Plant-Based Protein is Nothing New

(Photo by Jim Beauprez)


The newest trend in the food marketplace these days is “plant-based protein”. Among the thousands of exhibitors at the recent Natural Products Expo in Anaheim, CA were a crowded number of booths touting plant based proteins, and—in many cases—“plant-based meat.” Even traditional meat companies like Tyson are investing heavily in companies that are developing these plant-based “meats.”

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against companies trying to artificially create some products out of textured wheat protein, leghemoglobin and konjac gum. Just don’t call it plant-based meat.

Meat already owns that title.

Labeling meat alternatives as plant-based meat seems to imply that meat—real meat—is based on something less than plants. That assumption is false, and the logic involved leads to an ecologically dangerous dead-end. Not only is meat plant-based, but most of the plants critical to the health of the soil, water and air are meat-based.

No one understands that better than bison producers working to maximize the symbiotic relationship of their herds and the grasslands.

The father of organic agriculture, Albert Howard, noted in 1945, “Never does Nature separate the animal and vegetable worlds. This is a mistake she cannot endure, and of all the errors which modern agriculture has committed this abandonment of mixed husbandry has been the most fatal.”

Responsible ranchers today live by this credo. Many ranchers refer to themselves as “grass-farmers.” One of the must-read periodicals in the grassfed livestock movement is the Stockman Grass Farmer.

Bison producers and other livestock ranchers use their animals to manage grass and other plants that grow in their pastures and rangelands. The manure that serves as fertilizer for the plants is only one aspect of grass-farming. Proper grazing stimulates healthy root systems that hold soil and sequester carbon. Hoof action stirs the soil and buries the seed. And—in the case of bison—wallowing creates depressions that help capture and retain valuable rainfall.

Pastures unbroken by a plow provide fertile habitat for prairie dogs, burrowing owls, rabbits, coyotes, and other animals. It all works together.

Cutting back on meat consumption may help reduce some of the environmentally damaging practices in agriculture. But removing meat animals from the food equation would result in an environmental disaster.

So, let’s get back to the basic concept behind “natural” food. In that sense, meat is the natural plant-based protein. Let’s come up with a different name for that meaty-tasting product manufactured in a processing plant from soybeans and leghemoglobin…whatever the heck that is.

P.S. The National Bison Association now owns the trademark to the term “Nature’s Original Plant-Based Protein®.” Any ideas on how we can put that to use? Email me at


Our Underground Connection with the Natural Food Shopper

If you want to learn about emerging trends in the world of food, Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim is the place to be each March.

Expo West, as it is known, began 37 years ago, when a handful of natural food growers, manufacturers and stores decided to hold an annual trade show for their emerging industry. In the early days, some exhibitors slept in their booths to avoid the cost of a hotel room, and handed out samples from picnic coolers. it resembled a farmers’ market inside a convention hall.
That was then.

This week, roughly 85,000 retailers, manufacturers, distributors and—oh yes—a few ranchers and farmers, are weaving their way through the maze of booths and exhibits that pack the massive convention center next door to Disneyland. The fancy booths—some costing as much as a modest home—offer samples of everything from seaweed salad to all-natural bone broth. As one friend observed a couple of years ago, “It’s a lot of big companies trying to look like little companies.”

In addition to the trade show, Expo West features a wealth of seminars and workshops on topics relating to marketing, policy, and sourcing. Yesterday, I headed over to a session entitled “Regenerative Earth Interactive Workshop.”

I was surprised and pleased to find a long line of people waiting to get into the session. So many, in fact, that I was one of the last allowed in the room before they cut off the line. The workshop consisted of small, facilitator-led discussions on topics ranging from “How do companies help farmers transition to regenerative?,” to “How do we make this scalable?” (translation: “big and marketable”).

The good news from the workshop: There is growing recognition that the health of the soil is the foundation of a healthy food system, and—ultimately—a healthy environment. Attendees participated with a real passion for buying food that came from producers working to restore healthy soil.

The bad news: In the two groups that I sat in on, there was virtually no conversation on the role of grazing ruminants as a cornerstone of soil health.

Perhaps that’s not all bad news. Perhaps it’s an opportunity disguised as bad news.

The packed room for this session reflects a growing recognition among consumers and retailers regarding the importance of soil health. Those folks want healthy soil. But they don’t live on the land, so their understanding of the complexities of soil health is slight.

As bison producers we have an opportunity to connect with those consumers with a message that eating bison meat is helping to restore herds that are a key component in maintaining healthy grasslands and building healthy soil.

As I headed back into the exhibition hall and wandered by the booths promoting “clean meat” (fake meat made from plants and additives), I realized that it’s not too soon to make that message a priority.