A new survey examining the threat of alternative proteins to New Zealand's red meat sector may offer a glimpse into as many opportunities as threats the new food types pose for Kiwi farmers.
The report, commissioned by Beef + Lamb New Zealand (B+LNZ), charts the rapid rise of alternative proteins, fuelled by millions of dollars from cash-rich tech companies often led by alternative meat advocates who are translating their preferences into products being sold alongside traditional protein sources.
The products are on supermarket shelves now, with New Zealand company SunFed Meats — which makes its "meat" from pea protein — claiming to be this country's first non-animal protein company.
"We have a very strong alliance with traditional protein sources that remain in demand, namely dairy, poultry and pork..."
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The B+LNZ survey identifies New Zealand's critical United States burger beef market as the most vulnerable to gains in alternative protein sales. This market blends New Zealand grass-fed beef with fattier United States feed lot cattle and accounts for almost half the country's beef exports.
In the report, B+LNZ chief executive Sam McIvor notes large-scale production of "non-meat" patties and mince is likely within five years. Big drivers behind the rise of alternative proteins include climate change, the sustainability of animal farming, the use of animals in food production and health issues around eating meat.
But far from being a doom-and-gloom prospectus for the future of New Zealand pastoral farming, the report has found significant positives for farmers and the industry to pursue in coming years.
McIvor pointed to a growing but almost untapped demand for grass-fed red meat reared without hormones or antibiotics in natural environments, a product for which consumers were prepared to pay a significant premium.
Ironically it was the United States market, the one most vulnerable to alternative meat patties that offered the greatest potential.
There grass-fed beef sales have doubled every year since 2012, reaching over a third of a billion dollars in 2016. Premium grass-fed beef burgers are one of the fastest growing categories in the red meat consumption sector, with beef consumption anticipated to continue growing to 12.8 million tonnes by 2026.
McIvor has emphasised New Zealand has a valuable window of opportunity to capitalise on these trends to "natural" beef. Global population growth also suggests there will be more than enough growth for New Zealand to feed the world's wealthiest 40 million people, rather than trying to feed everyone.
Capitalising on these opportunities will rely on a brand that brings integrity and validity to the claims New Zealand's red meat sector wish to make to that premium market.
Behind the scenes there has been much work branding a "New Zealand story" to take to consumers, due for official release next month.
It has been well tested in six markets including India, China, US and United Arab Emirates. The brand has six meat companies in collaboration and has received positive feed-back in the test marketing stages. This has given marketers confidence that, despite alternative proteins' threat, consumers will not turn their backs on red meat if they can see it is natural and grass raised.
The brand's integrity has also been assured from the farm gate to the processing plant. Farmers are now compiling farm environment plans, fencing waterways and ensuring welfare requirements are met.
Meantime for farmers with suitable land, alternative proteins could provide a valuable income source. Federated Farmers arable industry chairman Guy Wrigley said the prospect of plant based protein foods should not be cause for alarm.
In a region like Canterbury where land is suitable for red meat, dairy or arable production, alternative protein sources could easily fit into the farming mosaic, he said.
"But in the meantime we also have a very strong alliance with traditional protein sources that remain in demand, namely dairy, poultry and pork that all rely upon the arable sector for grain supplies."