (and then some), even as meat demand has skyrocketed? Is there some new angle of this strategy that you’re excited about? And how do you see that scaling?

TBC, I’m a huge fan of diet-focused advocacy - it’s similar to encouraging people to insulate their houses for energy efficiency (and passing tax incentives to make that more appealing), convincing cities to adopt “meatless Mondays,” campaigns on behalf of bike commuting, and so on - all of these things are great (we should do them!), but two key points: 1) if they work, they pay relatively small (compared to what's needed) dividends in terms of decreased energy use, miles driven, and meat consumed - they will not reach large displacement numbers; and 2) they don’t scale: They have to be adopted and implemented over and over and over and over (city-by-city or, at beast, country-by-country).

But similarly to the theory of change of renewables and EVs, with alt proteins, if we can produce meat from plants and cultivation, this can just become how meat is made into the future (not implying it happens by magic, of course!). As with cost-competitive renewable energy, progress in one area of the world can scale globally (this is why GFI operates in Singapore and Israel - world class scientific institutions and governments that fund science). 

In the Fall 2022 Foreign Policy article that you cite, which I co-authored with Climate Advisers’ founder & CEO Nigel Purvis, we offer four key suggestions for such a global shift - but I don’t think any of those work for any intervention other than alt proteins. I’d be interested in hearing more from you on this.  

Fourth, I agree with Jackva that while of course meat is different from energy and cars, many of the differences work in favor of alt proteins, not against them. 

Jackva notes that “from what we know from other transitions, we know that reaching a state close to PTC explains a lot of the variance in adoption so it seems reasonable as a best-guess prior that this will be the case for the animal protein transition as well,” and he offers a strong case for this thesis. 

He also notes that while the analogy is not perfect, there are ways in which alt proteins will compare favorably w/r/t ease of replacement. For example, “alternative proteins are a better meat replacement than renewables are replacements for coal (no equivalent to intermittency), the food industry is smaller and less powerful than the energy industry, changing protein sourcing is easier than changes in the energy system that require more infrastructure, etc.” 

There are many additional examples to support his point, but I’d like to just note two of them: 

  • First, we have the two largest food companies and top six meat companies (and others) supporting and investing in alternative proteins - they don’t own the farms, and if they can make more money from plant-based and cultivated meat, why wouldn’t they? A few months ago, I was in Brazil, and the Rebel Whopper at Burger King is produced by Brazil’s second largest meat company (top 6 in the world) - and it’s quite good. Tyson Foods has a very good plant-based chicken nugget (available at Target stores nationwide). And on and on.
  • Second and perhaps just as crucial, I think there is strong evidence that many, many people eat meat despite how it’s produced, not because of it (I think the numbers in your hypothetical discrete choice experiment discussion are also a strong indication of this). As I discuss on the 80,000 Hours podcast, I do think that if we can make plant-based and cultivated meat that compete on price and taste, that will make the advocacy work a heck of a lot easier - but advocacy (or at least robust marketing) will still be required, as I think is clear from that podcast and everywhere else I’ve discussed this issue in any depth. 

On this point (people eating meat despite and not because of how it’s produced), see here from the Sentience Institute: 47% of consumers claim that they want to ban factory farms, and 45% claim they want to ban slaughterhouses. The basics of this survey were validated by Oklahoma State agricultural researchers. Obviously consumers wouldn’t actually vote that way; my point is just that this shows a strong visceral antipathy to the way meat is produced today (see, e.g., pages 4-6 of the OSU report). I wonder if there have ever been figures like that for banning gas-powered cars or fossil fuels. Very strong environmentalists hate gas-powered vehicles and fossil fuels, but I’d be surprised if that was anywhere near 45-47% of the general public - in the U.S. or anywhere.

Finally fifth: I'm not sure about your current thesis (the “strong-form” version of PTC). 

You define the thesis as: “if plant-based meat is competitive with animal-based meat on these three criteria, the large majority of current consumers would replace animal-based meat with plant-based meat.” Or, as Sentient Media quoted you for their article about your paper: “‘It’s just assumed, oh, you know, if only we had an identical thing that was different in key ways, everyone would just switch over,’ says Peacock, ‘when psychologically, I just don’t think that’s well supported.’”

When Jack_S reframed PTC theory as “the idea that if we achieve PTC-parity, the market will automatically shift” and stated, “I don't think anyone in the space holds this view strongly,” you replied, “I don't agree that no one holds this view. I'd refer to three lines of evidence.” The second and third lines of evidence were perception-based; only the first line of evidence involved examples of what you consider to be support for the strong-form PTC theory. 

In my opinion, these are very weak citations, and your inference based on them is not (I don’t think) tenable.

These are very weak citations, IMO: What you refer to as “the main source I cite” and call “pretty clear cut” is a podcast from April 2019 that is just 13 minutes long. It’s a general discussion of alt proteins and GFI - the host doesn’t ask about the strong form PTC theory, and it doesn’t seem reasonable to me to infer from my brief comments about the importance of taste and price that I think those are the only things that are important. 

What you refer to as your “other two main citations” are the 80,000 Hours podcast that also doesn’t discuss the PTC thesis and a 2019 GFI request for scientists to submit proposals to our grants program. 

In the 80,000 hours podcast from early 2018, I’m clear that lots and lots of people are basically addicted to animal meat: “no matter how good plant-based meat gets, our hypothesis is that there are a significant number of human beings who are going to want to eat real meat.” There’s also much in that interview that makes clear that I believe there will need to be marketing campaigns to take price and taste competitive products over the finish line and also that we’re going to need support from the major meat companies, and more.

The 2019 science RFP is no longer online, but as Jack_S notes, even just within the very short snippet you include, “even then it's not exclusively PTC, they also refer to these proteins winning out on perceptions of health and sustainability, and requiring product diversity.” 

In my opinion, if the strong form PTC thesis were widely held, you would be able to cite a position paper, article, blog, or something where the case is explicitly made (rather than two fairly old podcasts and a science RFP that’s no longer online). I suppose maybe citing a podcast could make sense, if the thesis were explicitly addressed. To indicate that it’s a widely held view, it seems to me that you’d want to be able to cite half a dozen either current (on line now) or at least fairly recent (not 4+ years old) and explicit examples.

I put this point last b/c I do think we have a disagreement that’s real, and I think you could pretty easily refocus your paper on real disagreements. Since I think most people reading your paper will be wondering what might decrease demand for industrial animal products, I could also imagine you spending at least a bit of time sharing what you think might decrease meat consumption. 

Thanks again for writing the piece and your engagement on the forum - I appreciate your commitment to this kind of analysis and also to robust discussion. 

Hi Bruce, thank you for your reply. I'll focus on a few key disagreements here, although I'm happy to elaborate further if it's helpful.

Finally fifth: I'm not sure about your current thesis (the “strong-form” version of PTC). [...] In my opinion, these are very weak citations, and your inference based on them is not (I don’t think) tenable.

I'll address this first as I think it's trenchant to determine whether the hypothesis I work to refute is in fact held. I’d contend that you (and GFI) have, at times, prominently promoted and supported the strong PTC hypothesis. Or, at the very least, made statements that reasonable people interpret to support the strong PTC hypothesis. I don't agree with some of your objections to the sources I've already cited (for example, your statements in a short interview seem perfectly relevant), but I'm glad to cite more. Here's a quote from your talk in June 2023 at EAG London:

That is GFI's entire theory of change - the products need to taste the same or better and cost the same or less. Then you can quibble about whether that is necessary but not sufficient or whether the market can kick in and take it from there, just shoot us up the S-curve. But even if you think that is not sufficient, I would contend that that is absolutely necessary if we're going to change the massive trajectory through 2050. (9:07)

You specifically describe price and taste equivalence as GFI's "entire" theory of change. What you now are suggesting has been your view—the weak PTC hypothesis—you describe as a 'quibble' with the strong PTC hypothesis. Perhaps you would argue that by referencing the "massive trajectory through 2050," you mean future rather than current consumers; however, in the Q&A you say:

Q: Looking at plant-based meat sales, they’re flagging in recent years, so what gives you confidence that they can in fact replace animal meat? A: [...] There have been probably 15 studies of why people have not tried plant-based meat or why they tried it and stopped eating it and literally 100% of those studies come up with the first two are “we didn’t like them,” “they didn’t taste good enough,” or “they cost too much,” which validates our theory of change. If you can get to price and taste parity, you can make a huge, huge dent. [emphasis added] I do think some people are just going to want to eat meat and that’s where cultivated meat comes in, but I think we can have many times the penetration that we have right now if we can get to price and taste parity and what’s happening with plant-based meat is a validation of that, not a challenge to it. (41:10)

This directly refers to the preferences of current consumers and argues, if we satisfied those current preferences, there would be a "huge, huge dent" in meat consumption. I think a reasonable audience member would perceive your supporting a view that closely resembles the strong PTC hypothesis.

Of course, you can argue that in the most literal sense this doesn’t amount to an endorsement of the strong PTC hypothesis, and I'd acknowledge that you sometimes provide more careful caveats. However, audiences are (understandably) led to believe you're arguing the strong PTC hypothesis is true. For example, I think a lay audience member of your talks is likely to get the take home message of “factory farming is a vast problem and price & taste-competitive PBM is the solution.” Conversely, I think it’s unlikely they get something like the weak PT hypothesis: “If we had price & taste-competitive PBM and met some other important unspecified conditions, a meaningful minority of consumers would switch in the next 50 years.”

This is where perception becomes especially relevant: having talked to dozens of people over the years about this report, people immediately identify the strong PTC hypothesis with you and GFI. I maintain that the perceptions of 5 experienced advocates (myself, Jacy Anthis & Aidan Kankyoku, who I cite, and Abraham Rowe & Lizka Vaintrob, who have commented) are credible evidence that the strong PTC hypothesis is commonplace at least in the communities they inhabit, if not in the experience of other commenters. Furthermore, if people didn’t find the strong PTC hypothesis relevant to their experiences, the post wouldn’t likely have received 85 votes, ~two dozen comments and ~20 emails; presumably, people would get to the third sentence and stop reading if I was obviously arguing against a strawman.

I’ve indeed noticed the lack of clear position papers that actually stipulate precisely what you or GFI believe would happen if the stated goal of taste and price parity were reached. Furthermore, I’ve argued in this paper that even the condition of taste, price and convenience parity is insufficiently defined. I think we agree the conversation would benefit from such clarity.

First: I think our main disagreement is over how important taste and price are to food choices.

In this case, it would be helpful if you could address the four specific critiques I've made of the studies you adduced to support this point, especially critiques 1, 3 & 4 and with a focus on sources that pre-date when you first started making this claim in 2015 (at the latest).

Second: I don’t think you offer convincing evidence to the contrary. In attempting to cast doubt on the importance of taste and price to food choice, you discuss [...]

Unfortunately, this doesn't correctly capture my argument. I focus on refuting the PTC premise (that price, taste and convenience are the primary determinants of food choice) here and the following section. The studies you are referring to are intended as "Empirical tests of the PTC hypothesis." (Where “PTC hypothesis” refers to, “if plant-based meat is competitive with animal-based meat on PTC, the large majority of current consumers would replace animal-based meat with plant-based meat.”)

(I do think you make some important points—as well as some errors—in your response here. Happy to elaborate if helpful, but wanted to focus on the core disagreements for brevity.)

The reporter indicates that your solution to skyrocketing meat demand is to “integrate natural plant-based foods — based on whole proteins like lentils, nuts and soy — into the larger food landscape.” Is that right? If so, I’m curious about your support for this strategy: Is this different in some way from what has been tried over the past fifty years (and then some), even as meat demand has skyrocketed? Is there some new angle of this strategy that you’re excited about? And how do you see that scaling?

Not exactly right, no. I hope to provide a paper length description of my (still developing) views here at some point. In lieu of that, I'll say I think some of the interventions discussed in the various systematic reviews of meat reduction I cite, like defaults, labeling, classroom education, shifting social norms, and non-analog plant-based options may also have promise. Furthermore, I think more forceful, negative but targeted meat reduction campaigns may also have promise. Of course, it bears repeating that I also think plant-based meats and analog products have some promise as well.

Thanks for your response, Jacob - 

Here’s my/GFI’s principal thesis on this topic: 

Taste and price are essential to the success of plant-based and cultivated meat, and it’s going to be very hard to reach taste and price parity for either product. So we think it makes sense to focus on those two factors. But that doesn’t mean that once we’ve solved those two factors, we’re done.

As noted in a previous post, we have added nutrition as a third critical factor, mostly in the face of negative messaging around ultra processing and the critical role of early adopters (i.e. people who will sacrifice on taste, price, or both - but only if they see nutrition benefits). See, e.g., gfi.org/nutrition. 

The two quotes you add from me are not (I don’t think) different from what I said in my previous post, and they don’t discuss (let alone defend) “strong form PTC” theory. These are examples of me focusing on the things I think are most critical; strong PTC does not come up, and I don't defend it.

In the first case, “even if you think that is not sufficient, I would contend that that is absolutely necessary if we're going to change the massive [upward] trajectory through 2050” - this is GFI’s view, and it’s quite different from strong PTC theory.

And in the second case, since we’re at 1% plant-based meat right now and 0% cultivated meat, my statements that “we can have many times the penetration that we have right now if we can get to price and taste parity” and “if you can get to price and taste parity, you can make a huge, huge dent”: 1) don’t mean that nothing else is required; and also 2) don’t mean that we magically reach 50%+.

Aside: It feels curious to me that you continue to claim I believe something that I am telling you explicitly that I don’t believe; you are essentially saying “you believe this and you’re wrong,” and I’m saying “I agree that’s wrong, and I don’t believe it.” This feels very odd, since we do have a few actual disagreements that feel important. Specifically:

We still appear to have sufficient disagreement w/r/t the importance of price & taste competitive alt meats to our shared desire to see industrial meat production levels fall - I continue to think that alt proteins offer our only real hope of that happening globally, and so I’ll be curious to learn what your alternatives are and why you see them as viable.

With regard to your four specific critiques: I think the overwhelming evidence of the importance of taste and price (including in the three sections from your paper) are a strong response to specific critiques about specific studies. i.e., the overwhelming preponderance of the evidence indicates the importance of taste and price to food choice. 

Finally and perhaps most importantly, IMO: I’ll be extremely interested to read what you think might decrease industrial animal agriculture globally, how big you think that difference could be (and why), and how you see that theory working in, e.g., developing economies where growth in meat consumption will be greatest over the next few decades. 

While I’m certainly enthused about the value of “defaults, labeling, classroom education, shifting social norms, and non-analog plant-based options,” two things: 1) those are the strategies of the past 50+ years; they work to a point and are absolutely worthwhile (they’re why I’m doing this work, e.g.), but they have not (so far) even decreased per capita meat consumption in the U.S.; and 2) I’m not sure how they scale. One especially promising aspect of alt proteins (IMO) is that science anywhere can result in more competitive products everywhere (same as solar/wind energy, electric vehicles, etc.). 

In the end, I think we need a both/and approach, but I think that alt proteins are the only approach that has a shot at slashing the global consumption of industrial animal meat.

they don’t discuss (let alone defend) “strong form PTC” theory.

I suppose we simply disagree here. The first quote I cite states "the products need to taste the same or better and cost the same or less." The next sentence strongly implies that "the market can kick in and take it from there, just shoot us up the S-curve," with "necessary but not sufficient" relegated to a "quibble." In conjunction with the Q&A, I think reasonable audience member would infer that your statements mean roughly "if price and taste parity were met, a majority of consumers would soon switch." Conversely, it's hard to imagine audience members construing "up the S-curve", "huge, huge dent" and "change the massive trajectory" to mean, for example, 20% of people switch over two decades.

And in the second case, since we’re at 1% plant-based meat right now and 0% cultivated meat, my statements that “we can have many times the penetration that we have right now if we can get to price and taste parity” and “if you can get to price and taste parity, you can make a huge, huge dent”: 1) don’t mean that nothing else is required; and also 2) don’t mean that we magically reach 50%+.

Can you clarify roughly what number you did intend "many times the penetration" and "huge, huge dent" to refer to here?

It feels curious to me that you continue to claim I believe something that I am telling you explicitly that I don’t believe; you are essentially saying “you believe this and you’re wrong,” and I’m saying “I agree that’s wrong, and I don’t believe it.”

I don't think you believe this given you're clearly saying you do not. Instead, as I wrote, "I’d contend that you (and GFI) have prominently promoted and supported the strong PTC hypothesis. Or, at the very least, made statements that reasonable people interpret to support the strong PTC hypothesis." The situation to me begins to resemble a motte-and-bailey fallacy, with the strong PTC hypothesis as the bailey and the weak as the motte.

With regard to your four specific critiques: I think the overwhelming evidence of the importance of taste and price (including in the three sections from your paper) are a strong response to specific critiques about specific studies. i.e., the overwhelming preponderance of the evidence indicates the importance of taste and price to food choice.

You're simply reasserting your disagreement and declining to engage the critiques, despite being asked multiple times now (1, 2). In fact, none of the studies you cited address all four of the issues, and studies simply repeating the issues do not make for overwhelming evidence. I don't follow your argument against "specific critiques about specific studies?" Presumably vague critiques of unspecified studies would be unhelpful. A third time I'd ask, are you able to address these critiques, especially in those studies that predate 2015, when you started claiming price and taste as the most important factors in food choice?

In the end, I think we need a both/and approach, but I think that alt proteins are the only approach that has a shot at slashing the global consumption of industrial animal meat.

This seems self-contradictory: why would you support another solution, if you think alternative proteins are "the only approach that has a shot"? By assumption, that other solution would not have a shot.

I look forward to your comments on my forthcoming work on other strategies to reduce meat usage. I'll let you have the last word here.

Thanks for clarifying w/r/t strong form PTC theory - that’s helpful. I think it makes sense to focus on taste, price, and nutrition as the three factors that are absolutely necessary for success; we can address other factors later (or let private companies address those other factors later). Sorry that caused you some confusion, though I think you took an untenable leap with your assumptions. 

W/r/t “many times the penetration” and “huge, huge dent,” I think that will depend a lot on what happens between now and reaching price/taste/nutrition parity. But the numbers in your hypothetical discrete choice experiments are extremely promising (for the reasons already discussed). Surveys w/r/t cultivated meat are equally promising - and as discussed, this is all in a world where the products don’t yet exist and many/most consumers are dubious that they’re even possible (i.e., survey respondents don’t think taste and price parity are possible, so they simply reject the premise - and still acceptance numbers are extremely high). 

W/r/t your four critiques of the early studies:

For anyone who doesn’t remember what the four critiques are, here you go:

  1. These studies generally don’t find PTC to be the top three factors in determining food choice.
  2. The rankings in these studies reflect what people perceive as the most important factors rather than what would actually cause them to change their diets.
  3. The cited studies were designed primarily to investigate the role of a few particular factors in food choice rather than to identify the most important factors. 
  4. These studies analyze the average ranking of each factor rather than how individual consumers rank the factors.)

On the first point, the studies mostly find price and taste to be most important. That said, even if all four critiques are totally accurate, that just indicates subpar study design and doesn’t mean that the conclusions are wrong. We spent the rest of our back-and-forth discussing other studies and evidence, all of which point (IMO) to the importance of taste and price to food choice. 

As our subsequent back-and-forth indicates, there’s overwhelming additional evidence that taste and price are critical aspects of consumer food choice - both generally and specifically w/r/t alternative meats. For example, your chosen examples (the ten hypothetical discrete choice experiments, three commercial case studies, and the Malan 2022 field experiment) all indicate the critical importance of taste and price to food choice, as discussed in my first response to your article. 

On your final point: While I don’t think we’re going to decrease meat consumption globally unless alternative proteins succeed, that doesn’t mean that nothing else is important. A few reasons why:

  • First, my view that we need taste/price/nutrition-competitive products in order to decrease meat consumption globally doesn’t mean we need only those things (this was a big part of our back-and-forth, of course). 
  • Second, we don’t know if alt meats can reach taste & price parity (we’re optimistic, but no one has ever done it). Efforts that cut consumption are valuable, even if they won’t scale.
  • Third, it’s education about the harms of industrial animal agriculture that motivated most people who are currently leading the charge on alt proteins, farm animal welfare, and more; there are significant and valuable outcomes beyond a global decrease in meat consumption. 
  • Fourth, the best (I think) way we convince the early adopters to consume the current products is by making the nutrition case for alt proteins (i.e., education). 

I could keep going, but you get the idea - saying “we need to reach taste and price parity to decrease industrial meat consumption” is not the same as saying “taste and price parity are the only things worth working on.” 

Thanks Jacob - nice of you to give me the last word; I hope I didn’t abuse that privilege. 

FWIW, I'm not sure if I'd say "Unfamiliar" was the "top" reason for not trying the Impossible option in Malan's PhD thesis, because "Other" had a lot of specific answers indicating respondents preferred real meat (Appendix. XI.) and people might also use "Unwilling to spend swipe" to mean that without filling it in explicitly. Both options were popular. (Also, the answers sum past 100% because people could select multiple.)

I also wouldn't necessarily take the views of taste from people who hadn't even bothered to try it as good evidence against taste parity. Only 5% "Tried it elsewhere, didn't like" according to Table 23, although that's compatible with the rest trying it elsewhere and liking it, just less than real meat.

Of those that did try it, 90% agreed/somewhat agreed that it was delicious, and 85% agreed/somewhat agreed that it was a satisfying alternative to meat, according to Table 20. Maybe "somewhat agree" isn't a strong enough endorsement, though. And, of course, one-time consumers, who made up about 29% of interviewed ever-consumers of the Impossible option, tended to agree less with both statements. Furthermore, we can see that East Asians were more likely to try it than other race/ethnicities (Table 18), so we can possibly use race/ethnicity as a variable for openness or food neophobia, but among respondents who did try it, breaking down by race/ethnicity, East Asians found it the least satisfying as an alternative to meat, and were kind of middling on how delicious they thought it was (Table 26).

I think it’s possible it did reach taste parity for some people, but not others. (Tasting as good, not necessarily tasting the same, although people differ in how well they can distinguish tastes.) Taste is subjective!

I'm confused about your analysis of the field experiment. It seems like the three options are {Veggie, Impossible, Steak}. But wouldn't Impossible be a comparison for ground beef, not for steak? Am I misunderstanding something here?

Beyond that, while I think Impossible meat is great, I don't think it's really equivalent on taste. I eat both beef and Impossible meat fairly often (>1x / week for both) and I would describe the taste difference as pretty significant when they are similarly prepared.

If I'm understanding you correctly then 22% of the people previously eating steak burritos switched to Impossible burritos, which seems like a really surprisingly large fraction to me.

(Even further, consumer beliefs are presumably anchored to their past experiences, to word of mouth, etc. and so even if you did have taste equivalence here I wouldn't expect people's decisions to be perfectly informed by that fact. If you produced a taste equivalent meat substitute tomorrow and were able to get 22% of people switching in your first deployment, that would seem like a surprisingly high success rate that's very consistent with even a strong form of PTC, I wouldn't expect consumers to switch immediately even if they will switch eventually. Getting those results with Impossible meat vs steak seems even more encouraging.)

Hi Paul, thanks for checking the analysis so closely! (And apologies for the slow reply; I've been gathering some more information.)

But wouldn't Impossible be a comparison for ground beef, not for steak? Am I misunderstanding something here?

This is a good point and I've now confirmed with the authors that the steak was cubed, rather than minced or ground, so indeed not likely directly comparable to Impossible ground beef. I'll be making some updates to the paper accordingly. Thank you!

The build-your-own-entree bar offers shredded beef, which while also not the same, might be a more similar comparison. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to get more granular data at this time to test whether that was more readily displaced. Overall, despite these caveats on taste, lots of plant-based meat was still sold, so it was "good enough" in some sense, but there was still potentially little resulting displacement of beef (although maybe somewhat more of chicken).

I don't think it's really equivalent on taste

Yes, I'm not entirely certain Impossible meat is equivalent in taste to animal-based ground beef. However, I do find the evidence I cite in the second paragraph of this section somewhat compelling.

If I'm understanding you correctly then 22% of the people previously eating steak burritos switched to Impossible burritos

I'm not sure where you're getting this exact figure, but I don't put much credence in it. Instead, I'd refer to estimates in Fig 3, which range from 0.3 to 4.0 percentage points of beef displacement, after accounting for behavior at the control sites and/or spillover effects. That is compared to an 5.0 or 11.4 pp increase in Impossible meal sales, respectively.

Furthermore, it's important to keep in mind "the study employed several co-interventions designed to reduce meat consumption (Malan, 2020). These included environmental education, low carbon footprint labels on menus, and an advertising campaign to promote the new product, all of which have some evidence demonstrating their effectiveness." So the effect is likely not entirely attributable to the Impossible meat.

even if you did have taste equivalence here I wouldn't expect people's decisions to be perfectly informed by that fact

I agree and discuss this issue some in the Taste section. In short, this is part of why I think informed taste tests would be more relevant than blind: in naturalistic settings, it is possible that people would report not liking the taste of PBM even though it passes a blind taste test. So I think this accurately reflects what we should expect in practice.

in your first deployment

In this case, ~32% of (surveyed) participants answered yes to "Have you tried the Impossible™ burger, Beyond Meat™, or similar products anywhere other than [the intervention site]?" (Table 19) Note the study was conducted in the Fall of 2019, right after the summer Impossible launched in Burger King. Furthermore, the study covers 10 weeks and 71% of participants who ever selected the Impossible product at the intervention site went on to select it again. So I wouldn't think of this as a first deployment: many students were familiar with these sorts of products already and took multiple opportunities to try the product over two and a half months. (These figures are based on a (small) survey of 200 participants, 96 of whom self-reported ever selecting Impossible products at the intervention site.)

Yes, I'm not entirely certain Impossible meat is equivalent in taste to animal-based ground beef. However, I do find the evidence I cite in the second paragraph of this section somewhat compelling.

Are you referring to the blind taste test? It seems like that's the only direct evidence on this question.

It doesn't look like the preparations are necessarily analogous. At a minimum the plant burger had 6x more salt. All burgers were served with a "pinch" of salt but it's hard to know what that means, and in any case the plant burger probably ended up at least 2x as salty.[1] You note this as a complicating factor, but salt has a huge impact on taste and it seems to me like it can easily dominate the results of a 2-3 bite taste test between vaguely comparable foods.

I also have no idea at all how good or bad the comparison burger was. Food varies a lot. (It's kind of coincidental the salt happened to show up in the nutrition information---otherwise I wouldn't even be able to make this concrete criticism). It seems really hard to draw conclusions about taste competitiveness of a meat substitute from this kind of n=1 study, beyond saying that you are in the same vague zone.

Have you compared these foods yourself? I eat both of them regularly. Taste competitiveness seemed plausible the first time I ate impossible ground beef, but at this point the difference feels obviously large. I seriously doubt that the typical omnivore would consider them equivalent after eating them a few times.

Overall, despite these caveats on taste, lots of plant-based meat was still sold, so it was "good enough" in some sense, but there was still potentially little resulting displacement of beef (although maybe somewhat more of chicken).

My conclusion would be: plant substitutes are good enough that some people will eat them, but bad enough that some people won't. They are better than some foods and worse than others.

It feels like you are simultaneously arguing that high uptake is a sign that taste is "good enough," and that low uptake is a sign that "good enough" taste isn't sufficient to replace meat. I don't think you can have it both ways, it's not like there is a "good enough" threshold where sales jump up to the same level as if you had competitive taste. Better taste just continuously helps with sales.

I agree and discuss this issue some in the Taste section. In short, this is part of why I think informed taste tests would be more relevant than blind: in naturalistic settings, it is possible that people would report not liking the taste of PBM even though it passes a blind taste test. So I think this accurately reflects what we should expect in practice.

I disagree. Right now I think that plant-based meat substitutes have a reputation as tasting worse than meat largely because they actually taste worse. People also have memories of disliking previous plant-based substitutes they tried. In the past the gap was even larger and there is inertia in both of these.

If you had taste competitive substitutes, then I think their reputation and perception would likely improve over time. That might be wrong, but I don't see any evidence here against the common-sense story.

  1. ^

    The plant burger had about 330mg vs 66mg of salt. If a "pinch" is 200mg then it would end up exactly 2x as salty. But hard to know exactly what a pinch means, and also it matters if you cook salt into the beef or put a pinch on top, and so on.

Are you referring to the blind taste test?

Yes. The Sogari blind taste test is indeed affected by saltiness; it also includes an informed taste test similarly effected (but again finding Impossible and animal-based meat tied for first). There is a second blind taste test cited immediately thereafter (Chicken and Burger Alternatives, 2018), although salt levels were not reported.

Have you compared these foods yourself?

No, I haven't.

It seems really hard to draw conclusions about taste competitiveness of a meat substitute from this kind of n=1 study, beyond saying that you are in the same vague zone.

I agree, food is varied and such comparisons are hard—that's part of why I argue we should do more taste tests! Can you clarify what you mean by an N of 1 study, as usually this refers to a study with a single participants, but Sogari indeed had many participants. If you're suggesting comparison against multiple burgers, this gets a bit tricky since one has to decide which burger you actually want to be equivalent to, if that's your goal.

I disagree. Right now I think that plant-based meat substitutes have a reputation as tasting worse than meat largely because they actually taste worse.

Can you clarify what specifically you disagree with here? I don't think I especially disagree with anything you wrote that follows from here. Instead, I think it's indeed perception of taste that matters for the impact of PBM and we can likely best measure that perception with informed, rather than blind, taste tests. Overall, as I write, I think actually operationalizing a taste test to identify whether "taste competitiveness" is obtained is non-trivial. The literature so far neglects such operationalizations. What do you have in mind as an ideal experiment to conduct to measure taste competitiveness?

Hi All - Apologies for my delayed reply; I've been traveling. 

Below is what GFI sent in response to an inquiry from Sentient Media w/r/t Jacob’s article (much appreciation to Jacob for sharing iterations of this article over the past ~3 years, including about a week before this version was posted on the RP website). 

In addition to the thoughts below, this document includes quite a bit of corroboration for the importance of taste, price, and convenience as key determinants of food choice, both generally and in the plant-based meat context. 

***

Response to Inquiry from Sentient Media w/r/t Jacob’s paper:

1. Why did GFI initially adopt the PTC paradigm?

There’s a general consensus among researchers that taste and price are the two two drivers of consumer choice w/r/t food. See here. Convenience and nutrition generally round out the top four. On nutrition, two points:

  • First, see the treatment of nutrition in multiple studies here: Yes, it’s important, but most consumers won’t choose a nutritious product unless it also satisfies across taste and price. 
  • Second, since plant-based meat is healthier than animal-based meat on critical metrics (see, e.g., here and here) and cultivated meat is the same product but without the bacterial contamination (and other forms of contamination), we have generally considered health/nutrition a given. As noted below, it appears consumers may not fully understand the nutrition advantages of plant-based meat, especially - so we may have some messaging challenges to tackle. 

I asked consumer researcher Chris Bryant (Bryant Research) about PTC, and he writes (shared with his permission): 

  • “The term that you want to search on Google Scholar is ‘food choice questionnaire’ – there are many studies with 100+ citations that deploy some version of this questionnaire in a diverse range of populations, and price and taste (and health) are always the dominant determinants of food choice. 
  • Bryant Research (with Plant Futures and ProVeg) is about to publish survey data from 1,000 people in the UK showing through a variety of methods that price and taste are still the key for PBM adoption. They are the most frequently given reasons for reducing/not increasing consumption of PBMs, and they are the most frequently mentioned themes in unprompted, open text questions about the same.”

2. Has GFI's understanding of the PTC paradigm changed over time?

In recent years, we’ve been focusing especially on price and taste (and less on convenience), because: 

  • 1) Those are the two factors that science can help solve for, and GFI’s top goals involve: a) building an ecosystem of scientists and companies who are focused on making price and taste competitive plant-based and cultivated meat, and b) securing government funding for science and infrastructure (the later is in the price vertical); and
  • 2) If we don’t solve price and taste, there’s not much value in making the products convenient (and if we do solve taste & price, the market will likely solve for convenience). 

We agree that even if we solve for price and taste, we don’t know how much market share that will ensure, as there are other important parts of the value proposition. That said, we’re still convinced of two important things: 

  • First, if we don’t compete on price and taste, the products will stay niche, and meat consumption will continue to grow. 
  • Second, if we can create products that compete on price and taste, sales will go up quite a lot, even if other factors will need to be met to gain additional market share. As Lewis wrote, “Even if ‘only’ 11% of people choose meat alternatives, only half of them instead of meat, they’ll spare more sentient beings from suffering than any prior technology.” 

Our basic view is that price and taste are table stakes - that is, they will be necessary for alt proteins to compete with conventional meat. There will be more things that we’ll also have to address to gain more and more market share, of course, but while we’re not close to price and taste parity, that should be our primary focus. 

3. What other factors does GFI believe to be critical to the adoption of alternative proteins (if any)?

There are many additional factors (see all the articles in the supplementary document, and especially the two linked GFI documents), but they are all going to follow price and taste: If we don’t solve price and taste, alternative proteins will remain niche. The most obvious critical factor will be nutrition, so we’re going to have to do more to create RCTs like the Stanford study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, and we’re going to need to make sure we’re having strong and effective conversations about the nutrition benefits of plant-based and cultivated meat, generally. 

***

Response to Criticisms:

Critique 1. Evidence in PTC as a general framework is not well-established: consumer surveys often mention other factors as important for food choice.

  • See here, including the note from consumer researcher Chris Bryant. There seems to be a consensus among experts that taste and price are the two most critical factors. Everything we’re aware of points to both as absolute requirements for broad consumer adoption. These two factors are also why per capita meat consumption keeps going up and why vegetarian numbers remain so low. 

Critique 2. Even if PTC were the three most important factors for foods, they likely wouldn't apply to alternative protein, since plant-based, fermented, or cultivated proteins lack brand recognition, familiarity, and may be subject to pro-meat biases from consumers. 

  • This critique does not appear to dispute the importance of price and taste (i.e., I don’t think you’re actually arguing that price and taste don’t matter); it just says “there’s more that’s also important. You also need to think about brand, familiarity, and pro-meat biases,” etc. 
  • Perhaps - but if we can improve taste and price (consistently identified as the two most critical factors), sales will definitely be higher than if we don’t. See the various linked studies.
  • If we’re afraid that sales may be inhibited by issues of brand, familiarity, and pro-meat biases, then we need to address those things too. But doing that will be a lot more effective if we have price & taste parity. 
  • Aside: Brand & familiarity issues are a part of why GFI sees value in Tyson, Cargill, JBS, Smithfield, and other mainstream meat companies leaning in on plant-based and cultivated meat. 

Hi Bruce, thank you for your response and engagement with the paper over the course of the project.

However, I don’t think this reply engages with the key arguments I make in the paper.

Why did GFI initially adopt the PTC paradigm?

I cite and discuss a number of the studies you mention to support this point in the section The PTC premise. I make four specific critiques of this body of literature—can you address these directly?

  1. These studies generally don’t find PTC to be the top three factors in determining food choice. [Two of the three studies I cite do find PT as the top two factors; however, I think this primarily reflects issue (3). See below.]
  2. The rankings in these studies reflect what people perceive as the most important factors rather than what would actually cause them to change their diets.
  3. The cited studies were designed primarily to investigate the role of a few particular factors in food choice rather than to identify the most important factors. This explains why the studies examine only a handful of factors rather than the myriad influences of food choice.
  4. These studies analyze the average ranking of each factor rather than how individual consumers rank the factors. Interpreting these averages as the preferences of individuals invokes the ecological fallacy: even if PTC were the most important factors on average, this does not imply that individual participants would each rank PTC as most important.

I’m now aware of the Food Choice Questionnaire literature Chris Bryant is referring to, summarized in Cunha (2018), which addresses critique (3) to some extent, but none of the others. As I’d expect with more factors in play, this study also doesn’t find PT or PTC to be the top factors across 26 country-study pairs: instead, only 35% country-study pairs had PT as the top two factors and none of the pairs had PTC as the top three factors. Addressing (4) in this analysis would likely make the results more pessimistic for PT(C).

I look forward to Chris’s forthcoming work on the topic; perhaps it will change my mind, especially if it’s able to address (2).

if we can create products that compete on price and taste, sales will go up quite a lot

Do you agree that the Malan 2022 field trial may have achieved PT-competitiveness? If so, is that the sort of adoption and displacement rate you expected given PT-competitiveness?

Our basic view is that price and taste are table stakes - that is, they will be necessary for alt proteins to compete with conventional meat.

This seems like the “PT is necessary but not sufficient” framing that you and others have recently adopted. Can you explain in some rough sense how much of the effort to cause widespread displacement you think PT-competitiveness represents? (I’m borrowing framing from Abraham Rowe in another comment.) For example, maybe PT-equivalence is only a small (but necessary) part of the puzzle in your view, so represents 5% of the total effort required; or it represents most of the effort, say 85%. If this is meaningful to you, can you give a number that represents your views? If not, can you propose an alternative?

Thanks very much, Jacob - I’m in Asia for work at the moment and in all-day meetings, so it’s going to take me a bit to get back to this, but I’m grateful to you for getting this conversation going. I skimmed the discussion but want to read that more thoroughly, too. I should be able to read all comments with intentionality and offer a few more thoughts this coming weekend, I expect/hope. 

[EDIT, Sunday night: I read through all comments this weekend, but it will be next weekend before I'm able to craft my thoughts into something intelligible and (I hope at least somewhat) concise; that said, I'm not sure I have much to add beyond what jacva & Jack_S (and I) have already written. I think the one thing that might be additive is just a bit more thinking about my (and GFI's) belief that if alt proteins fail, industrial animal meat consumption will rise inexorably and globally (+ more on the analogy to renewables & EVs) - anyway, see you back here next weekend, and sorry for my delay; I'm grateful for the exchange].

[Added point for clarity: In my response above, I was sharing our response to the three questions and 2 critiques that were sent from Sentient Media (SM). I thought those replies might be clarifying to others, since they were SM's questions and critiques for this article about your paper.]

Just four three quick thoughts in response to your precise questions - more to come:  

1) I do believe that the evidence is overwhelming that taste and price are necessary w/r/t consumer choice on food generally and, more importantly, w/regard to any product that might decrease industrial meat consumption.

Put another way, I don’t think I’ve seen anything in your article (or anywhere else) that challenges the idea that for something to replace industrial animal meat, it will have to taste as good (or better) and compete on price.

I find the 17 citations here convincing (and Chris Bryant’s observation that “price and taste (and health) are always the dominant determinants of food choice” across many other studies with 100+ citations.

2) I agree with your dubiousness about studies that simply ask people what matters to them, but I’m not sure it makes sense to discount what people say entirely - especially when it’s this consistent and also appears in the precise context we’re discussing (see here). 

See also KFC, Chick-fil-A, McDonald’s, and fast food generally. This feels (to me) like corroboration of the importance of taste and price (and convenience) to food choices. Wal-Mart is the nation’s number one grocer for a reason, I suspect. 

3) I like your question about how important taste and price are to displacement (i.e., 5% v. 85%, etc.); I’m going to think some more about it and will send along some thoughts.

More to come - thanks again, 

Bruce

I really appreciate this post (and discussion on it! see e.g. this thread), and am curating it. 

One of the things I like is that it targets a key premise in the space (and establishes its importance). It's quite useful to get a sense for the research being conducted. And I'm generally really excited for work on "how do we get to a factory-farming-free world?"

I should also say that it doesn't seem appropriate (to me) to strongly update towards "it's not important to lower price and improve taste and convenience of plant-based meat alternatives." (I don't think the post is seriously arguing for this, but figured that I would flag it.) The evidence in this post seems to push against a ~naive approach of "all you need to replace meat products is to make meat alternatives cheaper, tastier, and more available" — which is indeed a belief I've heard implied or stated in EA — and for near-term applications of PTC. But I have a pretty strong prior that price etc. affect adoption, and the evidence presented here was not enough to overrule that. I expect that without improvements in price and taste, we won't manage to in fact transition to a very low-meat (or no-factory-farming) world (I'm thinking about school lunches, cheap burgers, etc. — things that are poorly measured by studies on students and the like). Those improvements seem to not be sufficient, though. 

I like the recommendations listed in the conclusion (like a nudge against over-focusing on ~simplified taste equivalence (see also)). More work on nutrition and perceptions of plant-based meat alternatives, and more research about what will matter to younger generations seem particularly useful. 

Thanks for your kind words, Lizka!

I should also say that it doesn't seem appropriate (to me) to strongly update towards "it's not important to lower price and improve taste and convenience of plant-based meat alternatives." (I don't think the post is seriously arguing for this, but figured that I would flag it.)

I agree, with emphasis on 'strongly update.'

which is indeed a belief I've heard implied or stated in EA

This is especially helpful as people have (understandably) doubted this is the case.

I expect that without improvements in price and taste, we won't manage to in fact transition to a very low-meat (or no-factory-farming) world

I'm probably somewhat less confident here and think there may be other paths.

I'm thinking about school lunches, cheap burgers, etc. — things that are poorly measured by studies on students and the like

I don't follow this point—presumably students would be an ideal population for studying school lunches? I'm assuming I've misunderstood :)

more research about what will matter to younger generations seem particularly useful.

Agree!

In trying to understand the expected adoption of new practices such as dietary changes, it would be worth consulting with experts on diffusion of innovations. This field of study is explicitly concerned with the question of how and why people decide to adopt (or not adopt) new technologies or practices. Needless to say it's a complicated question and the answers are not always obvious.

For a good introduction, read Diffusion of Innovations, by Everett M. Rogers, or for a briefer introduction, read the Wikipedia page.

I'd be very curious to see predictions (ideally backed up with bets) from people on different sides of this debate as to how widespread animal product consumption would be 1 year, 5 years or 10 years after plant-based meat reaching PTC-parity (suitably operationalized). Perhaps a survey of experts might facilitate this? Prediction markets would also be relevant.

This seems like it would cut through some of the not action-relevant meta-debate about whether people previously believed that PTC were merely necessary or sufficient.

(Jacob and I both work for Rethink Priorities, but this was written in a private capacity.)

Agree, forecasts would be great and I'd work on this is I end up spending more time on the future prospects of PBM!

Thanks for writing this. I'm surprised to read that the PTC model is so popular; I would have thought it was pretty intuitive that nutrition deserved to be in there too (PTCN?).

Gladly, thank you for your kind words! Sometimes people include health or nutrition as well. But there are really myriad factors that influence food choice, as I talk about some here, so I think there are still issues with models that simply add a factor or two (discussed some in the paragraph starting "Producing compelling evidence to substantiate just the premise of the PTC hypothesis would require an ambitious experimental effort.")

Thanks for your work, Jacob!

Have you looked at evidence for or against the PTC hypothesis for foods in general, not just plant-based alternatives to traditional animal products? IMO consumer purchasing decisions about food broadly is a relevant reference class to use as a baseline of investigation.

E.g. if the PTC hypothesis holds (or doesn’t) for consumer decisions about food generally, that seems like relevant evidence, and may help mitigate the (many) complicating factors involved in assessing consumers’ actual and hypothetical decisions based on currently available PB products.

Certainly the findings about food generally can’t be assumed to hold for specific foods. But it may open up more evidence sources to inform your view beyond the limited and imperfect studies we have now.

As an aside, I think studies funded by animal agriculture stakeholders should be closely examined before including here (and same for PB company funded studies). Examples of junk science pushed by interest groups abound. More than just a grain of salt may be required when considering evidence from these sources.

Hi Mark, thank you for your kind words and thoughtful comment! Also, welcome to the forum :) Please forgive my referring you to particular sections of the paper if you've already read them; I understand it's a lengthy read.

Indeed, I consider general evidence on PTC in food choice in the section The PTC premise. Chris Bryant has actually subsequently pointed me toward Cunha (2018), which I think is stronger than what I cite there, but still subject to the same critiques. The paper is also not cited in any of the discourse on plant-based meats that I know of, although Chris has cited the instrument previously.

I agree with your concerns around COI—although I think the expected direction of effect is uncertain—and try to interrogate studies critically accordingly:

Sixth, the body of literature largely lacked pre-registration and analysis plans and thus is vulnerable to reporting bias, where authors selectively report favorable results. That said, for some studies, it's unclear which direction would be "favorable." For example, some authors were funded by the animal agriculture industry, and an incentive could conceivably exist to either exaggerate or minimize the impact of plant-based meats. In any event, there was no direct evidence of reporting or publication bias.

Cunha, L. M., Cabral, D., Moura, A. P., & de Almeida, M. D. V. (2018). Application of the Food Choice Questionnaire across cultures: Systematic review of cross-cultural and single country studies. Food Quality and Preference, 64, 21–36. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foodqual.2017.10.007

Thanks for the reply! Bruce Friedrich's reply does a better job responding than I could, so I'll leave it to you both and look forward to seeing the conversation. Appreciate you engaging with me here and the welcome to the forum :)

I've made some updates and corrections to this paper—(2) and (3) are most important in my opinion and make the Malan 2022 field experiment a somewhat weaker test of the PTC hypothesis. Thanks to all who commented!

Changes are noted below (which I've also added to the post):

  1. Correction to Figure 1 to indicate Ikea 2019 data represent all stores globally, rather than just the United States.

Corrections and updates in the "Malan 2022 field experiment" section:

  1. Replace "On Thursdays, students had the option of receiving prepared burritos with either Impossible ground beef, animal-based steak, or veggies, while the build-your-own entree line offered Impossible ground beef every day alongside animal-based ground beef." with "On Thursdays, students had the option of receiving prepared burritos with either Impossible ground beef, animal-based cubed steak, or veggies, while the build-your-own entree line offered Impossible ground beef every day alongside animal-based cubed steak, shredded beef and other animal products."

  2. Replace the second paragraph in this section. Briefly, this updates and corrects the text to indicate that a negligible portion of participants did pay for meals; an animal-based ground beef equivalent to the Impossible ground beef was not served; and dining hall staff served all food. Furthermore, it adds information on a survey of participants' perception of the taste of Impossible ground beef. The paragraph previously read:

    In this study, price is entirely equivalent since students pay for dining hall access for the entire semester, not individual meals. With regards to taste, Impossible ground beef specifically has not been subjected to any public taste tests. However, as reviewed above, the Impossible Burger, which is made of similar ingredients, has been found to taste equivalent in some studies. The study does not describe exactly the form of the beef in the steak burrito, making its taste equivalence less certain but probably still a reasonable inference. For the ground beef served on the build-your-own entree line, taste equivalence seems very likely. We can further surmise that the Impossible ground beef meals in the study were at least desirable: a follow-up survey found that 71% of purchasers were repeat purchasers (Malan, 2020, p. 189). Convenience is likely equivalent as well since the burritos are prepared for students by dining hall staff, and the build-your-own entree line is self-serve for both animal- and plant-based ground beef.

    It now reads:

    In this study, price is almost always equivalent since students pay for dining hall access for the entire semester, not individual meals; a negligible proportion of meals were purchased with other means of payment. With regards to taste, Impossible ground beef is not directly comparable to either the cubed steak or shredded beef served in the study, nor has it been subjected to any public taste tests comparing it with ground beef. However, as reviewed above, the Impossible Burger, which is made of similar ingredients, has been found to taste equivalent to ground beef burgers in some studies. Furthermore, Malan (2020) includes a survey on taste perceptions of 215 participants at the intervention site, although some of the question phrasing might evoke slight agreement or social desirability bias, and the survey may be affected by selection bias. Of the 96 surveyed participants who self-selected to try the Impossible ground beef, 86% agreed or somewhat agreed it was delicious; 85% that Impossible ground beef "is a satisfying alternative to animal meat" (Malan, 2020, Table 20); and 71% choose to eat it more than once (Malan, 2020, p. 189). Of the 89 open-ended responses describing what was liked about the Impossible ground beef, 52% mentioned the flavor, feel or texture and 30% its similarity to animal-based meat (Malan, 2020, Table 27). Conversely, of the 49 open-ended responses on what was disliked, 29% mentioned the flavor or feel and 24% the texture (Malan, 2020, Table 28). Given these results it may be reasonable to conclude the Impossible ground beef was fairly well-liked among those participants who consumed it, although it is not equivalent to the other beef products offered. Finally, convenience is likely equivalent since all meals are prepared for students by dining hall staff.

  3. Replace "Dining halls were not randomized to intervention and control status, and participants were free to cross over between dining halls during the study, both factors that could bias effects in either direction. Control dining hall A was adjacent to the intervention dining hall, so intervention materials were potentially visible, while control dining hall B was isolated from the intervention." with "Dining halls were not randomized to intervention and control status, and participants were known to cross over between dining halls (Malan et al., 2022, p. 226), both factors that could bias effects in either direction. Control dining hall A was adjacent to the intervention dining hall, and some intervention materials were thus visible (Malan, 2020, p. 119), while control dining hall B was isolated from the intervention."

Clarifications and a correction in the "Conclusions & recommendations" section:

  1. Clarify "The underlying premise of PTC as the key determinants of food choice is not supported by evidence from cross-sectional surveys on consumers' self-reported determinants."
  2. Correct "Finally, a controlled experiment introducing high-quality plant-based meat to a dining hall—at almost always equal price and convenience to animal-based meat—shows that most participants did not choose plant-based meat."
  3. Correction to replace "six" with "five" in "Across five lines of evidence, it is clear that the empirical evidence opposes the PTC hypothesis."

Late to the party, but just wanted to say that this is fantastic work. I take off my non-existent hat and do a very deep and respectful  bow. It immediately changed my thinking. I have for a while bought into the PTC framework, intuitively and without much reflection. Now I realize that it's more complicated.

I think these are important and crucial insights. I do remain convinced that PTC matters, at least in the long run. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and it would indeed be extraordinary if price, taste and convenience did not matter at all (or a lot) for food choice. (not saying you're claiming that, but just making it clear)

But it's clear from the evidence presented here that it's far from enough. One thing is cultural affinity and identity connected to meat, another issue is the power of special interests and the meat and dairy industry. And more. Meat and dairy won't go away even if we get very good alternatives up and running.

For me, these insights call for old-fashioned moralistic abolitionism: Let's remember to keep saying that eating animal products is wrong and gross. Probably does more to change norms in the long run than just saying non-animal alternatives are just as good. 

Thank you so much; I'm so glad you found the paper valuable!

Hi Jacob! This report mentioned a couple of times that consumers don't necessarily believe plant-based meats are taste-competitive with animal meats, even if they are specifically instructed to consider situations where they are. Do you know if there's any research into whether "taste tests" of theoretically-taste-competitive plant-based meats increase subsequent demand for plant-based meats (and/or decrease subsequent demand for animal-based meats) for participants in the taste tests?

Hi Francis, I don't think there's much work on this, although I do believe an advocacy group tried this but found the results underwhelming.

Thanks for this very comprehensive analysis!

A quick addition: Another aspect that the PTC hypothesis as outlined here misses completely, and that appears quite important to consumers, is health. For instance, based on an n=3,700 survey done by Boston Consulting Group across EU, UK, US, Middle East and China (link), individual health is in many subgroups the top driver of choice between plant-based and conventional animal meat. This may explain the low incidence of repeat purchases (many people know and tried alt protein products, few consume them regularly): Consumers get disappointed with products like Beyond - if you buy a Beyond burger looking for a healthier alternative and then at home you check the label, you see that the nutrition is a bit better (lower sat fats) but you also see a bunch of ingredients you never heard of. Of course, if conventional animal products had to list every antibiotic and feed additive on the label, they would look worse... but they don't. So, as a consumer you feel "cheated" by the plant-based meat that you bought for health reasons. The resulting recommendation here is to shorten ingredient lists and transparently name products (alt dairy does this somewhat successfully - "oat milk" instead of "plant milk").

Thank you, interesting. My takeaway is that the issue of protein choice is more complicated and less evidenced than sometimes presented - although I still believe PCT parity will make the transition way easier. It also updates me towards increased necessity of "cultural work", i.e. behavioral change advocacy even in a possible scenario where we can reach PTC parity within the next years. For the movement, that could e.g. mean to test many different strategies to influence a variety of non-vegan consumer target groups to reduce or replace some of their diet.

Thanks for reading, Jonas! I think these are pretty reasonable takeaways. I'd only add that it'd be useful to define for yourself what PTC actually, concretely mean. Also, I don't think many folks believe we'll reach some standard of PTC parity across most animal-products within ~5 years, if that's roughly what you mean by "the next years."

If we're only considering plant-based meat, and only looking out over the near term (say, 1-3 years) then the claims here seem reasonable. So much so, that I'm surprised that the PTC model is so popular.

It may look like your concerns also apply to other alternative proteins (e.g. lab-grown meat). I don't believe that's the case.

  • We have a long way to go before we have lab-grown meat which is price competitive with traditional meat.
  • I'm willing to accept the argument that price-competitive lab-grown meat may not be sufficient, because of social and psychological factors.
  • However if lab-grown meat is lots cheaper than normal meat, then it seems reasonable to accept that it will displace most of the normal meat; based on some of your arguments, some people may persist in wanting the "real thing", but given the existence of such a good and cheap substitute, it should be much easier to regulate to ensure that farmed animals have good lives (in which case I would consider the purchase of meat to be net positive)

Hi Sanjay, thank you for reading and your thoughtful comment! The evidence I reviewed here already spans a couple of years, so I do think it might be reasonable to extrapolate closer to 3-5 years. That said, there isn't any analysis of trends of over time, so maybe not.

I agree conditional on the existence of similar alternatives, regulating against animal-based meat is easier than if those alternatives don't exist. Can you elaborate on the why you think the arguments apply differently to lab-grown rather than plant-based meat in your third point? If one believes leaders in the field (eg, Ethan Brown, I think, but could be mis-remembering), we might eventually literally synthesized meat from plant sources; thus, plant-based meat would be meat, as would lab-grown meat. By transitivity, they'd all be "the same." I myself don't find the premise here too compelling, but it helps motivate the question: what exactly will be the differences between, plant-based and lab-grown meat that would diferentially impact consumer acceptance?

Hello Jacob, this is a great piece.  I have been doing commercial consulting work for many plant-based meat companies. I have noted that the industry has done relatively little to truly understand consumer motivations and preferences compared to what it has done in R&D. That people want to eat healthier food and reduce their animal protein is a valid premise. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that highly engineered food products may not be what they are looking for as options after all. Very few will succeed among those food tech start-ups if they do not start with the consumers... The solutions might actually be very low-tech.  

Thank you, Alain, and interesting to hear similar accounts for someone more closely involved with the industry!

I think it's pretty difficult to infer the attitudes that people might have regarding plant based or cultivated meat shortly after PTC(N) parity based on current data.

Such attitudes may very well be malleable, especially in conjunction with animal welfare campaigns putting to front of mind the torture associated with the alternative option.

Asking one to switch to PTC(N) equal alternatives is just a much, much lower ask than asking one to be vegan with current options.

Hi Brad, thanks for your comment. I'd contend that the Malan 2022 field experiment, among other studies, does give us some insight into behavior towards a putatively PTC-competitive plant-based meat. (There is also some survey data included which might cover attitudes, but I'm assuming you mean something closer to behavior. Let me know if not.) Can you clarify why you don't find it compelling, if that's the case?

Was there data suggesting that the students in the dining hall believed that the beyond meat tasted the same? It will be perception of parity that would matter for such experiments. In a post-parity world actual parity may quickly translate into perceived parity. Probably if you were to survey the steak burrito eaters, they would say they got it because it tastes better.

I'm also skeptical that the brief campaigns are an adequate substitute for for the discussion that would be prompted by a post-PTC(N) world.

It seems intuitive to me that if you give people the opportunity to get a product that tastes the same, costs the same, is just as convenient and nutritionally identical, most people will shift. It will probably take a reasonable period of time for people to adjust to the weirdness factor of something like cultivated meat, but I anticipate that it would happen quickly (whether PTC(N)can be achieved on a reasonable time line is a different question.)

People are selfish and awful, but not typically psychopathic. If they can not contribute to animal abuses without sacrificing anything, they will. It will take some modest degree of time and effort to make this choice clear to people (which is why I don't think these experiments are very probative), but I think the outcome will be analogous to recycling or drunk driving campaigns.

People suck, but not quite as much as EAs often think they do.

Just a quick comment to add to what Jacob said - my intuition is if I am currently using A, and B appears which seems the same, then I will not switch because I already know A and am used to A, and people I have personal relations with are selling me A etc... For me to switch, B must be much better; in this case, plant-based causes less suffering, but how much do people care about this, compared to signalling and such? Seems intuitive to me that to make the shift, additional campaigns need to be made to make this a clear-cut change, it will not happen 100% by default.

On the Malan trial, I write:

With regards to taste, Impossible ground beef specifically has not been subjected to any public taste tests. However, as reviewed above, the Impossible Burger, which is made of similar ingredients, has been found to taste equivalent in some studies. The study does not describe exactly the form of the beef in the steak burrito, making its taste equivalence less certain but probably still a reasonable inference. For the ground beef served on the build-your-own entree line, taste equivalence seems very likely. We can further surmise that the Impossible ground beef meals in the study were at least desirable: a follow-up survey found that 71% of purchasers were repeat purchasers (Malan, 2020, p. 189).

Sogari et al. (2023) found the Impossible Burger's mean preference ranking in a blind taste test was not statistically significantly different than a beef burger (2.1 vs 2.5, respectively, indicating both burgers ranked around second on average). That said, the beef burger may have been significantly less salty than the Impossible Burger, potentially lowering the bar for taste equivalence. Another blind taste test found that the Impossible burger patty had a similar average liking score to a beef burger (Chicken and Burger Alternatives, 2018).[6] Moreover, complete meals containing plant-based meats tend to be somewhat better liked than plant-based meats on their own (Hoek et al., 2012, Table 6; Qammar et al., 2010, p. 554), although this trend may not be universal (Elzerman et al., 2011, fig. 2).

There are also numerous other studies discussed in the paper to which I'd refer you. I discuss some of the issues with the idea of "tastes the same" and "as convenient" here.

It seems intuitive to me that if you give people the opportunity to get a product that tastes the same, costs the same, is just as convenient and nutritionally identical, most people will shift.

I appreciate this intuition, but wold urge you to consider the empirical evidence alongside it.

Great work.

I think the headline is very fair. I agree with other commentators here saying 'ah but how the tides will turn'-- but you clearly take this into account and say as much in the headline.

Lets not get too complacent or, ahem, count our free roaming domesticated junglefowl.

OTOH if we get something like the results of the Malan 2022 field experiment 'for free' once we have PTC parity, I feel like the ball will be well and truly rolling and well get scale-ups and hopefully a phase transition sometime thereafter, maybe with a few other clever interventions.

Again, great work and thanks!

Thank you, Fergus, that's very kind of you! I would note that I think it's quite possible and somewhat likely the Malan field experiment found a very small effect on beef sales at 0.3 percentage points. That said, there may have been a couple percentage point decline in poultry sales, which would be much more valuable. (I didn't get in to this as it was besides the main point of the paper.)

At a very quick skim, I am confused about whether this post is arguing that:

  1. if fake meat were better than real meat in terms of each of price, taste, and convenience, many consumers would still buy real meat, or
  2. if fake meat were as good as real meat in terms of PTC overall, many consumers would still buy real meat.

(2) seems obvious intuitively. (1) would be surprising to me but it makes sense to point out any gaps in our evidence against it. 

Sorry I missed this—mostly (2), sometimes discussing (1).

Great work!

Thank you!

Thanks for sharing, Jacob. I have a questions about this. If a product is PTC competitive but isn't culturally congruent (such as if tempeh were suddenly competitive in Nebraska), I agree with the idea that cultural factors would prevent people from adopting it. But does this idea also apply to products that are very similar substitutes? If a vegan hotdog is tastier and cheaper and more convenient, do you think that over the course of a decade or two most people would still buy the more expensive and less tasty option?

Maybe you are using competitive to mean "similar" and I am thinking of competitive as "better than"?

Do you have any rough guesses as to changes over time? I suppose that if a PTC competitive hamburger were introduced to the world tomorrow, plenty of people would still eat traditional hamburgers. But I also suspect that a massive number of people would eat the new product, and that over time adoption would increase.

Thanks for your question—forgive my quoting from the paper in response, I understand it's quite lengthy! To your first question, I don't think most interpretations of the PTC hypothesis would qualify tempeh as taste-equivalent (although, as I emphasize here, these factors aren't very well defined).

I've included a case study on hot dogs specifically:

the home-goods-retailer-cum-cafeteria Ikea sells plant-based hotdogs that are equally or lower-priced, readily available alongside animal-based hot dogs, and "received a 95 percent approval rating" in taste testing in Sweden (Webber, 2019). In September 2019, Ikea's plant-based hot dogs composed about 8% of annual hot dog sales globally (Southey, 2019).[4]

My rough guesses on changes over time:

Important alternatives to the PTC hypothesis might consider the role of future consumers rather than present-day consumers, who have been the focus of this paper. Future consumers might experience a large change in social norms or otherwise shift their preferences toward consuming plant-based rather than animal-based meats. This is a common feature of many animal advocacy theories of change (Delon et al., 2022), and advocates will potentially find it difficult to shift social norms in favor of plant-based meat.

Happy to answer follow-ups :)

I agree that the PTC hypothesis is generally unsupported by the data available, however I also think this report may be missing the forest for the trees.

My primary issue is that I can't see how this report or any of this proposed research could meaningfully accelerate the transition away from factory farming and greenhouse gas intensive meat production.

This research deals with understanding whether people would purchase alternative meat if it tasted the same and costed the same as regular meat. However neither of these things are going to be true for longer than 1-2 years because of the cost curve of alternative meats and the technologies involved.

Many of the following points I'm making are based on research by RethinkX, an extremely reputable research organization in the space of disruptive technologies:

Source: https://www.rethinkx.com/food-and-agriculture

Enter precision fermentation, the technology behind cellular meat production. This technology, like most disruptive technologies such as solar and batteries, followed a Wrights Law cost curve.

"For every cumulative doubling of units produced, costs fall by a constant percentage."

The current costs of precision fermentation are decreasing by about 20% annually and there are no fundamental physics reasons why this would stop anytime soon. The limit to the affordability of lab (or at that point optimized factories full of vats) produced meat is the cost of acquiring energy and the fixed costs of factory infrastructure.

Why should we care about the PTC Hypothesis, people's preferences for meet alternatives with similar metrics to legacy meat, when the most likely future is one in which alternative meat has the following attributes:

• At least 80% cheaper

• At least as tasty as the best meat today

• Consistently the same quality, every time

• At least as healthy, likely far healthier

• At least 100X less contamination issues.

• A longer shelf life

If the above predictions are accurate, shouldn't our priority be to accelerate the production of lab grown meat by funding factories, research, etc...?

Why does the PTC Hypothesis matter?

Note that these estimates I've put out are sourced primarily from RethinkX and Tony Seba, who accurately predicted the solar price declines, rechargeable battery cost declines, and electric vehicle cost declines of the last two decades.

Read this for a highly in-depth report on all of this:

https://www.rethinkx.com/food-and-agriculture

I consider them to be a highly reliable source which we should take very seriously - however I'm interested to hear any insights from people who are more directly experienced in this space.

Do you think these predictions are directionally correct?

I agree that the PTC hypothesis is generally unsupported by the data available.

Glad to hear!

neither of these things are going to be true for longer than 1-2 years because of the cost curve of alternative meats and the technologies involved.

the most likely future is one in which alternative meat has the following attributes: • At least 80% cheaper • At least as tasty as the best meat today • Consistently the same quality, every time • At least as healthy, likely far healthier • At least 100X less contamination issues. • A longer shelf life

This is probably the crux of our disagreement. I think Humbird 2020 makes a highly informed and compelling argument against this view. (Paraphrasing his words elsewhere, "Cultured meat is a wall of no's.") Furthermore, Rethink's work (where I also work) shows that cultured meat forecasts so far have been consistently wrong and overly optimistic, with more credible forecasts showing limited production through 2050, although perhaps these are not the time scales you have in mind.

RethinkX, an extremely reputable research organization in the space of disruptive technologies

I haven't spent much time with the report, but from what I recall I didn't find it especially compelling. Are there any particular attributes or analyses that stood out to you, besides the reputation of its publisher?

limit to the affordability of lab (or at that point optimized factories full of vats) produced meat is the cost of acquiring energy and the fixed costs of factory infrastructure.

This seems wrong because raw materials are also required.

If the above predictions are accurate, shouldn't our priority be to accelerate the production of lab grown meat by funding factories, research, etc...?

These predictions do not address consumer acceptance. It's possible that people will not want to eat cultured meat: animal-based meat is already quite cheap (presumably even more so given the technological innovations your forecasts entail), cheapness might be taken as an indicator of inferiority, food neophobia, traditional values, unnaturalness, etc.

Do you think these predictions are directionally correct?

Probably no, but these predictions don't offer any timeline so its difficult to evaluate.

Thanks for the insight, I'm no expert on this topic so I've been going off conversations with friends in the space, RethinkX, and I take a first principles approach to solving problems.

I read the study and the conclusion seems to say the top problems are metabolic efficiency enhancements and the development of low-cost media from plant hydrolysates. But there are a lot of other engineering problems.

However I didn't see any fundamental problems (physics based) that would force a floor on how good it can get. There were and are plenty of engineering problems with making batteries & solar cheaper as well (and AI better).

I also took at look at the forecasting articles, and they all seem to revolve around explicitly looking at cell based meat predictions and the bad predictions made by startups in the space.

It might be much better to forecast based on the historical price declines of precision fermentation per kg over the last several decades which this covers: https://rethinkdisruption.com/the-roadmap-to-disruption/

"from what I recall I didn't find it especially compelling. Are there any particular attributes or analyses that stood out to you, besides the reputation of its publisher?"

I read the entire report a few years ago, and I found it quite compelling. I've studied the s-curve adoption of many technologies and I've found the 'Seba Disruption Framework" to be very reliable. It's not just their reputation, I've personally seen their predictions in other spaces be far more accurate than other prediction organizations.

I'm interested to know what you found particularly uncompelling about the report?

Let's talk raw materials. The vast majority of the elemental components of meat can be sourced directly from the air using electricity. Carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen. Some minerals and other elements (Sulphur Iron, Zinc, Selenium) would need to be sourced, which would entail transportation to a factory for processing. I asked GPT4 to calculate the cost of the needed mined materials for one lb of steak.

Sulphur: Typically found at about 0.3% in meat. Average cost: $65 per ton. Cost in one pound of steak: 0.003 * 1/2000 * $65 ≈ $0.0000975

Iron: Around 0.007% in meat. Average cost: $120 per ton. Cost in one pound of steak: 0.00007 * 1/2000 * $120 ≈ $0.000042

Zinc: Around 0.0035% in meat. Average cost: $2,500 per ton. Cost in one pound of steak: 0.000035 * 1/2000 * $2,500 ≈ $0.04375

Selenium: Extremely trace amounts, around 0.000035% in meat. Average cost: $65 per pound (Selenium is often priced per pound due to its rarity). Cost in one pound of steak: 0.00000035 * $65 ≈ $0.00002275

Adding these up, the total elemental cost of Sulphur, Iron, Zinc, and Selenium in one pound of steak would be approximately $0.044.

Each pound of meat needs ~4.4¢ of mined material. Every other cost is in the production process.

They did similar calculations for the cost of lithium ion batteries, which were over 100X more expensive decades ago and are now approaching the material cost.

I agree this stuff doesn't ensure public acceptance, but I've never seen public acceptance not change in the past with other disruptions. Most people in the original PTC studies put price as their #1 issue, and that's the same answer I've gotten from anecdotal conversations (including conservatives). There's also a page or two in the report that addresses public acceptance.

Also if this takes most of the meat demand, economics of scale dictate that animal meat costs will rise, further accelerating the S-curve disruption.

The time horizon they've predicted is cheaper than conventional meat by 2030, and ~80% cheaper by 2035.

Hi Michael, thanks for engaging; just flagging this will be my last reply on this thread :)

Quickly reviewing the RethinkX report, it seems like the dramatic changes forecast on very short timelines have not come to pass:

  • Precision fermentation beef is not currently ~$2/kg (Figure 11)
  • 30% of the US beef 'tissue' market is not from cultured or precision fermentation (Figure 12)
  • US cattle population is forecast to decline ~80M but remains steady at 94M as of 2021
  • Similarly, US chicken populations remain stable

The cost curves in Fig 5 does not cite any source for the data, but I suspect they're using the Mark Post's 'million dollar burger' as a data point; this cost doesn't reasonably represent a price estimate since the burger was never for sale or purchased at that price, but does induce a dramatically negative slope on the curve.

I take a first principles approach to solving problems.

I don't really know what this means, or how it differs from, for example, knowledge of chemistry, a field which generally builds on 'first principles' in some sense. In any event, the resulting reasoning, which sets trivially low input costs, seems wrong. For example, this reasoning would not explain why the price of all organic chemicals is not roughly uniform and similarly extremely low, since most organics are simply carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. Furthermore, why would this reasoning not also apply to the animal-based chicken industry, ~eliminating their costs for feed and fuel?

I've never seen public acceptance not change in the past with other disruptions.

This seems circular: a technology wouldn't be a disruption unless it was widely accepted. So, by definition, a disruptive technology is accepted by the public. This is also a result of survivorship bias—presumably some potentially 'disruptive' technologies did not result in disruption because they were not accepted by the public.

Thanks Jacob, I definitely appreciate your input too as I am no expert on the production of cellular meat or precision fermentation. I'm generally interested in reducing costs of living & reducing suffering.

That said here are my thoughts on what you said.

I entirely agree that their predictions in this space in the near term have proven inaccurate on the market. However the $2 figure might not be referring to sales costs, but the cost of production in a large state of the art factory.

Basically if an optimized factory was built with the best 2023 technology, could they get the cost of production below $2/Kg?

We're in complete agreement about their 2023 timeline predictions, they were overly optimistic. What's important though is if the overall cost curve over the next decade is going to take the shape they've predicted (exponential declines versus linear or logarithmic).

With input costs, cows & chickens are inefficient machines that require massive amounts of (water especially) input materials, land area, and maintenance. I agree the feed & fuel costs for animals could in theory be reduced by an order of magnitude, but animals will always be inefficient.

Importantly, if PF & cell based meats take market share from the most affordable meats first (ground beef & whatever chicken nuggets are made of), the animal meat sellers will encounter a negative feedback loop as they loose economies of scale and margins reduce.

By disruptions, I mean any system that is 5X or more better at doing something than the incumbent system.

You're right that PF Meats are not - yet - a disruptive technology, I should have worded it better, but I the costs are declining by a consistent percentage each year. If the cost keeps declining exponentially according to Wrights Law, these predictions will come to pass.

At the end of the day, how much room for improvement is there in R&D and mass manufacturing in this space?

How much extra room can be created by AI enabled advancement, protein folding, robotics advancement, and rapidly lowering energy acquisition costs?

This model (price, taste, and convenience (PTC)) is good but is missing a couple of important ingredients; 

1. salience and 2. cultural imprinting.

1. salience: communication changes behaviour by creating salience between an intervention or product or brand and the memories people access at a point of purchase or engagement (i.e. 'when they are in-market'). For example, when I want to make "pasta bolognaise" the associated memories my brain surfaces could be "barilla", "italian" and "beyond meat" (this leans into associative network theory if you're interested in learning more)

2. cultural imprinting: communication changes behaviour because all consumption is actually about building and maintaining status within a desired group and all products are consumed in social settings (for more I recommend "ads don't work that way" > https://meltingasphalt.com/ads-dont-work-that-way/)

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