At first sight it looks like the classic battle of David vs Goliath, with the David in this case being the meat-free sector and Goliath the behemoth meat sector. To date the nimble David has had the best of the fight – hitting Goliath with the “too much meat is bad for health”, “meat is expensive”, “ meat is murder” and most damaging of all in the context of a consumer becoming increasingly concerned with the effects of climate change, that meat damages the environment.

However, just as it seemed the battle was nearly won, the meat sector – as represented by trade body Meat & Livestock Australia – has mounted what could represent a significant counterpunch, with the announcement that Australia’s red meat processors could become carbon-neutral by 2030.

Over the past few years, press reports of the rise and rise of meat-free living have abounded. According to The Food People director Charles Banks, “There has been a seismic shift in attitudes towards celebrating vegetables and opting to eat less meat.” The organisation added it “expected meat-free eating and flexitarianism to become a mega trend.”

In its own research, GlobalData has noted a worldwide shift away from meat, with 70% of the world population reportedly either reducing meat consumption or leaving meat off the table altogether.

The flexitarian shift

The shift toward plant-based foods is being driven by millennials, who are most likely to consider the food source, animal welfare issues and environmental impacts when making their purchasing decisions. So established is this trend, and so confident are companies becoming that it is a lasting one, that they are prepared to stake their future on it. One recent example of this is BOL Foods, which relaunched  itself as a meat-free company in May 2017. Its range is now comprised of plant-based protein superfoods, which it says are good for the environment and consumers’ health.

More established meat-free companies are also reaping the benefits from the rise of flexitarianism. In 2017 the growth of partially meat-free diets was attributed as the main reason for sales growth at UK-based food group Quorn Foods. The company, which makes foods such as burgers and sausages out of fungus, reported a 19% rise in sales in the first half of 2017.

The company reiterated the view that it is the younger generation that is fuelling this trend, stating: “There is a rise around the world of a younger, well-educated consumer who understands that current meat consumption is environmentally unsustainable.”  The company is confident that this is no short-term fad but instead represents a genuine move towards a healthier and more sustainable relationship with food. According to the company, some 35% of people say they try to regularly have meat-free days in their diet.

Carbon-neutral by 2030?

Given the seemingly irresistible forces lined up against it, it would not be unreasonable to assume that the meat sector is facing a future that is bleak at best. Out of fashion and considered to be more than a little to blame for the world’s current environmental situation, there seemed to be no way back. However, Meat & Livestock Australia has confidently asserted its belief that the industry can be carbon-neutral by 2030.

The body points to the fact that between 2005 and 2015 it has managed to reduce its share of Australia’s total emissions from 20% to 13% and via a series of measures such as the expanded use of legumes and dung beetles in pastures, genetic selection and potentially a vaccine that could reduce methane production in the rumen, it believes it can achieve its goal.

Whilst its efforts are not wholly altruistic or driven by a desire to save the planet – the potential for exporting its beef would grow exponentially if the carbon-neutral goal was achieved – it may nonetheless prove to be a global game-changer.