How can food companies ensure plant-based protein growth is sustainable?


By Ben Cooper, Just-Food

10 July 2019


The growth in plant-based protein market is one of the most important trends in the food sector and good news for food companies, consumers and the planet. However, Ben Cooper writes, while booming sales of plant-based protein foods offer the dual benefit of improving diets and reducing agricultural carbon emissions, changing market requirements and rising demand may create sustainability issues in supply chains.


Amid the gathering storm of climate change, environmental catastrophe and food insecurity, the growth in the plant-based protein market over recent years provides a welcome and much needed ray of hope.


The global market for plant-based meat alternatives rose by an average of 8% a year between 2010 and 2017, according to Bloomberg Intelligence, and is forecast by MarketsandMarkets to reach $5.2bn in 2020. Research from GlobalData, meanwhile, suggests 70% of consumers globally are either reducing meat consumption or giving up meat altogether.


At a time when diverse but often interrelated global problems call for coordinated or, at the very least, non-conflicting solutions, the plant-based protein growth trend is a welcome win-win, addressing urgent human health and environment challenges.


The product development that has already been seen shows the food industry's capacity for innovation as a force for good, while the expansion of this market also stems from an openness on the part of consumers to try and then adopt meat alternatives which will have exceeded the expectations of many industry strategists and policymakers.


So, "what's not to like?" seems the obvious question. Fundamentally, this is a positive trend but the replacement of meat and dairy products with plant-based and other alternative protein sources on a large scale is uncharted territory for the agri-food sector. The possibility that changing market requirements and, in particular, rapidly rising demand for certain crops could itself create sustainability issues.


Avoiding the avoidable


The impact the plant-based boom has had on quinoa farmers in Peru and southern Bolivia provides a cogent and distressing illustration of the risks. Quinoa is a highly nutritious, protein-rich crop, highly suited to changing market requirements in developed countries. The growth has increased demand, with the price farmers are obtaining for both organic and conventional quinoa doubling in the past three years.


However, this has resulted in farming communities selling most of their production for export rather than using their production as the staple food for their families. Reducing or losing quinoa from their diets has resulted in negative nutritional trends in local diets while promoting organic production may well have led to the intensification of quinoa rotations resulting in soil infertility and an increase in pest and diseases.


The extensive planting of quinoa in other countries and the breeding of varieties that can grow in a broader range of locations will mean the currently elevated price will fall. It is a boom and bust scenario for the farmers. Researchers are concerned they will end up with exhausted soil and no long-term benefit from the boom in their primary crop.


Meanwhile, around 80% of global almond production comes from California, which has endured drought conditions for virtually a decade. In that time, agricultural land has been converted to the production of almonds, an extremely water-intensive crop, to meet the rising demand for almond milk. The bad publicity reflects primarily on almond milk but threatens to tarnish the image of plant-based milks in general.


Elsewhere, sustainability issues abound in soy, the most important single crop in the plant-based protein sector, though these relate primarily to deforestation in Brazil and Argentina and GMO, which as yet are not directly impacting the plant-based food sector.


The problems with quinoa and almond milk were foreseeable. Other adverse unintended consequences are, in the terminology of ex-US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, "unknown unknowns" and far harder or impossible to predict. It is hard to believe Unilever's identification of palm oil as the ideal replacement for partially hydrogenated vegetable oil was the catalyst for an environmental cataclysm. Making sure as much of the risk as possible is in the known unknowns category is critical.


Following best practice ...


Mainstream development impact on sourcing ...


Soy sustainability is emblematic and substantive issue ...


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