Before COVID-19, plant-based and sustainability were arguably the two hottest food trends. The pandemic has had a major impact on grocery shopping behavior. At first, pandemic purchasing resulted in empty shelves in the shelf-stable products and frozen food aisles. More recently, shoppers have opted for comfort foods.

What impact will this have on the trend toward plant-based foods? At the moment, people are purchasing more meat. Meat sales were up 91% year over year for the week ending March 22, which has caused some to speculate that the pandemic will at least temporarily reverse the plant-based trend. 

But there’s also evidence this might not be the case. That same week (ending March 21), sales of fresh meat alternatives saw year-over-year growth of 454.1%, while sales of fully-cooked meat alternatives grew 128.6%. And the results of a Kearney survey released on Earth Day suggest that the environment is still top-of-mind — nearly half of respondents said the pandemic has made them more concerned about the environment, and 55% said they were “more likely to purchase environmentally-friendly products” as result of their COVID-19 experiences.

It’s our opinion that the plant-based trend will continue to gain traction with consumers. For perspective on this trend and how top food companies are responding to it, I interviewed Amy Senter, Chief Sustainability Officer at Kellogg Company. This interview took place mid-March, as COVID-19 was just starting to reshape life in the United States, but the issues it speaks to were shaping the food industry before the pandemic hit and will likely continue to do so after the current crisis has subsided.

Plant-based could well be the defining food trend of the decade. How are you seeing this trend play out?

AS: People have long wanted to know what is in their foods and that it is good for them. Today, the conversation has evolved. People want to know how food is grown and that it is made responsibly with less of an impact on the environment. People have chosen to eat a plant-based diet for years; however, recent studies making the connection to the health and environmental benefits of plant-based diets has heightened the conversation. 

People more than ever are exploring plant-based food options. Nielsen research has shown that 75% of the U.S. population is open to eating veggie foods. We’re seeing this trend play out in the demand for new plant-based alternatives across multiple categories, but especially with plant-based meat alternatives. Our MorningStar Farms brand, for example, the long-time veggie foods category leader, saw share growth in 2019 and recently launched Incogmeato, a delicious new line of next-generation plant-based protein that looks, cooks, and tastes just like meat. Kellogg’s entire food portfolio is 86% plant-based, which includes our cereals, snacks, and meat alternatives brand, [making] us a leading global plant-based food company.

What are the benefits of a plant-based diet for people and the planet?

Plant-based foods are affordable, provide nutrition benefits and often have less fat and calories compared to animal protein. Kellogg’s cereals, for example, deliver important nutrients such as fiber, B vitamins, and iron. And our MorningStar Farms black bean burgers are made with 72% less fat than regular ground beef and deliver 9g of protein. 

Plant-based foods also have a lower environmental impact, requiring less land and water to produce. A few years ago, Kellogg did a life cycle assessment on the environmental benefits of plant-based dietary choices. The study found that when an adult chooses a meatless breakfast, lunch, or dinner rather than one that contains meat, carbon footprint, water use and other environmental indicators reduced on average by 40%.

What’s the importance of increasing the plant diversity profile of food and how can companies like Kellogg’s contribute to this effort?

Eating a greater variety of plant-based foods could have a beneficial effect on physical wellbeing and support a more sustainable food supply for generations to come. Eating a plant-diverse diet increases the intake of nutrient dense foods and provides essential micro- and macro-nutrients to the body, which also supports a healthy digestive system. 

It’s estimated that there are 30,000 edible plants available on Earth, yet we only eat 150 of them. And just three main plants — corn, rice and wheat — account for more than 50% of food consumed by people globally.

Leveraging the same crop year-over-year depletes important soil nutrients, which places a strain on the land and impacts the soil’s productivity for growing food. Encouraging a greater variety of crops into our food system will help boost soil health, support biodiversity, and enable the ability to grow more food on the same land source.

What role will consumer education play in moving the plant-based trend forward?

We know people are interested in trying new foods and exploring different ingredients and how that ultimately impacts their diet. That said, educating consumers on the health AND planetary benefits of eating plant-based is still in its early stages.

Kellogg, academics, and other organizations have an opportunity to continue to explain how plants play an important role in helping people and the planet. We created the Morningstar Farms Veg Effects Calculator to help people understand how swapping a beef burger for a Morningstar Farms burger can reduce your GHG emissions and water impact. We are working to do the same on other foods.

How will our current food system have to change to become fully sustainable?

Our global food system is not currently set up to properly nourish billions of people. As we know from FAO, more than 820 million people face a future of food insecurity. [This number has increased due to COVID-19.]

To ensure a more sustainable food supply, we must go back to the origin of our ingredients. Companies need to support farmers and workers as they adopt more sustainable and regenerative agriculture practices that help promote soil health, protect biodiversity, halt deforestation, and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. 

As part of our Kellogg’s Better Days global purpose platform, we’ve already supported more than 330,000 farmers, including women and smallholders, through our Kellogg’s Origins Projects around the world. These projects are essential to building trust and driving impact. We do that by working with farmers, suppliers, trusted NGO’s, technical partners, and others to assess areas of opportunity, share best practices, and measure outcomes to make step changes across the food system.

Supporting a diverse, plant-based diet will help this effort. As a leading plant-based food company, we recognize the role our company can play by intentionally enhancing the plant diversity of our foods through looking at innovation differently in the future. This can create a demand signal for farmers who are looking to enhance their crop rotations or plant cover crops that may become cash crops in the future. We don’t know what that will look like in the future, but it is an exciting opportunity that we are ready to explore. 

What do you think the food system will look like 10 years from now?

My hope is that by the end of 2030, our food system will be well-positioned to feed our global population while protecting the precious natural resources we have for generations to come.