Expansion of the Alternative Protein Space: Incentives and Approaches

The history of humanity has taught us over and again that sole dependence on virtue and compassion is not an effective means to achieve positive social change at a large scale, particularly when it is not aligned with individual interests.


This is of course not to say that individual interests should always prevail over a common good. Such a system would be (and has been) similarly unstable in the long run for compromising the very societies or groups where individuals live. As put forward by Charles Darwin, ‘moral men might not do any better than immoral men but tribes of moral men certainly “have an immense advantage” over fractious bands of pirates’.

Instead, the idea is that greater good has been more often achieved by incentive structures capable of aligning individual interests with beneficial outcomes at the societal level. Incentives drive behavior.

I use this notion to explore the incentive structure behind the expansion of the alternative protein space (plant-based and slaughter-free food markets). Animal agriculture, particularly intensive animal production systems also known as factory farms, are tied to a multitude of problems, from individual and public health issues to environmental losses and animal suffering at unprecedented levels. If we are to promote a sustainable, healthier and more humane food system, we need to ensure that individual incentives are well aligned with the desired outcomes.

The infographic below shows a broad summary of the main incentives for consuming (red) and abstaining (green) from animal products. On the left, it summarizes (and this is by no means an exhaustive list) some of the strategies that have been used, and the incentives they create, for favoring the latter outcome.

Existing incentives for consuming animal products are many and diverse: taste (a key driver of eating behavior), tradition (animal-sourced meals are often part of our culture and social environments), convenience/ease (animal products are everywhere, inside and outside our homes), social status (until recently, meat eating was a luxury for relatively few), price (meat has become incredibly affordable), a belief in still widespread health myths (e.g. that animal protein is necessary), the (misinformed) association of animal products with memories of natural and bucolic farm environments (a rural fantasy that often brings about in many the idea of a natural and traditional — good — life, but one that hardly fits the current reality of animal agriculture) and the rejection of the vegetarian (or vegan) identity, unfortunately still associated with specific stereotypes, political visions, ideologies or even with other social causes that — regardless of their merit — many people do not want to be associated with.

On the other side, abstinence from animal products is often grounded on the health benefits of a plant-based diet, or on ethical concerns regarding the environment and the suffering of non-human animals. Such incentives have been enough to take (and keep) many people on this path. Yet for most of the population, information alone is not enough (how many people know of the health risks of smoking or overeating, yet cannot quit these habits?). Even though well-crafted approaches can emphasize the importance of health and ethical concerns as well as reduce the weight of drivers favoring the consumption of animal products, such as the aforementioned health myths, rural fantasies or even the social status of meat eating, the imbalance in the incentive structure shown in the picture’s scale is still large. After all, taste, tradition, price, convenience and social norms are, and have always been, heavy drivers of eating choices.

The last years have witnessed though an explosion in the number of approaches to make the adoption of animal-free diets easier, such as the rise of the flexitarian and reducetarian movements, along with campaigns focusing on gradual change and easier asks, as well as the expansion of plant-based options in the food service industry — adding more convenience to these dietary choices. Several strategies supporting the growth of the alternative protein market (e.g. technological innovation, investor awareness, the creation of interest groups) should also help towards making differences in taste and price between animal and alternative protein choices increasingly less pronounced. In the case of clean (cultivated / slaughter-free) meat, the possibility of not giving up taste, tradition and social status might also be a turning point in driving dietary choices away from animal products for many. When the scale starts tipping to the green side, long-term change might be inevitable.
Share