Emerging proteins may be a disruptor for our current farmers and growers but they’re also a major opportunity, Food HQ chief executive Abby Thompson says.
She’s the co-author, with Food HQ’s business development manager Amos Palfreyman, of the report Emerging Proteins in Aotearoa New Zealand: What will it take for the sector to thrive?, launched at Massey University’s Agri-Food Week.
The report says it doesn’t benefit our existing industry to deny the potential for serious disruption, “nor is it necessary to abandon traditional proteins [dairy, meat] in order to take advantage of emerging ones.
“The sooner this becomes an ‘and/both’ discussion rather than an ‘either/or’, the sooner we can work to identify how New Zealand can best move forward.”
Probably the best-known of the emerging proteins are plant-based, and there is also potential with fungi and algae/seaweeds. Non-traditional animal proteins include insects, and can even be derived from wool. And then there are those from biotechnology, including fermentation of microbes that have been genetically modified to produce molecules similar or identical to those from animals, and cell-culture techniques where stem cells are used to produce meat or milk.
Interest in emerging proteins food is not being driven by vegans; “it has become far more mainstream, and it’s grown really fast,” Thompson told the Agri-Food Week event.
Some 92% of plant-based meals in the UK are being purchased by people who are also eating meat and dairy, she said.
And 42%of global consumers are now classing themselves as flexitarian – someone who predominantly has a vegetable-based diet but still eats meat and fish.
In Australia during the last financial year the plant-based ‘meat’ industries doubled manufacturing and jobs (albeit off a relatively modest base), with a similar increase in the range of products on supermarket shelves. Boston Consulting Group has estimated that by 2035, one in 10 portions of meat, eggs or dairy consumed internationally would be an alternative protein or emerging protein equivalent.
“In fact, if we were looking at the alternative protein market as is, it would be in the top 50 economies internationally, larger than Finland’s 2020 GDP,” Thompson said.
In New Zealand there are a variety of companies and researchers working in the alternative proteins sector but they tend to fly under the radar.
“These innovative and brave entrepreneurs often have a low profile and many are not yet working at a scale that enables their products to be easily accessible for the general public,” she said.
The report includes four recommendations, including that we take a ‘NZ-Inc, whole-of-value-chain approach to a suite of initiatives’, including more collaboration; investigating where investment should be made in scale-up infrastructure to reduce commercialisation barriers, and establishing a talent attraction programme for R&D and innovation experts in key areas.
And we need to get a move on.
“Many of the more advanced economies we tend to compare ourselves with – the Netherlands, Singapore, Israel – are investing significantly more, moving much more rapidly, and doing it at scale,” the report states.
“They have deep engagement between industry, government (especially regulators) and research providers, and ambitious targets for the role emerging proteins will play in their future agri-food sectors.
“At the moment, New Zealand is being left behind our peers within this increasingly competitive sector.”
Thompson, and other expert speakers at a panel discussion following the report’s launch, including regular critic of current agriculture leaders Dr Rosie Bosworth, are adamant that our farmers need to be part of the conversation.
Thompson acknowledged that today’s farmers are looking for ways to diversify and generate new income streams, not least in the face of environmental restrictions and new regulation.
A more circular production system is more achievable when it includes a diverse portfolio of food types, especially at large scale. Our emerging protein industry could leverage our global reputation for producing quality food, and incorporating both emerging and traditional proteins aspects within our food production system could deliver more than either can achieve in isolation.
For example, the report notes a significant portion of the biomass of any plant crop is not suitable for human consumption or for feeding bioreactors in microbial or cell-culture technologies. But it may be able to be utilised as feed for ruminants or insects, with the latter consumed by humans if we gain an appetite for it, or if not to feed chicken or fish.
Bosworth accused government ministers of being too protectionist towards our existing agricultural players, and blind to trends sweeping the rest of the world.
“It’s become a binary argument; it’s either going to be alternative proteins and our farmers are up s*** creek, or we’re going to continue to defend our constituency where we get the votes from…essentially ignoring this extraordinary new and huge pie of opportunity of technological change.
“The two aren’t binary – they can co-exist,” Bosworth said.