There’s never been a better time to be vegan. Even just a few years ago, the only real vegan fast-food option was some bean-based Taco Bell concoction, and the closest thing to fake meat a mainstream grocery store sold was a plain brick of extra-firm tofu. But no longer! Burger King, Carl’s Jr., Del Taco and Dunkin’ Donuts all now sell faux-meat versions of their classics, and they actually all taste like meat. My local grocer sells at least two dozen different options for soy-based chicken nuggets, turkey cutlets, hot dogs, what have you. And seemingly overnight, Beyond Meat burgers, sausage and ground “beef” products have found a home in meat refrigerators alongside the real stuff.
But each time I go to pick up a pack of two Beyond Meat burger patties for $5.99 and glance to my left to see that I could pay the same price for eight of the real version, I’m kind of pissed. How is it possible that raising a living animal for slaughter results in a cheaper product than something essentially made of peas?
The answers aren’t very pleasant.
Here’s the thing: Meat costs in the U.S. are comparatively low, ranking 14th in affordability in a study of 50 countries. But to remain low, there are a number of factors at play. Subsidies hold down a significant chunk of meat’s price, reducing the financial risk of poor weather and changes in demand that farmers must burden. Between 1995 and 2019, farmers collected $390 billion in federal subsidies. Corn, wheat and soy were the subject of the majority of these subsidies, accounting for nearly $208 billion, but livestock was the eighth largest receiver, netting around $11.5 billion. Notably, these subsidies primarily benefit large agribusinesses, rather than small farms — 50 people on the Forbes 400 list of the wealthiest Americans received such subsidies, while 62 percent of U.S. farms received none.
Livestock farmers benefit from corn subsidies, as well, of course, since factory-farmed cows are most commonly fed a corn-based diet. And although this diet causes liver-abscesses in nearly 20 percent of cows, it also allows them to quickly gain weight and produce consumer-preferred fat-marbled meat. Essentially, raising cows for cheap meat is done at the expense of the cow’s wellbeing and natural animal needs, bolstered by government money.
On top of that, factory farms are frequently staffed by underpaid and undocumented workers. The average meat industry employee makes only $23,000 a year and typically works more than 10 hours a day. Thirty-eight percent of these employees are undocumented. To get that inexpensive steak on your plate, in other words, a whole lotta animal and human suffering takes place.
But the cheap cost of beef doesn’t explain why Beyond Meat or other realistic faux-meats cost what they do. Much of the costs of these plant-based alternatives boils down to the fact that they’ve only recently hit the market and become mainstream. According to VegNews, Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat still charge a premium in order to keep the profit margins as high as possible so they can continue expanding production. Right now, demand is high and the supply has yet to be scaled to meet this demand; thus, prices are high to compensate.
However, food industry experts predict that plant-based meats will ultimately be cheaper than the real thing: Major food companies like Tyson and Nestle have recently entered the field, and at a larger scale, producing faux-meat is far more efficient than feeding plants to animals to produce meat. More competition, more money and more innovation will soon all equate to lower costs for the consumer.
For now, though, vegans and vegetarians will probably keep happily paying a premium. I know I don’t care how much it costs — do you know how long it’s been since I’ve had a good burger?