Sunfed Bull Free Burger™ (Photo: Supplied)

At NZ’s premier event on alternative proteins, where were the vegan voices?

The Vegan Society’s Claire Insley went along to ProteinTECH 2018 last week and left confident that a plant-based future was closer than we think, despite the day’s lunch offering leaving a lot to be desired. 

Investors look to whatever’s new and sexy, and right now plant-based proteins are the future. At last week’s ProteinTECH Conference in Auckland, the farming community and developers of plant-based foods discussed the future of protein in New Zealand. The focus was on getting the meat and dairy industry to accept that change was coming, and many of the beef and dairy farmers seemed to be there to find out if they had a future at all. One key theme a lot of speakers touched on was the need to increase the overall land use for crops and horticulture over animal farming.

The event kicked off with a speech by Bill Murphy, executive director of angel investment company Enterprise Angels, who told the assembled animal agriculturists that smart investors were beginning to move into artificial-meat proteins. Melissa Clark Reynolds, director of Beef + Lamb New Zealand, was up next. She pointed out that lab-grown meat was a new technology that’s been around for a while – but now it actually comes with a business plan. In 2013, the cost of lab-grown meat was $2 million per kilogram. By 2017, that price had dropped to just $80. In time, it’s expected that cost will be virtually nothing. As the price comes down, it’ll become more and more necessary for farmers to diversify. New Zealand, for example, could benefit from specialising in the high-end, high-quality meat and dairy market.

Read more: The vegans are coming! Why the end of meat could be closer than we think

Tofu…is a good source of protein. (Photo: Getty)

Business journalist Rod Oram also encouraged farmers to increase their crop and plant protein production. An interesting question he raised was why Sunfed Meats is the only New Zealand plant-based protein company (I guess he’d never heard of Tonzu, New Zealand’s only certified organic tofu manufacturer, which makes various products derived from soy). One possible reason why there aren’t more NZ plant-protein enterprises: the lack of readily available plant protein. For example, Sunfed sources its pea protein from Europe.*

At this point in the conference, I started to wonder where the vegan or plant-based voice was going to be coming from. Nowhere, it seemed, as all the speakers were clearly meat eaters. Even the vegan lunch was appalling – just potatoes and lettuce at a conference about plant-based proteins?! Nathan Penny, ASB’s senior rural economist, told the audience that maybe insect protein could be the future. I had to wonder if resorting to bugs would be the final straw that makes people go vegan. It’s plants or insects – your choice!

Green MP Gareth Hughes also had the same question re: lack of vego-friendly options (Twitter/@GarethMP)

Eventually, we did get back to talking about plant-based proteins. Graeme Anderson of LandCare Research talked about various options for alternative protein sources, including algae-based proteins like spirulina, as well as the more conventional legumes and mycoproteins such as Quorn. Meanwhile, Jocelyn Eason from Plant and Food Research expressed her confidence that New Zealand could produce great plant-based meat alternatives.

I’m fully in agreement with Jocelyn on this. The fact that our horticultural exports topped out at $8 billion last year and are set to increase is surely a hugely positive indicator for the future of food production in New Zealand. We’re a small country, but we have a lot of land. It’s land that could be used to feed plants to the world, or at least to ourselves. So I ask our farmers to step up and provide what the world is demanding: more plants!

Read more: Why there’s no rural-urban divide when it comes to caring about our environment

All in all, I’m delighted that this conference took place. When I first became vegan 18 years ago, the idea that a vegan world was possible in my lifetime seemed laughable. Almost two decades later, I’m convinced it’ll happen sooner than we think; the economics will simply demand it. I’m inspired by the fact that Beef + Lamb NZ is encouraging their farmers to add crops into their production systems, because I think soon we’ll no longer have the resources to supply animal-based protein in the quantities desired by the world. It’s literally killing the planet to do so.

Veganism is no longer a fringe concept. It has become mainstream, it’s here to stay, and it makes sense for both our own health and that of the planet. If we want to continue to sustain human life in an increasingly crowded and degraded environment, then plant-based proteins are the clear answer.

* Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Sunfed sourced its pea protein from China, which is incorrect. Sunfed founder Shama Sukul Lee states that as plant protein infrastructure is currently non-existent in New Zealand, there are no options available locally. “But we’re aiming to change that as we continue to pave the way and build this new protein industry here,” she says.


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