Years ago, at a Wells Fargo customer event, we had the enjoyable experience of listening to a witty, jovial, and knowledgeable labor attorney who actually made one question all those lawyer jokes. He imparted some great advice about managing tough employment situations. He told a number of stories about companies firing employees for egregious behavior, all with a central theme of “being surprised that they’re surprised.” In one story, an employee was surprised about being fired for driving a forklift through a wall, and in another, the employee was surprised about being fired for not having shown up to work for several weeks, without communicating anything to anyone. In both of these instances, the managers were “surprised that the employees were surprised” about getting fired. Across all of his examples, the employees almost universally said to the managers, “You never said anything about it, or “You didn’t seem too upset when it happened.” The point that the attorney was making involved the failure to communicate the basics, and the documentation of that communication.
So what does this have to do with the discussion around “plant based diets”?
There are many stories in the media about people changing to “plant based diets” in effort to combat climate change, or for other reasons. I’ve intentionally put quotes around the words “plant based diets” here because all diets are based on plants. In reality, meat, fish, or dairy products are based on plants as well, but the plants have simply passed through an animal or fish to become a different type of protein.
All food is ultimately plant based. We have perfectly good names for diets that exclude meat, fish, and dairy products. They are called vegetarian or vegan. People have all sorts of reasons for how they choose to eat, such as health concerns, environmental concerns, as well as other sentiments. So, the real question from the media is “Are more people avoiding meat, fish, and dairy?” This question is followed by “What does it mean to U.S. agriculture if more people eat a vegetarian or vegan diet?” My response is that there is no statistical evidence that more people are eating strictly vegetarian or vegan diets based on our production and consumption statistics. And, this is where “I’m surprised that they’re surprised” comes into play. When I explain the acreage and production break-outs by crop, they’re surprised that these plant-based protein crops make up so little of the U.S. acreage and production and consumption.
As depicted in the above graph, U.S. consumers have never eaten more meat and poultry per person than currently. The USDA’s most recent data runs through 2019, and livestock and poultry production data from 2020 and 2021 to date does not show any slowdown or reversal of this trend.
A couple of things should stand out when looking at the meat consumption graph. First, from the early 19th century until the late 1950s, the trend for per capita consumption of meat and poultry was flat. It had some major cycles and events, but the trend did not change significantly. During that time, beef made up the majority of meat consumed, with pork and poultry playing minor roles. So, what changed in the 1950s to get the United States on the increasing meat consumption trend? It was all about corn yields starting to rise through mechanization, hybrids, and fertilizer. This made corn to feed animals ever cheaper relative to off-farm income. As corn became cheaper on a relative basis to off-farm income, it made sense to produce and sell more meat, and especially poultry, as it became more affordable.
Second, referencing the graph, what about the reversal from 2006 until 2015? Biofuels created an alternative demand for corn that made corn more expensive for feeding animals, and that made meat relatively more expensive, constricting its demand through price and income elasticity. After corn prices fell back to earth in 2014, the U.S. livestock and poultry industry found it profitable to expand meat production again.
Maybe people are eating more plant-based protein and eating more meat and poultry at the same time. More likely, there are two significantly different groups of consumers with completely different profiles. The second idea makes more sense than the first. Either way, does it make a difference to the U.S. agricultural production system? The answer is no. According to the production statistics, not much has changed in terms of acreage and production. Surprisingly, the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) is a better resource to evaluate the U.S.’s long-term trends than the USDA. The USDA has more timely data, and is the ultimate source of the statistics in the FAO’s database, but the FAO arranges that data in a better and more comparable format.
The following two graphs include data through 2019. In the first graph, the 2019 drop in “other crops” was due to unusual weather that prevented the planting of many acres. However, the USDA’s planting data from June of 2021 does not show much change from the FAO’s harvested acreage numbers up through 2019 for plant-based protein crops.
The 2.3% percent of acreage harvested in 2017 set a record high from the time FAO’s data collection began in 1961. Claiming that plant-based protein is making a big move based on that percentage seems like a real stretch. Most of these crops, with the exception of peanuts, are grown in the High Plains region of the United States, in states like North Dakota and Montana, and states in the Pacific Northwest. The collapse in corn, wheat, and soybean prices in 2014 left these producers looking for an alternative crop to yield profits. And, the growth in demand for delicious and easy-to-eat food products, like hummus and other plant-based foods, offered good possibilities for profits. However, these acres probably left other small grain and oilseed crops like barley, oats, rye, and sunflowers to hunt for profits. The big three row crops ― corn, soybean, and wheat ― remain the dominant crops in the U.S. agricultural system for many reasons.
In the above graph, it appears that chickpeas (going to hummus), dry peas, and lentils did grow their acreage. However, some of that acreage growth came at the expense of dry bean acreage. That makes sense from an agronomic and economics standpoint since they share many similarities from a cropping perspective. Additionally, the U.S. is a net exporter of these crops, so that makes it difficult to disentangle the acreage and domestic demand for the most recent years. The USDA’s food availability and consumption statistics do not break out these plant-based proteins separately for a complete analysis. At the end of the day and the analysis, the claim that plant-based proteins are making a significant impact on the U.S. diet does not hold up. To quote an old saying, that would be “making a mountain out of a molehill.”
So, are we on the cusp of a real change in demand for plant-based protein versus animal-based protein? I personally don’t think so. Go back and look at the long-term trend for meat consumption. Whenever Americans are given the chance to eat competitively priced meat and poultry, they have made the decision to eat more of it. So, why would that be changing now? It does not appear that all of the arguments made to the public have persuaded many consumers to change their preferences. Maybe just maybe, people are just about to change their minds, but that seems like a real long shot of a bet based on what the numbers are telling us. At the end of the day, being surprised is an unpleasant situation more often than not. And, the labor attorney’s entertaining stories about “being surprised that they’re surprised” were only entertaining because it was happening to someone else.