This opinion piece is contributed by Jacek Plewa, CEO, and Tasos Petropoulos, Marketing & Category Head, of UAE’s Healthy Farm Food Innovation.

 


 

We believe animals are simply not the best way of delivering protein to our table.  There are more efficient, sustainable, planet-friendly, humane ways to do this, and if fewer animals are used, the better for all of us.

It’s time to break new grounds.

We believe creation of a plant-based industry is in the best interest of all stakeholders. The state benefits with regards public health, food security, and the economy. Business leaders and investors have an alternative path to create sustainable, planet-friendly business models with social responsibilities towards health and supporting social entrepreneurship towards eliminating hunger and poverty.

For all of us, we could be adopting healthier lifestyles, leading a sustainable and environment-friendly way of life.

THE NUTRITION MODEL WE’VE BUILT SO FAR – IS IT WORKING?

Over the last 100 years or so, we have built a good $1 trillion global industry of sourcing proteins for our nutrition via animals, a model of farming and harvesting animals and their by-products. This model is as old as time, but animal products are now taking up an excessively big part of our nutrition with the massive, industrial scale, the rise of living standards after WWII across the globe, popular culture and marketing.

How is that working out for us? Not so good.  

Animal agriculture accounts for around 16.5% of the world’s greenhouse emissions, according to 2018 estimates by the U.N. Environment Programme. Without action, by 2030 the livestock sector could account for 37-49% of the global emissions allowable to keep warming under the 2°C target, according to estimates by Helen Harwatt of Harvard University. 

Livestock production takes away forests for grazing, eliminating biodiversity and irreversibly damaging the environment. This model takes so much space, water, and animal feed, that we simply will not have enough planet to feed the 10 billion people that will be on Earth in thirty years’ time, as projected by the United Nations Environment Programme.  

It is not sustainable. And we all know that a nutrition heavy on animal products is not as healthy as a balanced one, to put it mildly.

 

PLANT-BASED CHANGING TIDE

The tide started changing as products offering taste experience on par with animal products became widely available, just a few years back. 

Consumers are already aware of the negative effects of excessive consumption of meat products on their health. In the last decade, the environment, the climate, and our planet’s wellbeing have all become a source of global concern. Animal welfare concerns, too, are getting louder.

According to an ADM study, the above factors led to a 92% growth of plant-based food products in 2019.

The global plant-based alternative meat market is expected to grow at a rate of 18% per year between 2019 and 2025, reaching $12 billion by 2025, according to market research company Arizton Advisory and Intelligence. Another report prepared by Markets and Markets predicts the global value of the plant-based meat market to reach $27.9 billion by 2025, which shows that consumers are shifting preferences quite dramatically.

Those developments are creating a fertile ground for building a new plant-based industry across the world.

In the UAE, average meat and poultry per capita consumption is around 70 kg in contrast to the 20 kg per year recommended by the US-based Population Reference Bureau and the International Food Policy Research Institute. Similar high numbers are found across all the Middle East neighboring countries. We believe the time is right for the UAE to become a hub, to spearhead the plant-based evolution in the region.

 

FOUR PILLARS OF PLANT-BASED INDUSTRY IN MIDDLE EAST

We believe there are four key factors to support a plant-based shift in the Middle East that the UAE can take a lead on:

  1. FoodTech innovation to improve taste  

It is about the taste. Plant-based for all, the democratization of what has been a category for the enlightened few for many years, is happening now because of plant-based products that taste like the burgers, the sausages, the meatballs we all know and love. And the same goes or will go for other animal protein sources like milk, cheese, eggs, ice-creams, baby formulas, and the list is growing as we speak.

FoodTech should imagine a food industry that does not create customers for the pharmaceutical and healthcare industries.

We need FoodTech labs developing natural, GMO-free, less processed and No CRAP (No Chemicals, No Refined flour/sugars, No Artificial additives/colors, No Preservatives) products creating desire among consumers.

At the risk of oversimplifying, the mindset that drives the already huge global plant-based trend is: “If it tastes right and is better for me and the planet, I will go for it. I might still eat meat but if you don’t make it an issue and be preachy about it, I will eat as much plant-based as I can. Because I get it”.

From a product/offering perspective, food is a very personal choice. Local R&D and production have the knowledge and the flexibility to offer products that cater to local tastes. This is ever-critical for including plant-based in everyday nutrition and providing solutions for the food service industry.

An idea could be to have private-public university-driven plant-based research centers working closely with the industry. Plant-based Middle East Nutrition Institutes could be the working title.

The role of FoodTech would be to look into sustainable sources of proteins available locally. Why not look at ingredients that are part of the local geography and nature? For instance, Ghaf tree leaves and pods as well as dates are abundant in the Middle East, and they’re known to contain a lot of nutrients, proteins, and fiber, as well as being gluten-free. There are already research articles about the use of date seed protein as alternative to soya protein and some research has been done on Ghaf Tree nutrition benefits.

Fermentation is a technology that could solve many current challenges faced by alternative proteins. Fermentation can create nutritious, clean protein in a highly efficient and low-cost way.

Over the last few years, we have seen the development of cell-based or cultured meat and it will not take too long before we see it commercialized. Proteins from algae could be another significant development, especially as some of them, particularly blue-green and green algae, contain very high levels of protein, typically 40 to 60% (of dry matter) that can be used as functional food ingredients.  

  1. Conducive business environment and progressive government policies and regulations

The growth of the industry needs a local support system where all stakeholders are active in facilitating the inclusion of plant-based products in people’s nutrition.

We write with the UAE in mind, because this is our base, however we believe this can be applicable anywhere.

Government institutions, ministries, municipalities, should create a government regulatory ecosystem, supporting novel plant-based source of proteins via proper legislations, regulatory requirements , support to  research and education organizations, schools and universities,  liaising with private and government key stakeholders in order to promote awareness, education and communication on the four main rationales of plant-based: sustainability, the environment,  food safety, health benefits.

The government’s support is very important, engaging communities towards sustainability, developing local farming, incorporating latest technology for agricultural and farming practices, and building food security notions and behaviours towards health, sustainability and nutrition, from a supply and a society/community perspective, from farm to fork.

Moreover, the creation of local plant-based industries can be an excellent additional GDP revenue stream, supporting local entrepreneurship and employment. Countries like the UAE have the potential to be a FoodTech hub in the Middle East.

Plant-based protein alternative sources could be a match made in heaven for the UAE Food Strategy program, and there are still plenty of initiatives that can be aligned towards a more sustainable and healthier lifestyle, for multicultural, highly-skilled, modern and forward-looking societies like the UAE.

The UAE announced in November 2019 that it aims to build a circular economy by connecting entrepreneurs and innovations through nationally led challenges and partnerships. Building a UAE plant-based industry is an ideal fit.

How innovative would it be if plant-based meats were added as one of the main food items in the National Food Security Strategies across the region?

We would be excited to see the first plant-based accelerator and plant-based industrial zone in the years to come.

  1. Building Awareness towards enabling a healthy lifestyle

Building awareness on the benefits of plant-based nutrition and available products is critical. It is expected that this will happen to some degree by plant-based manufacturers as they are a key stakeholder and they have a vested interest after all. If nothing else, they have to make sure that their plant-based products are entering households, are getting sampled and in the end are commercially viable through retail and foodservice outlets.

But there is so much at stake that a combined effort is needed.

We should take plant-based education to schools by introducing healthy and sustainable living as a core module in school curriculums, we should initiate plant-based young chef academies nationwide both in private as well as local schools.

We should propagate moderation in eating meat and initiatives that will help transform the marketplace, and cultivate a healthier environment for the next generations, e.g. A Healthier UAE initiative, the Right Food UAE or Meatless Sundays (which our communication platform started in the UAE) could further enable the shift towards a healthier lifestyle.

We should further inspire residents across the region to work towards a common goal of maintaining healthier, active lifestyles in the long run. Active participation in initiatives like in UAE 30×30 should create a platform across the Middle East.

In the near future, I plan to establish the Middle East Plant Based Foods and Beverages Alliance as an industry forum to help all stakeholders come together to promote the benefits of a plant-based food industry.

  1. Leadership in new sustainable assets among business community, investors and shareholders

Today’s realities create immense opportunities for many organizations to redefine their growth strategy, for some to pivot, for some to accelerate investment in innovation to reinvent. This, simply put, is what drives already drives the booming plant-based industry. There are big numbers to entice investors and businesses:

  • The plant-based meat market is projected to rapidly grow to between $12.5 and $28 billion by 2025, according to various market studies.
  • 57% of global consumers are already actively seeking alternative protein sources
  • Plant-based meat sales in the U.S. grew at 61% in April 2020, more than twice as fast as animal-based meat, and it will only gain momentum with more consumers moving to the category and new products coming into the market.
  • Plant-based meat sales increase by an average of 23% when sold in meat departments next to animal proteins in three American states, according to research from Kroger (the United States’ largest supermarket by revenue) and the Plant Based Foods Association.
  • Only this year, alternative protein companies raised $1.5 billion through to July 2020, according to a report from The Good Food Institute.

It is the ideal time for start-ups and a golden opportunity for reinventors to create and to capture long-term value.

We have many brilliant entrepreneurs, charismatic personalities, pioneers, progressive leaders who are out there to take the lead. Timing means a lot in the business and now is the time to make a shift.

This opinion piece is contributed by Jacek Plewa, CEO, and Tasos Petropoulos, Marketing & Category Head, of UAE’s Healthy Farm Food Innovation.



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