Rise and Rise of Plant Based Meat

September 16, 2019

Watching the Good Food Institute's 2019 Conference livestream in Australia recently reinforced the need for a more diverse palette of pulses to keep up with growing consumer demand for plant based meats.  They are after all, a food, needing ingredients from large and small producers ideally -pulses, grains, vegetables - even mushrooms.  At the Fine Food Show in Sydney last week, interest was also high in plant based meats, with the Alternative Proteins talk on the day I attended standing room only.  It was exciting to see a brand new Australian-made and owned plant based meat product featured at the show - MEET - "100% plant based goodness" with "a taste, texture close to meat", according to marketing material.  Technology for this product came through a Food Innovation Grant in conjunction with the CSIRO.  May many more grants follow!

Widespread development and availability of these 'new era' plant based meats is contingent on ingredients, investment in research and development, infrastructure. While there has been criticism of this food being 'highly processed' and 'unnatural', as well as seemingly forensic analysis of ingredients at times, the reality is that when we cook, we process food.  These products will only keep getting better, as this area matures and as more are added to the spectrum.

Research will doubtless become more focused (will we add 'air proteins' to the mix or chick pea textured protein?) and as appropriate levels of training are undertaken, within schools right through to tertiary establishments, there will be greater education and understanding of these plant based meat products.  They are not designed to replace cooking.  I would like to think that the all-important cooking-from-scratch has not left us entirely (heaven help humanity if it has!) nor the ease with which we can just simply use pulses on their own. (I do hope training of future chefs in hospitality gives the humble pulse the respect it deserves as this has been sadly lacking in the past.)

Historically, attempts to encourage people to eat less meat haven't worked, despite ample information that levels of meat consumption are unsustainable - interestingly at a time when consumption of fruit and vegetables is generally abysmal in Australia.  We must work where the bulk of humanity is now - culturally, socially, while acknowledging that price, taste, convenience play a big part in this.  Plant based meats are a high impact solution to climate change, loss of nature, loss of biodiversity in a world with finite natural  resources.  Australia, the driest inhabited  continent on earth, is the world's largest net exporter of water via crops, livestock and industry, at a time when we are facing again a very long, hot, dry Summer, with no rain in a number of areas and stressed river systems.

Pulses are important in the Australian grains industry, and are grown in a variety of diverse agro-climatic zones, stretching in a crescent throughout the northern and southern regions.  The added bonus is they are also nitrogen fixing and can be grown as part of crop rotation, occupying as much as 25% of the total crop area.  Field peas, faba beans, chick peas, lentils, mungbeans,adzuki beans are just some of the pulses grown here and more recently, high-protein sweet white lupins are being grown for human consumption (rather than being exported for livestock feed) with exciting value-adding in the form of flakes, grits and flours. 

Chick peas too are showing huge potential in this area of plant based meat.  An American-based research facility has commercialised the world's first textured chickpea protein, providing plant-based formulators with a non-GMO source that is said to be superior to soy, wheat and peas in functionality and nutrition.  Besan (chick pea flour) is also extremely versatile in its own right and rich in protein.  We have yet to explore our native grasses, native pulses and their application.  Wild soybeans were discovered in north eastern Australia in the 1770s by explorers Banks and Solander.  Are there any of these varieties left?  Let us also not forget the niche market of seeds such as linseeds (flax) grown in Australia to add to this diverse mix as well!  Rich in Omega 3 and fatty acids, heart healthy, we have growers producing certified organic flaxseed genetically unaltered, specially selected and bred to suit Australian conditions.

Currently around a dozen crops are mainly feeding the world, with half of the global crop production going to feed livestock.  We are grappling with a broken food system, knowing that it must be  changed.  There is also a looming protein shortage and a forecast doubling in meat consumption by 2050.  As industrial animal agriculture is dismantled and replaced by a sustainable plant based meat industry (and I include barbaric live animal exports here too), a greater variety of grains and pulses will be needed to contribute to the high-value plant based supply chain.  It seems a "win-win situation", as Australia is already a signifiant producer, enjoys a reputation of high-quality, trusted and safe food, with Asia-Pacific neighbours on our doorstep demonstrating a strong demand for plant based meats. 

The plant based meat  consumer is now being seen as 'everyone'. Marketing is being directed at meat eaters and consumers are driving this demand.  One in three Australians are now limiting meat consumption principally for health and environmental reasons. 

Creative labelling and more diverse plant based meat products have the potential to engage Australian agriculture in new and exciting ways.  Labels could contain food stories not only about producers, but also the ingredients and how they are produced.  Artisanal plant based meats could also emerge, with ancient grains used in these such as spelt, emmer, khorasan, teff, sorghum (17 of the 25 species of sorghum are native to Australia), even non-grain buckwheat - a gluten-free fruit seed - with a density making it ideal for blending with pulses. 

Grains commonly being grown to feed animals in industrial animal agriculture systems would be diverted for human consumption instead. 

Unusual pulse varieties, more resilient to increasingly complex weather patterns could also emerge.  Vegetables, including heirloom varieties could feature here, and as the food stories develop, consumers will feel more connected with the produce and producers.  Growers markets are huge.  People want to know where their food comes from and how it is made.

A report just released 'Meat The Alternative:  Australia' $3Billion Opportunity" commissioned by Food Frontier, Australia's not-for-profit alternative proteins think tank, and conducted by Deloitte Access Economics, determined the plant-based meat sector is currently worth $150 million in retail sales and modelling estimates suggest it could grow to $3 billion in retail sales, $1 billion in manufacturing and 6,000 jobs by 2030.

We have the potential to become a plant protein powerhouse. We have the potential to transform our farming sector into a more sustainable one, driven by sustainable 21st century values including deep respect for our fragile, ancient soils our wild places.

Institute For The Future, a U S based not-for-profit think tank, has made the following prediction:

" By 2025, eaters will be much more than just the demand at the end of the supply chain.  They will lead innovation that create a food system rooted in values of sustainability, health, sociality and pleasure."

 It seems to me like 2025 is already here.  This is already happening.

It's time for Australia to jump on board!

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