In meat-loving South Africa, climate concerns whet appetite for veggie burgers

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Lowering animal consumption may boil down to consumers.
Lowering animal consumption may boil down to consumers.
Getty Images/Naomi Rahim
  • South Africans love their meat, but plant-based substitutes are making surprising inroads.
  • This news is heartening for climate scientists, who say meat accounts for a large proportion of all greenhouse gases.
  • Recent research suggests that ending animal agriculture could stabilise greenhouse gas levels for 30 years and offset 68% of CO2 emissions this century.

In South Africa, where braai is an essential part of the culture, plant-based substitutes are making surprising inroads despite a deep cultural love of meat and hostility from the regulator.

That could be heartening for climate scientists, who say shifting diets from emissions-heavy meat and dairy towards more plant-based foods is vital to the fight against climate change.

Plant-based meat substitutes are growing by 6.5% a year and sales are expected to reach $561 million by 2023, according to Research and Markets – more than half Africa's share of a global market forecast to hit $162 billion by 2030.

READ MORE | Plant-based 'meats' really are healthier for our health and environment, review suggests

That is still pretty niche - South Africans spent $15 billion on meat products in 2018 and is now the world's 9th biggest per capita consumer of beef.

But the popularity of veggie alternatives would have been unthinkable even a decade ago and the market is outstripping forecast growth for meat. The shift has so unnerved South Africa's processed meat industry that in June it lobbed for – and got – a government ban on plant-based products using words like 'nugget', 'sausage' or 'burger' on packaging.

The agriculture department at the time said the move was aimed at preventing consumer confusion. A spokesperson did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Food producers remain undeterred.

READ MORE | Vegans vs meat-eaters: who lives longer?

At meat processor Feinschmecker, staff pour powdered soy and pea protein into vats and rehydrate them to make its plant-based 'deli slice' – called so in anticipation of a ban on labelling it 'ham'.

Alistair Hayward, Feinschmecker managing director, told Reuters:

A lot of it is driven by flexitarianism – people who want to make a bit of an effort to eat less meat.

Top food producer Tiger Brands bought a stake in meat-substitute start-up Herbivoire in March, while supermarkets like Woolworths have introduced their own ranges.

Clearly, ethical food choices are a luxury of the relatively well-to-do - a quarter of South Africans struggle to put any food on the table.

Consumer climate

Evidence is accumulating that curbing consumption of meat and dairy – which the latest estimates put at around a fifth of all emissions – is key to meeting UN climate goals.

A paper in Science in February said ending animal agriculture could stabilise greenhouse gas levels for 30 years and offset 68% of CO2 emissions this century; another in 2018 showed switching the world to a purely plant-based diet could slash food-related emissions - which are about 30% of the total - by nearly half.

READ MORE | Can plant-based diets make South Africa healthier?

Yet forgoing cheeseburgers is not something governments, many of which dole out billions of dollars to livestock farmers, are likely to propose at this month's climate talks in Egypt.

Lowering animal consumption, then, may boil down to consumers – like Angie Raphalalani, 57. She gave up meat over climate concerns and her diabetes.

"My immediate family ... were shocked," she said, after lunching at plant-based restaurant Lexi's Healthy Eatery in Johannesburg. "But probably they'll follow me. I'm quite influential in their lives."

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