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Public policies and vested interests preserve the animal farming status quo at the expense of animal product analogs

Alt text: Portrait of an angry looking cow. Photo by Matthis Volquardsen via Pexels

This article examines the dynamics of transition away from an animal product based food system and evaluates the potential for novel plant based products to supplant meat and dairy. The authors found that public funding for the novel products is smaller than that for animal products by factors of 1,200 in the EU and 800 in the US.

This was influenced by powerful vested interests who exerted both significant investment and political influence to maintain the system unchanged and to obstruct competition created by technological innovations.


The authors presuppose that a transition from an animal-based food system is environmentally necessary and that this will require a shift in dietary habits that could be significantly supported by the development and scaling of novel animal product analogues. The paper analyses the policies that shape or hinder this transition using the multilevel perspective, a social science framework used to identify commonalities in socio-technical transitions. The framework identifies three elements; an incumbent technology (in this instance the meat and dairy system), a novel innovation (plant-based alternatives including traditional alternatives such as soy milk, but also new technologies such as cellular agriculture) and external developments in the broad political, economic and social landscape. Dynamics in this landscape have the potential to accelerate the rise of novel innovation, for example growing eco-anxiety and public awareness of the connection between diets and climate. Others have the potential to destabilise the incumbent regime, such as zoonotic disease. Equally, government spending, policies, technological innovation and lobbying all influence the probability and the speed at which transition occurs. The article found that the following policies were having a significant effect in this instance (see figure 1 for graphical representation):


  • Public spending on supply: Most of the support offered to farmers in the EU is decoupled (independent of type of product) payments, whilst in the US most payments are conditioned on type (eg. livestock or a specific crop). In the EU, 52% of financial support went to the livestock farming and in the US 46% of supply-side spending went to livestock and feed crops. In contrast about 0.1% of both EU and US spending went on the novel sector. 
  • Public nutrition guidance: Nutrition guidance in both regions mostly aligned on the consumption of the incumbent products and much less so on novel products. For example, daily milk consumption was widely supported, whilst milk alternatives were not advised. Whilst EU countries generally advised limiting red meat consumption and mentioned legumes as a replacement, only a minority mentioned novel products as alternatives. There was no mention of the connection between animal products and environmental impacts in the US and in most EU guidelines. If diets were modelled on dietary guidelines, both US and EU would significantly miss their emissions targets because of the over-representation of animal products.
  • Public procurement: Only incumbent products were supported by public procurement programmes.
  • Regulations: definitions of meat, dairy and their analogues have been repeatedly challenged, with prohibitions on the use of terms such as milk and cheese to market alternatives to animal-derived ingredients. In both regions, initiatives to ban or limit the use of animal-derived product names (eg. burger, steak) for their alternatives have been proposed in many locations with different degrees of success. This can cause negative associations or confusion for consumers who may have been interested in novel products.
  • Non-government lobbying and spending: In the US $30 million was spent on lobbying Congress by meat and dairy industry representatives between 2014 and 2020 and around $13.5 million in Europe. In the same period, around $5 million was spent by novel regime actors (mostly animal welfare advocates) in the EU and negligible amounts were spent in the US.


fig. 1, Vallone, S. and Lambin, E. F., 2023. Graphical representation of comparative investment in animal products and alternatives in the US and EU

Alt text: fig. 1, Vallone, S. and Lambin, E. F., 2023. Graphical representation of comparative investment in animal products and alternatives in the US and EU


The authors found that whilst there is significant private investment in research and innovation in novel products and some public support for high-risk niche innovations, public spending still privileges both livestock raising and feed production. This spending induces farmers to become less risk-averse when considering the sustainability of their farming practices and less motivated to leave current production systems, generating lock-ins to the incumbent regime. Whilst payments in the EU are generally decoupled from product type, cattle producers are highly dependent on direct payments, which constitute half their income. These payments incentivise farmers to maintain herd size, keep pasture in production, or increase the level of supported activity, potentially hindering climate-mitigation efforts. Furthermore, a lack of climate-mitigation conditions to this financial support, combined with weak non-compliance penalties makes these supports ineffective at reducing the negative environmental externalities on the incumbent production system. 


They conclude that the food system is locked into an animal-based technological system, maintained by technological, institutional, and social pressures and in spite of the high environmental externalities of the system. The results of the study showed that incumbents exerted instrumental power on government, actively pressuring against novel products through a variety of means. These include: issues related to novel product marketing standards and labelling; opposing environmental and climate related regulations; exerting influence through the supply chain, for example by maintaining low meat prices; lobbying to exclude sustainability language from dietary guidelines in the US and more.





A transformation of the food system that heavily relies on animal-derived foods is required to reduce its impact on climate, deforestation, and biodiversity. This challenge demands an understanding of the policies and vested interests enabling or hindering progress toward sustainable production systems. We applied the multilevel perspective framework to evaluate the incumbent sociotechnical regime—animal farming—and the niche innovations producing animal product analogs. We conducted a comparative analysis of the United States and European Union to assess possible trajectories of food system transition. Our findings reveal that, although in recent years both governments have invested in niche innovations and have started to modify regulations, they mostly preserved the status quo of animal-based production and consumption. Despite the urgency to increase food system sustainability, policies failed to address the environmental impacts of animal-based technologies. Powerful vested interests exerted their political influence to maintain the system unchanged and to obstruct competition created by technological innovations.




Vallone, S. and Lambin, E.F., 2023. Public policies and vested interests preserve the animal farming status quo at the expense of animal product analogs. One Earth.

Read the full article here, as well as news reporting on this paper here and listen to more about the future of meat in our four episode podcast series

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