Brazil is the world’s leading exporter of beef, supplying about one-quarter of the global market. It’s home to major meat producers, such as JBS and Marfrig, who supply. Feijoada, a stew made with pork and beef, is the national dish. It is also famous for churrascaria, a type of barbecued meat that many Brazilians hold a cultural connection to. But, amid news of the negative health effects of meat consumption and the devastating effects of cattle ranching on the Amazon rainforest, eating habits are slowly changing in the meat-loving nation.
This change is reflected in the growing number of people swapping animal-based burgers for plant-based versions. According to market research firm GlobalData, a third of Brazilians are buying less meat and 14 percent are adding meat replacements to their shopping carts.
Additional data backs this trend. A recent DuPont survey found that 62 percent of Brazilians are interested in plant-based food.
Another study found that a surprising 50 percent of Brazilians are reducing their meat consumption. The Good Food Institute (GFI), a nonprofit organization that opened its Brazilian branch in 2017, developed the research. GFI, which also has affiliates in India, Europe, and the Asia Pacific region, works with companies and government bodies to accelerate the alternative protein market.
Working in Brazil was a “very challenging scenario” at first, Gus Guadagnini, managing director of GFI Brazil, tells LIVEKINDLY. “Even though we had some trends showing that demand for meat alternatives was growing in Brazil, we were not actually seeing that reflected in the market,” he adds.
There were very few plant-based products on the market back in 2017. So, how is it that a nation whose, much like the U.S., food culture is steeped in meat consumption is now emerging as a global alternative protein powerhouse?
Why Is Brazil Eating Less Meat?
According to GFI’s research, the movement is driven primarily by health concerns linked to high meat intake, including heart disease and type-2 diabetes. And while one could achieve a healthier diet by loading up on grains, legumes, and vegetables, consumers don’t want to “give up” the food that’s tied to their culture, Guadagnini explains. Hence the uptick in plant-based meat sales.
Churrascaria is as Brazilian as summer barbecues are American. There’s comfort in the familiarity of spending time grilling meat with friends, family, and beer. The new wave of plant-based meat products hitting the market gives flexitarian consumers an easy “in” to cutting back meat consumption.
“The meat alternative industry has the appeal of being zero cholesterol,” says Guadagnini. While health was the number-one factor by far, allergies also played a role in shifting consumer choices.
Awareness of environmental issues is also a strong influence on Brazil’s fast-growing flexitarian population. The beef industry’s links to Amazon rainforest destruction are well-documented. Pasture for cattle make up about 60 percent of deforested areas, according to Greenpeace Brazil. A report released from the nonprofit last year revealed that JBS, Marfrig, and Minerva, three major meatpackers, purchased cattle linked to deforestation.
Some are reducing meat consumption for the environment, but mainly, the shift away from meat has been about health.“People are looking for what they consider to be healthier products,” says Guadagnini.
Plant-Based Goes Mainstream in Brazil
Like in the U.S., the UK, and China, plant-based meat has evolved beyond bean burgers of the 1990s. And Brazil’s close ties with the meat industry are helping producers capture this growing demand.
JBS, Brazil’s largest meat producer, which has been under fire for its links to Amazon deforestation, now makes plant-based meat. It launched a soy-based burger under its brand Seara in spring 2019. In early 2020, it expanded its range and established partnerships with major restaurant chains across the country, including Applebee’s and Subway.
Burger King Brazil, which has 871 locations across the country, now serves the meatless Rebel Whopper. Marfrig, the world’s second-largest beef producer, makes the patty.
Well-known food giants are not alone in capitalizing on the increased interest in vegan meat. Brazilian food tech startup Fazenda Futuro, which translates to “Future Farm,” sells its plant-based sausages, burgers, mince, and meatballs across thousands of supermarkets. Last September, it announced the closure of a $21 million fundraising round to expand into the U.S. market.
International brands are moving in, too. Late last year, Unilever-owned brand The Vegetarian Butcher launched via foodservice channels across the country. California’s Beyond Meat debuted on the Brazilian market over the summer.“When you introduce a product that tastes the same [as meat], so the person doesn’t have the previous [negative product experience] with plant-based food, and it costs the same, you create an incentive to buy,” Guadagnini explains. He adds that the fact that “it’s much better for the environment and it won’t hurt any animals” is also a strong selling point.
Brazil: The Next Big Plant-Based Food Tech Hub?
Silicon Valley and the Netherlands have emerged as leaders in the food technology space. But, could Brazil be next? In January 2020, GFI Brazil partnered with FoodTech Hub Brazil. The first-of-its-kind innovation lab in Latin America supports the burgeoning market.
In early 2020 JBS opened a food tech lab called “The Incredible Lab.”
The hub unites food scientists, chefs, and innovators. There, its plant-based brand Seara has established partnerships with startups and Google to produce plant-based meat for the global market. The company developed its products using the “Biomolecule i,” an ingredient that makes plant-based products taste like meat. The investment in food tech hints that JBS believes the interest in meatless meat is here to stay.
“The journey of consumers who want to invest in a meatless diet starts with understanding alternative ways to eat, and is quickly evolving to the search for products, recipes, and restaurants. The trend is for the interest from Brazilians about the topic to increase over the next few years,” Marco Bebiano, Business director for Consumer Goods, Technology and Government at Google Brazil, said in a statement.
The Government’s Response
The beef industry is one of the main pillars of the Brazilian economy. So understandably, the government is invested in its success. The national beef industry is among the most heavily subsidized by state and federal governments. It takes $2.2 billion per year in tax incentives, easy credit, and debt forgiveness. For every $1 collected in taxes from the beef sector, only 20 cents goes back to society. The rest goes back to producers.
The dominance of cattle ranchers was one of the biggest challenges faced by GFI when the Brazilian branch opened in 2018, Guadagnini explains. On top of government subsidizations, meat firms have gained political favor in the form of bribery. In May 2017, a JBS executive testified that the company had bribed 1,829 political candidates across the spectrum.
So, how is the government responding to what could be considered a threat to the beef industry? It’s going “much, much better than we could have expected,” says Guadagnini.
An Opportunity, Not a Threat
“GFI is framing this as ‘we need to stop looking at this new market like a threat and start seeing it as an opportunity,’” he continues. Instead of shunning plant-based meat, GFI wants to help one of the world’s strongest agribusinesses embrace new food technologies while educating politicians and business leaders on how it will benefit the economy.
This means utilizing the infrastructure and knowledge held by large meat companies such as JBS. It also means working directly with Brazilian farmers to source ingredients for plant-based meat production. Guadagnini adds that the government is “very interested” in seeing the industry grow in this way —particularly because it can also help create new jobs.
“This is adding to the idea that we can actually prove the industry is bringing funds to new markets and creating new jobs,” says Guadagnini. “Bringing jobs to Brazil from this new market is creating very good momentum. …And this kind of information is attracting attention in a positive way.”
But, Brazil needs to keep up with food innovation in order to benefit from the plant-based boom.“If we invest in this technology, if we invest in the ingredients needed, then jobs are going to be created and new taxes can be collected in Brazil,” says Guadagnini. “And if we do this in a way that’s not leaving anyone behind, then we can have the technology to improve the farmers in struggling farms as well.”