Plant-Based Persuasion:
The Tricky Psychology Behind ‘Eat Less Beef’


I cover the intersection of technology, farming and food.


“Eat less beef” is getting a lot of play these days. Pat Brown, CEO of Impossible Foods, recently boasted that “the whole point” of his company is to put beef farmers out of business. A new sweeping environmental report urged Americans to cut back on beef and lamb, and a senior director for the Plant Based Foods Association called this year a “tipping point” for the industry. But the plant-based revolution isn’t over and won just yet. Plant-based foods are definitely trending, but will this trend fizzle or can it evolve into a sustained reduction in beef-eating?

eat less beef, forbes, jenny splitter

Plant-Based Food Sales Continue To Rise

In the past year, sales of plant-based foods have grown 11%, bringing the plant-based market to $4.5 billion. Those are the latest numbers from the Good Food Institute, an advocacy group for plant-based eating that, together with the Plant Based Foods Association, issued last week’s “tipping point” report. It’s impressive growth, to be sure, but, just to keep things in perspective, the U.S. beef industry was valued at $105 billion not too long ago in 2015. Beef farmers aren’t going anywhere.

That sweeping, 556-page report with a 22-point action plan doesn’t call for an army of vegans to bring down the beef industry. Richard Waite, World Resources Institute researcher and co-author of the report, says their plan assumes most people will continue to eat beef well into the future. Not only that, the plan calls only for U.S. and other Western eaters to consume just a little less beef so that people in the developing world can eat a little more.

But You Can Still Eat Meat, Right?

Despite Brown’s comments, companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat know full well that most of their customers still eat animal protein. WRI’s goal is a relatively modest reduction: about a burger and a half per week, according to Waite. “For the 95% of people who do eat at least some meat, [we’re] helping them choose options that are more plant-forward.”

It’s possible to call yourself a plant-based eater and still eat meat. According to a 2019 survey from the International Food Information Council, 30% of consumers think plant-based is synonymous with vegan, that is, eating no animal-based products at all, but a somewhat smaller group defines it as simply eating more vegetables and less processed foods, akin to Michael Pollan’s “eat food, not too much, mostly plants,” rather than strictly vegetarian or vegan.