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‘Alternative proteins is not a new concept’: Beef + Lamb NZ on the threat of synthetic meat

Beef + Lamb NZ’s Nick Beeby responds to a recent Spinoff column predicting that synthetic proteins will lay waste to our farming sector.

Food strategist Dr Rosie Bosworth is not wrong in her comment piece about the challenge ‘synthetic’ proteins pose to New Zealand’s agricultural sector – but sheep and beef farmers, and our exporters, are certainly not in denial.

In fact, Beef + Lamb New Zealand is treating this disruption with the respect it deserves. That’s why we launched a project in August this year to proactively understand how New Zealand’s red meat sector should respond to the potential future disruption of plant-based, lab-grown and insect proteins.

Specifically, that work focuses on better understanding the production technologies, business models and products, and how consumers are responding along with the threats and opportunities for our sector.

PHOTO: GETTY

It’s also about determining hype from reality – as a primary produce economy, it’s important New Zealand has an objective and clear understanding.

We expect to release a report on the findings early next year, which will provide guidance on New Zealand’s role as a conventional red meat producer and what shifts we need to make to address the future.

At this early stage in the project, we are seeing signals of disruption that are starting to converge. However, the process we’re following will enable us to fully understand and respond to potential scenarios that might play out. This means we can proactively respond to, and in some cases, change the direction of travel.

So, no matter which way the wind blows, our sector will have a way forward.

We’re acutely aware that consumers globally are increasingly concerned about health, environment and animal welfare – as they should be – in part linked to the backlash against broken food systems used in some other countries, such as factory farming.

What a lot of Kiwis, and our international customers, may not be aware of is that our red meat industry is unique: it’s a natural and grass-fed based farming system, based around extensive, low input systems.

We export about 90% of what we produce, and in our experience, demand is growing for New Zealand’s premium products, in particular, from the food services sector.

Can New Zealand’s premium, natural pasture-raised meat co-exist in a world with alternative proteins? Our research will inform the answer to that important question, but initial insights suggest there is room for both forms.

Photo: Creative Commons

Let’s not forget that ‘alternative proteins’ is not a new concept. Anyone who regularly eats veggie burgers and tofu or orders their flat white with soy milk for example will understand this.

And we recognise the dangers of focusing on a highly commoditised product, ignoring market insight and trying to sell what you make rather than what people want. Farmers understand this. A number of companies have developed innovative products which are now commanding premiums in our global markets.

We’re also seeing an opportunity to tell New Zealand’s red meat sector story and market our point of difference – a core focus of Beef + Lamb NZ’s new refreshed strategy.

Part of that involves helping sheep and beef farmers do better by addressing the environmental challenges they do face, such as sediment loss, and to continue to reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions further. With our Land Environment Plan programme, we’re helping farmers work through the environmental risks and opportunities on their farm and make specific plans to address them.

We’re also investing millions in greenhouse gas mitigation research and genetic improvement, along with working closely with regional councils and farmers to address water quality concerns.

Ultimately, the red meat sector is important to New Zealand’s health and success. It’s our second largest goods exporter and largest manufacturing industry, representing 3.2% of New Zealand’s GDP and accounting for $7.0 billion. And we are a significant employer in smaller rural communities.

No one is denying the need for change, but rather than polarising commentary characterising all New Zealand farmers as backward-looking, we need objective, collective and constructive public discussion about the future of a sector which is so much part of our nation’s fabric.

Nick Beeby is the general manager of Beef + Lamb NZ


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