Opinion: Is NZ ready for the plant-based meat revolution?


I am old enough to remember the celebration of the centenary of the first frozen sheep meat shipment from New Zealand.Yes, it was a big day.In fact, St Hilda’s Collegiate School for Girls had a train trip to just outside Oamaru, the site of the first shipment, to celebrate.In a strange sort of way, it was memorable, or perhaps we just didn’t get many outings!

Fast forward to 2021 and we are witnessing another revolution.This is unlikely to be marked by train trips and centenaries because the introduction and embedding of foods made from plant proteins has been more subtle. Eating plant proteins is not new (peas, beans, nuts, soy are all examples) but what has rapidly changed is using plant-based proteins to replace traditional animal-based proteins.

The size of the alternative proteins market (proteins designed to displace meat) has grown considerably; between 2010-2020 US$5.9 billion (NZ$8.41 billion) has been invested in developing plant-based, fermentation, and cell culture technologies and products. Of that amount, $3.1 billion was in 2020 alone. What is particularly interesting (and significant) is the “who” behind the investment.While a number of the technologies have come from the tech sector, investment is flowing in from traditional red meat and dairy groups.Three of the largest meat producers in the United States, Cargill, Tyson, and JBS, have all diversified their portfolios by both investing in meat-free companies and developing their own plant-based products.

Similar to the large meat companies, global dairy giants are also investing in dairy alternatives.Danone have been particularly active and are aiming to earn €5bn in sales of alternative dairy products by 2025.Another example is Yili, which has invested heavily in developing plant-based dairy products in China.

Consumer responses to the availability of plant-based products is not fickle – the EU-funded “Smart Protein Project” reported a 49 per cent increase in purchases between 2018 and 2020; and in some countries the growth was even higher (Germany, for example, had a 97 per cent growth in plant-based food).Supermarket chains are responding to the growth, for example UK supermarket chain Tesco has a target of increasing plant-based meat products by 300 per cent by 2025.

Factors driving the consumer shift include perceived health benefits, animal welfare concerns, environmental sustainability and climate change concerns.One report suggests that UK diners will eat 1.2 billion meat-free meals this year.

How are we responding in New Zealand?It depends who you ask.Some are embracing the opportunities while others are vehemently claiming that they won’t last; arguably investment to date has been lagging. Despite this, there have been some exciting IP developments by companies such as Greenfern who are developing hemp-based food products or the expansion of products from pioneers Sunfed (now offering animal free beef, bacon and chicken).Regardless of where you sit on the topic, there have been a number of supply chain issues, as a result of the pandemic, that will accelerate the shift to both more sustainable and more robust food supply chains in our key markets.

Specifically, avoiding food insecurity will drive what we eat.History clearly shows pasteurisation, cold-storage and other innovations have altered what we eat and what food is available. Increased disruptions from climate change and supply chain fragilities will further alter what the “norm” is for our export markets.

Increasingly, we are likely to see a growth in demand for products that can prove that the impact of their production is minimal, that are healthy, and that they can be easily transported with longer shelf-life. Tolerance for wastage (for example, the slaughter of healthy pigs in the UK because of shortages of butchers and lack of space to raise them), is running out.

It is worth taking a moment to think about innovation.As a nation we excel at creating new ways of doing things – of taking a problem and turning it into an innovative solution.What we are less good at doing is adopting that solution.Innovation can either be supported politically or it can be left to flounder, or as is often the case, it makes its way overseas.

When I talk with colleagues the story of not getting support, in New Zealand, for innovation is consistent.There are pockets of hope when it comes to diversification and vision in food systems. Take for example, the work in Southland where Great South is championing options for the primary sector.Sadly, however, it seems that this is an exception rather than the rule.

This also raises the question of who has “governance” over the food system.While there are a number of global and domestic regulatory agencies charged with various aspects of supply chain oversight, these have little vision about the development of new foods.Making sure available food is safe and nutritious is an important role and should not be underestimated but the same people who make sure that food is safe should not be the same people who create or influence new foods.To do so would compromise their ability for impartial overview.Someone needs to be in charge; I would argue that that someone is the well-informed consumer.

We are at an exciting junction. As a food-producing nation, we can continue to produce traditional food in a traditional manner and hope the market will want it. Or we can choose to accept an opportunity to really invest in diversification.I guess time will tell, but I don’t expect any train trips.

– Helen Darling has a PhD in Public Health and has been working in food systems for some time.  She is co-founder of FoodTruths.org, a New Zealand start-up that is reimagining food systems for the benefit of people and the planet.

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