By Grant Galbreath

New Zealand needs to fall in love with plant-based foods. We’re already great at growing plants for food but it’s not plants we seem to get excited about. No self-respecting sausage-sizzle bothers with a veggie option, and eggs-bene just isn’t breakfast without the bacon.

Why is this? New Zealand’s culture and economy are intertwined in our love of meat and dairy products. Kiwis eat loads of meat and dairy and these sectors remain the darlings of our export economy. It’s who we are as Kiwis, but while animal products are lucrative now, a plant-based future is just over the horizon and we are not prepared. There is money to be made and opportunities for Kiwis to lead the world in new types of plant-based foods, but all New Zealanders will have to be part of the change for this to happen.

Without a doubt, the New Zealand dairy and meat sectors are strong now economically, but there are growing pressures on these markets from both changing demand and supply for animal products, which is bringing uncertainty to long-term forecasting in meat and dairy globally. These trends are complex but there are signs that people globally are eating differently. Dairy consumption per capita is declining in developed economies such as the United States and Europe with the growth in dairy coming from developing nations with growing middle classes. The same is true of meat consumption, which despite growing globally is decreasing in many Western markets.

Analysts have suggested that this flattening of demand in Western nations is the result of more conscientious, discerning consumers. Increasingly people are spending money based on the quality of food products. Consumers are concerned with what food products contain, what the supply chain looks like and what the ethical implications are around food. This is a good thing for us Kiwis as our products tend to sell at a premium and are perceived as being of higher quality and more sustainable than our global competitors.

Our meat exports benefit from this perception, and there is no shortage of people globally wanting meat. A recent poll found only around 6% of US consumers identified as vegetarian or vegan whilst in New Zealand the number is around 10%. But looking at these numbers more closely gives us more insight. New Zealand Vegetarianism is up 2% from what it was in 2011 and there appears to be further increases coming based upon the huge growth in plant-based meat and dairy alternative product offered globally. In the United States, plant-based meat alternative sales have increased by 31.7% from just 2017 to 2019 around four times the growth in animal meat sales through the same period. Plant-based animal alternatives began penetrating the market with plant milk which now represents 13% of the entire fluid milk market in the United States. The meat-alternative market is predicted to experience similar expansion in the US and changes are afoot in New Zealand too. A poll by the New Zealand Restaurant Association last year recognised the shift to plant-based diets as the most significant restaurant trend in 2018 with a third of New Zealand restaurants actively looking to increase their plant-based options.

So, despite meat remaining a staple in New Zealand and in the nations we export to, plant-based diets are no longer the niche corner of crusty hippies. People are beginning to eat plant-based foods not as the alternative to meat, but as the preferred option and the economic potential of this growing sector is becoming obvious. Consumers want plant-based products and producers lining up to provide them with mainstream brands including McDonalds and Burger King developing plant-based veggie burgers. Reviews of these new plant-based products have been mixed with many people still considering them the lesser alternative to real meat, but the very fact that the comparison is being made at all begs an exciting new question: If it tastes as good as animal meat and it costs less than animal meat, will anyone care that it’s not animal meat? This is the question that has spurned a developing movement of plant food tech companies looking to disrupt the global food industry with hi-tech veggie products.

Plant-based alternative meat companies such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger are developing products that combine plant ingredients in sophisticated ways to mimic the flavour profile and texture of animal meat. Other companies are choosing the path of developing cultured ‘lab grown meats that use the genetic information of animal cells to ‘grow’ meat. Similar movements exist in the dairy sector with efforts to develop synthetic cheese. These new-technology meat and dairy alternatives all use plant materials as constituent parts or in the processing of these products. Proponents see a world coming where meat and dairy products can be produced entirely without animals, and at a far lower cost than traditional farming.

The ambition of this emerging sector has not gone unnoticed by the New Zealand meat and dairy industries. Beef and Lamb New Zealand produced a report on plant-based meat alternatives in 2018, which acknowledged it as likely that plant-based meat alternatives would be competitive with red meat within five years. The report courageously recognised that the New Zealand meat sector will likely need to diversify and innovate to respond appropriately. The progressive suggestion that is made in the report is that animal farmers responding to the growing plant-based protein sector may benefit from growing plants as well as traditional animal farming to maximise profits.

As well as changing consumer demand influencing animal farmers, more conscious societies are also pressuring change on the supply side of meat production. Animal farming is a significant emitter of greenhouse gasses, and consumers are realising just how detrimental it is. More than half of Kiwis now are anxious about climate change. Per capita New Zealand produces damaging emissions at far greater rates than most other countries. A report from the New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Resource Centre (AGGRIC) found that in total, New Zealand has contributed four times more emissions than the global per-capita average, and 1.5 times more than what is representative of our share of total land area. Further still, the report finds that “New Zealand’s biogenic methane emissions currently make a bigger estimated contribution to global warming than cumulative emissions of fossil carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide combined.”

In other words, animal farming is doing more emissions damage than the sum of all other emissions New Zealand produces. Perhaps our she’ll-be-right attitude to climate change is based on the idea that it’s something that will happen in the future, but there are real world consequences to our inaction happening now.

It was recently Tuvalu Language week and it is appropriate that we reflect on how climate change induced rising sea-levels rises are affecting our small island neighbour right now. Tuvalu is a low lying country, with all of its population living only a few feet above sea level. Rising oceans have already caused many people to be displaced, and the New Zealand Tuvaluan community has tripled in size since 1996 as climate migrants are forced from their homes. As the country is facing the consequences of anthropogenic climate change, Tuvaluans are concerned about the loss of their cultural identity as more of their people are born away from country, many now in New Zealand.

Given the level of emissions resulting from animal farming, and the consequences that global warming is having, Kiwi consumers need to do some soul searching on whether eating meat and dairy in the quantities we do currently is really such an important part of our cultural identity. New Zealand only constitutes a small proportion of total emissions produced globally, but we can hardly argue that developing nations with larger populations and larger emissions should be the ones to make the change while we get rich from farting cows.

Consumers are doing this globally with all products and ethical consumerism is changing perceptions of what it means for a product to be high-value. Beef and Lamb New Zealand acknowledged that meat is seen with greater scepticism because of the perception that it is less ethical to produce due to pollution and emissions compared with plant-based farming. Climate change is now part of our reality so it is likely that products with associated low greenhouse emissions will have a marketing advantage here.

Of course, it will take more than consumer changes for New Zealand to reduce its emissions. The government’s Zero Carbon bill is an important mechanism to setting meaningful targets for reducing greenhouse emissions and promoting low emitting sustainable farming. The Bill separates targets of long- and short-lasting greenhouse emissions, essentially recognising the need to respond directly to the damage methane (a shorter lasting, but more damaging greenhouse gas than CO2) causes in our current farming practices. Farmers have not responded positively to the proposal and argue that the greenhouse gas reductions needed in farming would not be realistic for animal farming in New Zealand to remain profitable in the way New Zealand is used to.

While some commentators argue that the New Zealand meat and dairy sectors need to invest in developing greater efficiencies, others are pointing out that animal farming falling in profitability creates opportunities for other types of farming that do not produce damaging emissions in the same quantities. This is the confluence of forces that are falling on New Zealand agriculture right now: The changing global market for new and highly developed plant products; the changing incentives to produce low emissions in farming practices; and the changing perception globally of what it means to produce a good high-value and ethical product. Taking these factors into account New Zealand needs to recognise the significant opportunities for our agricultural sector in developing a more advanced and coordinated plant-based food industry.

Plant and Food New Zealand food scientist Jocelyn Eason co-authored a report in 2018 which quietly outlined these opportunities and what would be required to grow this industry. The report notes the massive underutilisation of arable land that more plants could be grown on. Eason and her co-authors estimate that New Zealand currently generates 8 billion dollars from 140,000 hectares of horticultural farming but identifies an additional 1.7 million hectares suitable for plant farming.

Further still, there are crops that can be grown with different purposes, expanding ways that farmers can increase income through growing plants. For example, peas, which globally have emerged as the superstar crop in recent years as a near-complete protein with vast uses and environmentally low impact also fix nitrogen so require less fertiliser. Amaranth is a crop that can grow successfully in drier and more nutrient-deficient areas. Various crops can be successfully cycled between paddock rotations by animal farmers. The potential for this has been demonstrated overseas. In Sweden oat milk producer Oatly has provided the necessary demand to pay farmers to grow oats, which it uses to produce oat milk. This has proved cost-effective for farmers and Oatly is looking for ways to support farms to transition fully from animal-based farming to plant farming.

While a vibrant plant sector already exists in New Zealand a further boost is needed to develop a robust manufacturing and processing industry. Eason and her colleagues argue that this is where we need partnership with science and technology and investment from government to build this industry to promote its development. Currently we do not have the infrastructure to process and isolate source component parts from the plants that we grow, and much of what we produce is shipped overseas for processing to the likes of China and Canada. Government and private investment in the development of this infrastructure would provide more lucrative pathways for plant farmers to sell their products. This infrastructure would form the foundation for New Zealand food companies to form and take advantage of New Zealand’s premium value brand.

There is nothing new about this model of development for New Zealand farming. The formation of the Department of Science and Industrial Research in 1926 was the marriage of science and agriculture, and has been only one development in a long lineage of revolutionary farming movements in New Zealand. There is already developed knowledge and expertise in the isolating and manufacturing processes in New Zealand as many developments from the dairy processing sector are relevant to plant processing. Further still New Zealand already has a strong ethic of ‘total utilisation’ which we have developed since the 1970s also in milk products. This knowledge could help us to quickly develop technologies to maximise the marketable yields from plant source materials.

A change to a more comprehensive plant-based industry is achievable in New Zealand and could represent a significant shift in our economy. New Zealand has benefited from the economic success of the meat and dairy sectors so far, but the costs of producing and eating meat and dairy is becoming increasingly understood and they may no longer be viewed as premium products. Reductions in meat demand could be made up in the development of plant-based foods sector in New Zealand. We all have a role in this future.

Effectively controlling carbon emissions could change the economics of farming and give growing plants a competitive advantage. Government and private sector investment in plant processing infrastructure in New Zealand could create viable local buyers for New Zealand plant farmers. Developed technological insights and plant products produced through infrastructure could lay the foundation for creative Kiwi entrepreneurs to develop premium plant products to sell around the world. In 2018, 757 pea-related foods came to market. This movement is happening around the world right now whether we are part of it or not. Plant foods are a big part of the future of food. New Zealand has a place in this future and we need to fall in love with it.

This article was prepared as part of a postgraduate course on Ethics and Governance in International Development directed by Professor Andreas Neef of the University of Auckland’s Development Studies programme.

Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this article reflect the author’s views and not necessarily the views of The Big Q. 

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