It has been reported that the corporate giant Unilever is betting on vegan food by setting itself a so called ‘scary target’ to achieve over the next seven years. They are looking to achieve five times growth for their plant-based food products. So is this really a scary target or just good business?
The market for plant-based food has been expanding rapidly in the last few years, and with health and nutrition front of mind due to Covid, this is now only accelerating. We are experiencing the start of a golden age for plant-based nutrition and are far from the days of the humble bean stew and nut roast which, understandably, did not have universal appeal.
Increasingly there are more ‘ready made’ options to choose from, either on the supermarket shelf or through subscription home delivery models, but it is a fact that we are experimenting a lot more in the kitchen due to many of us having more time at home this year. >From a culinary perspective that bean stew is getting a major taste lift.
Is it a fad or a trend? The data suggests that there has been year on year growth now for several years. The early adopter vegan and vegetarian consumer led the way in terms of creating the demand for plant-based products with many discovering the joy (and challenge) of fitting in home cooking to satisfy variety, taste and nutrition requirements. Growth of the plant-based market is now moving at pace into the main stream as health and climate change have been truly internalised by many more people as critical issues that need solutions.
So do we wait for government or corporate bodies to offer solutions? Of course there is a role especially for government to set the conditions and put in place the regulation to protect the health and well-being of the people and environment that they govern. However, more and more people realise that they actually have the power to influence outcomes and are voting via their consumption choices.
In order for the health and environmental benefits of plant-based food to make its way into the mainstream there needs to be sufficient appeal, choice and volume. Many are open to trying new foods that fit within certain familiar parameters, for example, does it look like something I eat and enjoy now? Can I prepare it in the same timeframe? Can I use or develop my cooking skills in a reasonable (and fun) way as I adapt to a plant-based alternative?
Fortunately, the answer is yes to all of these questions and the proof is in the pudding as we see plant-based sales increase. The growth in consumer demand provides opportunities for producers to create even more alternatives and choice. As producers see the need to be more creative, this in turn drives the demand for more plant-based ingredients and for the use of various techniques to further boost the nutritional profile of those ingredients. Millennia old fermentation traditions are making a huge come back with more sophisticated techniques being developed at rapid pace.
Volume is a key issue and without it the impact on our collective health and that of the planet will be woefully insufficient. With larger volume comes economies of scale and affordability. If products are unaffordable and cannot compete with highly commoditised animal-based alternatives then we will see a plateau in consumption levels before we reach a point where we have a sustainable food system. Remember animal based agriculture is one of the highest single sources of green house gases with huge demands on water, bio-diversity as well as contribution to deforestation in far way places that can be directly linked to our consumption. The health benefits of incorporating plant-based foods into our diets is well documented. All consumers need to be able to make the choice for plant-based alternatives without being penalised in the pocket.
Many companies, big and small, are leading the way by creating products to make this choice easier for consumers. They have the vision, stamina and sheer determination to make an impact. They disrupt the mainstream by injecting new ideas and solutions. This is only to be welcomed. As Mike Tyson once said ‘Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face’. Well, plant-based producers have stuck to their plan, and coinciding with changing consumer demand, they are fighting on for our health and the health of the planet. They are to be commended. The Unilever target is not scary. They too play a role in changing perceptions and have the capacity to do so. It is clearly good business and is eminently achievable.
John Creaton is the CEO and co-founder of the Planet Arborist platform.