In the race for the plant-based foods market, the U.S. is falling behind

Although they are the world’s leading producer of plant-based foods, U.S. farmers and food companies are quickly falling behind. 

Denmark and South Korea last month announced plans to expand the production of plant-based foods and ingredients. Denmark is backing its plan with nearly $200 million in investments. These announcements come the same month the European Union made a similar announcement

Like the E.U., nations including Canada, China and Saudi Arabia are making big public sector investments in the production of plant-based food.

Investments into plant-based foods by country

Data sources include the Good Food Institute, news reports, and EWG original analysis. 

Demand for plant-based options is growing dramatically. Over the past three years, it’s  increased 44 percent, from $5 billion in 2019 to more than $8 billion in 2022. Plant-based egg sales grew by 65 percent over the same period. And 15 percent of all milk sold in the U.S. is now plant-based milk.

Falling behind in the race to meet this growing demand is not just bad for the U.S. farmers who grow the ingredients used in plant-based food. It’s also bad for the companies that turn those ingredients into the foods we eat. 

Right now, more than 50,000 workers in the U.S. make plant-based foods. Further lagging will jeopardize these jobs, as well as increase our farm trade deficit, which has been expanding to new records. 

By contrast, U.S. investments in plant-based foods – as Denmark, the E.U. and South Korea have proposed – could add 200,000 more jobs to rural communities by the end of the decade. 

Wrong numbers

Oat production provides a helpful reminder of what can happen when policymakers get the details wrong. 

U.S. farmers produce about 65 million bushels of oats per year, down from a peak of 1.5 billion, in 1945. As oat production shifted to Canada in response to changes in farm policies, U.S. farmers missed out on the booming demand for oat-based products like oat milk. 

Congress’ next farm bill is pivotal for U.S. production of plant-based foods. 

The Department of Agriculture must do more to support plant-based foods. While it has spent almost $60 billion since 1995 to bolster the livestock sector, it’s shelled out roughly just $125 million on plant-based foods – a tiny fraction of the amount spent on livestock.

Legislation introduced by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), supported by farm and food companies and organizations, could make plant-based foods a bigger priority for the USDA. It would clarify eligibility requirements for grants and loans, support farmers growing ingredients like oats and invest in research.

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