Amid surging beef prices, more budget-friendly chicken has become a more attractive alternative protein for inflation-weary consumers. But for a longer-term fix, experts say addressing climate change is the answer.
"When you have a drought, obviously it impacts the productivity of these crops which are being fed to the animals, and that actually triggers the prices of these goods," said Atul Jain, a professor in the department of atmospheric sciences at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
"If you could mitigate climate change, we may be able to return back to normal conditions, and perhaps we would not have a huge impact," he later added.
U.S. consumers can expect even more pain ahead when shopping for beef. Data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows cattle ranchers have begun selling or culling herds in response to climate change-related pressures like drought and surging feed costs. Herd levels have dropped 2 percent since July 2021.
Some consumers have switched up their protein purchases to protect their wallets, choosing comparatively cheaper chicken at grocery stores. But producers have noticed the trend. Tyson announced during its latest earnings report it had increased chicken prices by just over 20 percent to combat inflation amid softening demand for more expensive beef, according to Reuters.
Inflation has come for plant-based food producers, too. When Beyond Meat reported second-quarter earnings last week, the company reported a 1.6 percent drop in revenue and laid off 4 percent of staff. Executives noted that inflationary pressures on consumers had an impact on sales. Even so, CEO and president Ethan Brown doubled down on the company's goal to achieve price parity with animal products.
A cow vocalizes in a blackened pasture at the McKinney Fire, in the Klamath National Forest near Yreka, California, on August 2, 2022. - At least four people are now known to have died in a wildfire sweeping through California, authorities said on August 2, as they warned the toll from the state's worst blaze this year could rise further. Rain and cooler conditions brought some relief to hundreds of firefighters battling to protect the 8,000-person town of Yreka, but the human cost of the inferno was already mounting. (Photo by DAVID MCNEW / AFP) (Photo by DAVID MCNEW/AFP via Getty Images)
"With the recent, dramatic, decline in consumer buying power, the importance of delivering on our price parity targets is magnified. We take note of this powerful reminder, and continue to advance as well as broaden cost reduction activities in service to realizing price parity," he said in a statement.
By and large, plant-based meat alternatives are still more expensive than actual meat. But producers are hoping to achieve price parity in the not-too-distant future, thanks to technological advances.
Meanwhile, cutting down on meat consumption altogether has proven a wallet-friendly choice. A study by consulting group Kantar, commissioned by Veganuary in 2020, found that plant-based meals eaten at home cost about 40 percent less than meat-based diets. Eating less meat can translate to immediate savings at the grocery store, while also combating one of the major contributors to climbing food prices: climate change.
The food sector contributes about 35 percent of man-made, global greenhouse gas emissions or about 17 billion metric tons of CO2 equivalents per year, according to a study published in Nature Food in September 2021. It also found that animal-based food consumption accounts for about 57 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions from the production and consumption of food. Plant-based food consumption accounts for just 29 percent. The remaining 14 percent come from other uses, like biofuel.
"When we talk about the mitigation of climate change, you know, the focus so far is on a very specific sector, which is the energy sector. But there are some opinions that not only the energy sector, but other sectors also can help us to control greenhouse gas emissions," said Jain, who worked on the study. "You cannot ignore the food sector, because it's contributing more than one-third of the greenhouse gas emissions."
Cutting down on greenhouse gas emissions is vital to food security, because higher temperatures and climate change-related extreme weather events are making food production less reliable — and therefore more expensive, according to the World Economic Forum.
Although adopting a plant-based or plant-forward diet can help to mitigate climate change, Jain said consumers can also consider choosing meat from non-ruminant animals. Ruminant livestock like cows and sheep have four-chambered stomachs and produce more methane. According to the USDA, 30 percent of greenhouse gas warming in agriculture comes from methane produced by ruminants. Alternatives like poultry produce less.
But dietary switches aren't the only way to cut down on emissions in the food sector.
"I think when we talk about mitigation, always the easiest solution is to think of controlling your diet. But I think you have to also remember that the production side of the equation can also help us to control greenhouse gas emissions," Jain said.
Farmers can feed livestock inhibitors to cut down on the methane their digestive systems produce or choose alternative food sources. No-till farming techniques can help trap greenhouse gasses in soil, while also boosting farmers' productivity, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
As for those considering switching to a plant-based or plant-forward diet, Jain cautioned that anyone considering a dietary shift should speak to a medical professional.