March 2021

Photo Credit: Steve Hinshaw, “Bos taurus (aurochs)” licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.

As we begin, slowly, to edge our way out of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have a much clearer picture of the intersections between zoonotic diseases, climate change, and global health for both humans and other animals. As noted earlier in this series, one area in which these junctures converged over the last year was industrialized agriculture, where issues developed regarding the possibility of zoonotic diseases passing back and forth between farmed animals and workers.

Concerns about factory farms are nothing new. The treatment of the animals raised and processed through them, environmental sustainability, and climate change impacts all factor into arguments against the industry—and meat eating itself.

From the perspective of environmental harm, Vasile Santescu points out in his chapter,Cowgate: Meat Eating and Climate Change Denial, “Arguably, the single most categorical and effective statement on the environmental dangers of the raising of animals for human consumption was issued by the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)… [which concluded] that animal farming presents a ‘major threat to the environment’ with such ‘deep and wide-ranging’ impacts that it should rank as a leading focus for environmental policy.”

Now it appears the coronavirus has accelerated the growth of the alternative meat market, a category that includes both in-vitro (also known as “clean,” cell-based, “cultured,” or “lab” meat) and plant-based meat substitutes.

“Clean” meat, produced by taking samples as small as a sesame seed from animals and using that to “grow” meat, is gaining support across lines usually not crossed. According to a discussion on Jane Unchained: Voices for the Voiceless, “Ingrid Newkirk the co-founder and president of PETA is excited for lab-grown meat and even the former CEO of Tyson Foods, Tom Hayes, is in support of the process.” As the above discussion notes, proponents for clean meat point out that it spares animals the horrors of factory farming, is sustainable, and takes up less space. But the debate is not closed. Opponents argue that it is not better for the environment because it uses more energy and fossil fuels to grow the meat, and does not do away with all animal agriculture but aims to end factory farming solely.

Plant-based meat products do away with these concerns, and consumers are noticing. According to Nielson, purchases of plant-based meat alternatives nearly doubled every month of 2020. A Good Food Institute report noted plant-based meat experienced higher dollar and volume sales than animal-based throughout 2020, with a particular bump in March, the beginning of the pandemic when people were pantry stocking. That month, sales growth of plant-based options was 454% higher than the previous year, while animal-based products’ sales increase was only 100%. This compares to only a 26% increase in overall grocery sales.

The pandemic had other impacts as well. The characteristics and management meat processing facilities that led to COVID-19 outbreaks among workers also highlighted concerns about the safety of the meat coming out of them. Despite the knowledge that COVID-19 is not foodborne, in May of 2020, 33% of those surveyed said they were concerned about meat safety given the outbreaks in the packing plants. The same survey found, because of this, that 25% would be less likely to buy meat retail, and 29% would be likely to order less meat dishes at restaurants. Of course, other factors play into consumers’ decisions to eat plant-based meat, among them the desire to try new foods, and the growing awareness that plant alternatives are healthier that animal options.

Plant-based meat alternatives are trending in many regions worldwide. As outlined in a recent Guardian article, concerns over carbon emissions, zoonotic pandemics, and food crises are fueling a move away from meat consumption as a symbol of wealth in China, and plant-based meat substitutes are becoming accepted. And a 2019 report by the Good Food Institute points out that China’s plant-based meat market is projected to grow between 20 and 25% annually. This was due in part to the Chinese government’s 2016 plan to cut the country’s meat intake by 50%. The plan is working, and companies producing meat-free substitutes are expanding across the region, if slowly.

Globally, the plant-based meat market is expected to continue to grow through 2024, with new product launches, growing investments by vendors in the market, and an increase in the number of people following the vegan lifestyle, according to MarketWatch. However, with meat the meat industry still doing well, the question remains open as to whether or not growth of alternative meat will mean a takeover of the meat market. “There aren’t any examples of that happening in the food business,” says Nick Fereday, executive director of food and consumer trends at Rabobank. “The sweetener market is a good example. There are many alternative sweeteners on the market—both artificial and natural. And they’re still just a small portion of the market, which is still dominated by sugar.”

The ongoing suffering of animals within, environmental unsustainability of, and zoonoses-related concerns about factory farming schemes should continue to concern us all. At this point it is heartening to consider that while the growth in plant-based products may not be overtaking the animal meat market, it does appear to be putting a dent in that industry. And that’s a start.


More information:

Cassuto, D. N., 2010. The CAFO Hothouse: Climate Change, Industrial Agriculture, and the Law. Ann Arbor, MI: Animal and Society Institute.

Batini, Nicoletta, Ed., 2021. The Economics of Sustainable Food: Smart Policies for Health and the Planet. All Island Press.

Hwang J, You J, Moon J, Jeong J., 2020. Factors Affecting Consumers’ Alternative Meats Buying Intentions: Plant-Based Meat Alternative and Cultured Meat. Sustainability, 12(14), 5662.

Gregg Sparkman, Bobbie NJ. Macdonald, Krystal D. Caldwell, Brian Kateman, Gregory D. Boese, 2021. Cut Back or Give it Up? The Effectiveness of Reduce and Eliminate Appeals and Dynamic Norm Messaging to Curb Meat Consumption, Journal of Environmental Psychology, 101592,

Vasile Stanescu, 2018. “‘White Power Milk’: Milk, Dietary Racism, and the ‘Alt-Right,’” Animal Studies Journal, 7(2), 103-128.

Katie Whiting, 2020. How soon will we be eating lab-grown meat? World Economic Forum.


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