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Plant-based alternatives continue to be a growing lifestyle choice for many. Whether it’s down to ethics, health reasons, or planning for a more sustainable future, innovation in this area is on the rise and shows no signs of slowing down.

According to The Vegan Society, “The UK’s food system is in desperate need of an overhaul, now more than ever”, with the UK Committee on Climate Change stating, “Changes in people’s diet, if this leads to reduced UK production of products such as beef, lamb and milk, could have a significant impact on emissions.” So, let’s break it down.

What makes a sustainable food system?

Defining a sustainable food system in one context is a complex task, as these are dependent on a variety of factors. From scale and local environments to economic, cultural, political, and institutional contexts, the criteria is vast. In 2010, the Food and Agricultural Organization of The United Nations (FAO) defined sustainable diets as those with “low environmental impacts which contribute to healthy life for present and future generations, and are protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair, and affordable; nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy.”

The variation of sustainable food systems and the various factors associated with the very nature of sustainability make the process of developing sustainable food systems, at both a local and global level, an intricate challenge.

However, the European Commission state that, for food, a sustainable system might be seen as “encompassing a range of issues such as security of the supply of food, health, safety, affordability, quality, a strong food industry in terms of jobs and growth and, at the same time, environmental sustainability, in terms of issues such as climate change, biodiversity, water, and soil quality.”

What is the role of plant-based food alternatives in creating sustainable food systems?

It has been widely acknowledged in various articles that “raising animals for human food is an intrinsically inefficient process. Adding that “as we move up in the trophic chain there is a progressive loss of energy.” 

As the main source of meat for human consumption is based on intensive feeding of grain crops to animals, research indicates this grain could instead be a source of food for humans, with the same standards then applied to the production of eggs and dairy. 

Several authors have looked at the efficiency ratios of meat versus plant foods for human consumption, and, while the amount of grain needed to produce the same amount of meat varies from animal product to product, evidence shows that it takes 11 times more fossil energy to produce animal protein than plant protein.

Some studies have also shown that livestock production accounts for an estimated 14.5% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from human activities. While others show that the estimated amount of land solely for livestock production ranges from 2.5 to 3.7 billion ha. This equates to roughly three-quarters of global agricultural land for which animal products account for just 25% of the protein in the overall global food supply. 

In this regard, the global market for plant-based substitutes is expected to reach $85 billion (USD) by 2030, which is a dramatic increase from $4.6 billion (USD) in 2018

Animal welfare implications

It is widely thought that if plant-based food alternatives are largely adopted as a replacement for farmed meat, this could greatly reduce the number of livestock both raised and slaughtered for their production of meat. 

Humane Society International (HSI) state “an animal-based diet is implicated in multiple human health conditions, causes immense animal suffering due to factory farming, intensive confinement, and inhumane animal handling and slaughter.”

Health concerns

Certain studies have linked a range of chronic diseases and health issues, such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease, to the consumption of animal products, specifically red and processed meat consumption.

Nutritional requirements

One of the key topics for discussion is whether plant-based substitutes can satisfy the nutritional requirements gained from the consumption of animal products. 

When it comes to gaining such needs through the use of vitamins and minerals, it has been shown that vitamin C and magnesium requirements are “much more readily fulfilled by plant than animal foods” whereas minerals such as iron and zinc, and long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids are much more easily obtained through animal products.

Who are some of the leading companies in this area of innovation?

After rolling out its flagship product, Beyond Burger – made from pea protein, coconut oil and potato starch – into Sainsbury’s stores back in October 2020, plant-based business Beyond Meat, looks set to seriously increase its presence within the UK supermarket sector. 

Netherlands based company, Vivera, have also injected a whole range of plant-based food alternatives into the UK market. As the third-largest producer of vegan meat in Europe, with an average annual growth of 25% over the last 3 years and expected revenue of €80 million in 2020, Vivera view themselves as a “pioneer in the meat replacement segment, since repositioning itself as a true purpose company with only meat alternatives.”

In the absence of a pure-play London-based food producer, meat packing company Hilton Food Group plc announced they would be acquiring a 50% stake in Dalco Food, a Dutch company, which focuses on meat substitutes – both vegetarian and vegan. This will allow the business to “significantly expand its product offering in the vegetarian market.”

Acquiring innovative brand, The Vegetarian Butcher, in 2018, renowned company, Unilever, has announced a new annual global sales target of €1 billion from plant-based meat and dairy alternatives, with a focus on pushing vegetarian and vegan versions of many well-known brands. These include but are not limited to:

  • Vegan Ben & Jerry’s ice cream
  • Magnum Vegan
  • Vegan Cornetto
  • Hellmann’s Vegan mayonnaise.

Available to buy at most big brand supermarkets, another big-hitting plant-based company, THIS™? is showing no signs of slowing down sales. Its products are predominantly made from GMO-free soybean protein, water, and pea protein and have seen high demand since their creation.

Other famous brands that have introduced plant-based options have also seen great results  – Gregg’s vegan sausage roll for example, while McDonald’s also looks set to launch its vegan line, McPlant, as the demand for plant-based food companies continues to grow.

What does the future look like when it comes to plant-based alternatives?

As mentioned previously, one of the key concerns centred around plant-based food alternatives is the subject of animal welfare. Enter the future of cruelty-free animal gene editing.

Following on from the UK’s recent departure from the EU, and announced in January 2021, the UK Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (Defra) has launched a two-part consultation on the regulation of genetic technologies. This focuses specifically on the ‘gene editing’ (GE) side of animals and crops.

Lab-grown meat is another way in which the plant-based market is changing, with certain companies at the forefront stating “this is the product most likely to wean committed meat-eaters off traditional sources.” Recent advancements from researchers in Japan have found a new way to grow cow muscle cells in culture.

Though, with this in mind, there are several technological challenges that remain before animals can be completely removed from the supply chain of cell-based meat, including the source of the animal cell line and inputs used.

All that being said, with the plant-based alternatives market in the EU and UK expected to nearly double in five years, the future looks bright for sustainable food systems. So bright, in fact, that according to ING Economics, this market alone looks set to be worth €7.5bn (£6.6bn) by 2025, compared to €4.4bn (£3.9bn) last year.