Guy Trafford says our defense in the face of plant-based proteins is supplying 'the real product' produced with ethical and sustainable processes

By Guy Trafford

A recently released report commissioned by Beef and Lamb NZ on the “Future of Meat” is very timely.

Much of the report focuses on the “rise of alternative proteins” and the threat these products may have to the New Zealand meat industry. This topic is often raised from board room level to farmer meetings to around the kitchen tables.

Attitudes from meat producers (and consumers) vary but generally range from “it’s not an issue and consumers will always want the real thing” to “we really have a looming problem here which may undermine many of our markets”.

The stated motivation of the various companies that are pursuing the alternative proteins is to reduce the environmental impact of conventional food production systems and to feed an increasing world population. These are laudable goals, however, once the technology reaches the hands of the fast food chains among others then you can rest assured they will use any means available to increase their market share.

And, if livestock farmers think they are under scrutiny at present then wait until we have companies such as “McCampbell’s” (fictitious) determined to compete with McDonald’s in the fast food business and quite happy to use whatever means available and driven not only by profit but also philosophical leanings to save the planet.

Currently pressure organisations like Peta and SAFE are considered outside of the mainstream of public opinion and while they cannot be discounted are more at the fringes. However, I get nervous for the meat industry when I see Steve Jobs and Richard Branson among others putting their wealth into investing in “Clean Meat, and Tyson foods into Beyond Meat . Both of these are plant based projects but the genie is out of the bottle for synthetic meats also, although still a work in progress getting the costs down.

If producers think this is just a passing phase that may pick up a small segment and that the real deal will always find a market with discerning customers, think again. PETA rapidly got rid of the fur trade with very clever portrayals of cruel practices.

Closer to home, the synthetic fibre industries have turned crossbred wool into a by-product barely able to pay for harvesting costs and they didn’t have to attack the wool industry to do this.

So when issues can be raised around animal welfare and environmental issues the gloves will really come off.

So how may this pan out?

The first industry to feel pressure will be the beef industry, approximately 213,000 tonnes of New Zealand beef goes into the US market. The bulk of this in the form of grinding beef to blend with the fatter US feedlot product. Even product that does not go to the US has a large percentage end up as hamburger patties.

This is the area that the alternative proteins are targeting as providing profitable outlets and likely to be in direct competition with fast food outlets.

Even if New Zealand processors shift as much product as possible into the more lucrative prime cuts area there is likely to always remain a large percentage of product ending up as grinding beef. This is especially so when much of New Zealand’s beef export is sourced from the dairy industry either as bull beef or cull cow, product ideal for the grinding beef trade.

Don’t think that alternative proteins will stop at patties as the technology develops it’s only time before ‘fine cuts’ are also on the menu.

Depending upon how much negative publicity is aimed at the sheep meat industry there may be a hiatus for them, due to the higher value of sheep meat cuts. However, any negative publicity against livestock systems is likely to add to reduced consumer demand.

Will dairy be affected? Not immediately. However, if the swing to plant based proteins grows then land use is likely to follow and currently the trend of ‘highest and best’ land use for much of New Zealand’s land being dairy may see a swing towards plant based production. Dairy plants require a critical mass to keep the stainless steel functioning and a drop off in supply is likely to be felt.

So what do our livestock industries need to do? New Zealand is fortunate in that much of the world still believe that we are a clean green oasis in a world of corporate and factory farms where animals are abused and production is driven by the dollar.

We need to match this perception with reality and let’s not kid ourselves we have a way to go to get to this point.

If critics want to dig down they can find plenty of examples of practices within all of our livestock systems which at best are not savoury.

Animals and the environment need to come to the forefront of our thinking and practices if livestock farmers want to compete in a world determined to get rid of them.

Let the critics focus on the big factory farms that dominate the scene particularly in the US, be it pork, beef or chicken and let us provide a real point of difference so that those consumers who wish to purchase the real product can do so and feel comfortable doing so knowing that the product is produced with ethical and sustainable processes in to the fore.