In 1787, Catherine the Great toured the recently annexed Crimean Peninsula with her conquering Commander-in-chief, Grigory Potemkin.
In an effort to thoroughly impress the Tsarina with the work he had done in the south of Russia (which for many years had been a desolate area ravaged by constant warfare) following the annexation, Potemkin constructed pasteboard facades of fake villages on distant riverbanks along the route.
As a result of his artifice, the term ‘Potemkin village’ is now used to refer to an impressive show designed to hide an undesirable fact or condition.
You may well ask what does modern Russian history and the COVID-19 pandemic have in common?
Well, aside from the appalling health implications, which are still reverberating around the globe, global retail food consumption spiked the world over.
We were able to visualise real time consumption, the effect of which has been almost unprecedented in human history. This rampant consumption was beyond anecdotal, as it was replicated in many markets around the world.
Facebook and Twitter were awash with images of totally bare shelves in meat sections, save for the obviously unappealing plant-based offerings.
The fact that these items were not selling at all, when everything around them was being stripped bare, struck me as very peculiar because one of our fiercest competitions – the closest thing to mortal combat without blood actually being shed – is the scramble for space on the shelves of our major supermarkets.
With shelving space a limited and prized commodity, ‘slotting fees’ are often paid by suppliers to supermarkets to ensure that its products appear on their scarce shelves. And they pay millions of dollars to get the best place on the shelves.
Typically, outside of the meat, fruit and vegetables and dairy sections, nearly every square centimetre of today’s shelves are for sale, which makes recent events all the more revealing.
No product gets a spot on the shelves unless it is making a required level of return for the supermarket – no exceptions. The supermarkets are ruthless in culling non-performing lines.
The fact that these plant-based items are on the shelves – and not selling during periods of unprecedented demand – can only mean that significant slotting fees are being paid.
Given the huge levels of hype surrounding plant-based meats, one would have thought that they would have been able to make their own way in the world. However, it is now beyond clear that the never-ending, relentlessly fawning news coverage relating to the sales of the plant-based sector has been all spin and no substance.
I submit that plant-based meats will find a place in a crowded market, but they will not dominate or become anything other than a niche product. Sure, they will be popular in certain parts of the US and Australia, but in the developing world there will be little to no interest for some time.
People talk a big game about moving away from eating meat, and no doubt tell researchers they are vegetarian when asked – but when they get home they are tucking into a big porterhouse.
The people in the know are Meat and Livestock Australia, whose research shows that for the past three years, the number of metropolitan people who identify as vegan or vegetarian has remained stable at 7 per cent and, of those, 9pc occasionally eat meat.
At the same time, 15pc of meat eaters have been vegetarian in the past – so there’s a high return rate to eating meat.
Veganism may have a lot of celebrity influence and media attention, but there is no groundswell of people turning away from eating meat at present despite the gushing commentary in some of the fish wraps of record.
For mine, Beyond Burger and all the meat analogues are just another type of highly processed food, based on cheap raw ingredients that are marketed as cleaner, more virtuous and healthier. It is the biggest form of greenwashing there is today.
So next time you read an article relating to the ‘feverish’ demand for plant-based meats, take it with a grain of salt – lord knows these meat analogues are already packed to the gills with it.
– Trent Thorne, agribusiness lawyer