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OPINION: As the dust settles from the United Nations Climate Change Conference, many will be questioning whether enough meaningful change will arise from this latest attempt to tie attending nations to a course for mitigating climate change.

While governments continue to wrangle over emissions levels, deforestation rates and who’s going to pay for it all, many consumers are getting on with making changes that are already impacting the way we grow and consume our food.

It’s an incredibly exciting time to be involved in the food sector, especially in New Zealand where we have a proven track record in protein exports. From the late 1700s when Māori first traded seafood to the European arrivals, through to the beginning of refrigerated shipping of sheep and beef in the 1880s, to the high-tech dairy farming practices of today, we have remained world leaders in primary production by constantly innovating.

But as environmental and health concerns place ever-greater pressure on the livestock sector, there is rising demand offshore and at home for alternative sources of protein which offer an alternate path for both consumers and farmers.

This was expressed eloquently by Sir David Attenborough in his 2020 documentary, Life on Our Planet: “Right now, we are facing a man-made disaster of global scale, our greatest threat in thousands of years. If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilisations, and the extinction of much of the natural world, is on the horizon.”

“Half of the fertile land on Earth is now farmland,” he notes, adding that “re-educating ourselves about diet is a vital step, with our ‘traditional’ reliance on meat needing immediate attention.”

The good news is that we have already made huge advances in food technology which, coupled with huge investment, has created a step change in the food production sector.

Sir David Attenborough in Life on this Planet.

Sir David Attenborough in Life on this Planet.

I watched this trend emerge while living and working in China for 20 years. Over the last 10 years, my restaurant chain experienced growth in plant-based products from less than 5 per cent of total revenue to more than 30 per cent.

This is not simply a passing trend: analyse the supermarket data from many of our key export markets and you’ll see that red meat is increasingly being pushed to the side of the plate. For example, the US alternative protein market is growing at four to 10 times the rate of conventional protein market.

In a scenario echoed by former NZ chief science adviser Sir Peter Gluckman at the 2021 Auckland’s Future, Now conference, our ruminant economy is heading for the same upheaval that our wool industry faced with the advent of nylon and polyester, but unlike the wool sector’s slow decline over 50 years, this time it’s likely to happen over the next 10 to 20 years.

Setting aside the environmental issues at play for a moment, consider the economic implications of a continued insistence on maintaining the status quo.

In 2016, with fears of an impending trade war with the US and worries about over-reliance on soy protein from the Americas to feed its livestock sector, China announced its intention to reduce the nation’s meat consumption per capita by 50 per cent by 2030. Given that China alone consumes over 30 per cent of New Zealand’s red meat exports, this is alarming news.  

Read meat photo sourced from Stuff

 Red meat is increasingly being pushed to the side of the plate. For example, the US alternative protein market is growing at four to 10 times the rate of conventional protein market. (File photo from Stuff)

To me, “future foods” are foods that blend the best ingredients with latest cutting-edge technology to create a food system that will allow us and the planet to thrive for generations to come, my young daughter included.

And if plant-based food is set to reign over the food sector, plant protein will be the jewel in its crown, driven by solutions that utilise the advances which have already been made in food and biotechnology.

Processes such as extrusion, precision fermentation, cellular agriculture and 3D printing have the ability to mimic the best from animal-based products (taste, texture, nutrition) while removing the undesirable characteristics (trans fats, cholesterol, antibiotics). They will also be more cost-effective and sustainable than their animal-based counterparts.

I believe in this enough to have invested $200,000 of my own funds, backed by another $1.5 million, to be part of the plant-based wave. Off-Piste Provisions has also received a grant of more than $200,000 from the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) and significant support from the likes of Foundation of Arable Research (FAR), Callaghan Innovation and research partner Massey University.

Building on the technology that was already available, Off-Piste Provisions has been able to make further breakthroughs, culminating in the launch of New Zealand’s first cut of plant based red meat to market. It represents a significant step beyond the current mince, sausage and patties formats that are currently available. The end product is not combined with any vegetables or starches, and faithfully replicates the taste and texture of a whole cut of meat.

I am proud of my agricultural roots; I believe the livestock sector, which has brought so much prosperity to New Zealand, can and should be included in the plant-based conversation, so that decisions on the farm are based on meeting the evolving demands of consumers. But emotion and nostalgia cannot be allowed to cloud rational thinking.

Our future food sector competitors will not be limited to the pastures of Ireland, Uruguay or Australia: the Food Tech hubs of Silicon Valley, Singapore and Shenzhen will feature heavily. What excites me is bringing farmers along for the ride, ensuring this is a transition and not a disruption. We will need ingredient inputs to “feed” the new protein formats, whether that be legumes for extrusion, fruit waste for fermentation or grains for cellular technologies.

Off-Piste Provisions is working with FAR, MPI and progressive farmers, researchers and processors to understand the viability of building a more established plant-based meat sector in Aotearoa.

My hope is that farmers see this as an incredible opportunity to build resilience into their business model through a new multi-billion-dollar revenue stream, or at the very least, as a smart hedge against a very possible disruption to their current one.

- Jade Gray is the founder and CEO of Off-Piste Provisions, a Kiwi company that has creates a range of 100 per cent plant-based meat alternatives, the first of which is a meat analogue jerky.

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