Plant-based food producers ‘stigmatise and demonise’ traditional agriculture, according to Jones, but those working in the new industry say it should be seen as an opportunity, not a threat.
NZ First minister Shane Jones’ suggestion that plant-based food must be “stopped in its tracks” has been labelled concerning, negligent and anti-competitive by proponents of the burgeoning alternative protein industry.
In an interview with Newstalk ZB’s The Country that was printed online at the Herald on Tuesday, the regional economic development minister said, “This notion of veganism and almond powder or something akin to that is going to replace genuine red meat, genuine dairy milk, it needs to be stopped in its tracks.
“We should not tolerate, we should not acquiesce for one inch of the political journey with these people who are continuing to stigmatise and demonise our legacy industries, and I don’t care if I sound politically backward saying that,” he continued.
“I’m an accurate reflection of people who have had a gutsful of our legacy industries being talked down.”
The comments follow Jones’ assertion last month that he didn’t want “the politically correct brigade colonising my dietary habits”, made in response to a new climate change resource for schools that suggested eating less meat and dairy could reduce emissions.
Dr Rosie Bosworth, a future foods consultant and adviser, said it was concerning that Jones didn’t appear to see the opportunity that new food technology offered.
“It seems he’s looking at these trends as threats rather than huge opportunities for our country. These are huge opportunities for our economy, for the agricultural sector and for the economy at large, especially in terms of how our country can harness new skills and capabilities that enable us to lead in these emerging multi-trillion-dollar sectors rather than getting left behind.
“Considering these statements are coming from a politician tasked with facilitating the growth of our national economy and who has significant agency over the allocation of public funds, it’s not only concerning but also somewhat negligent, I would say.”
Not getting on board with these “technological revolutions” would be a grave mistake, Bosworth added. “We have the skills not only to adapt but to actually transfer a lot of our skills to these new sectors, so it’s not a binary move. It’s not move away from agriculture and die, it can actually be move away from traditional economies and thrive in the process.”
Food technology entrepreneur Shama Sukul Lee, whose fast-growing New Zealand plant-based meat alternative company Sunfed expanded into Australia last year and just launched two new products at Meatstock, labelled Jones’ comments “anti-competitive and protectionist rhetoric” that went against what New Zealand stood for.
“We should see this as an opportunity, not a threat. New Zealand is known for making quality protein, there is no reason why that cannot extend to alternative proteins,” said Lee.
“We don’t need to protect, we need to empower our farmers with more options. With Sunfed, we want to offer farmers commercially viable options to grow protein-packed plants such as yellow peas which will yield far more protein from the same piece of land than animals.”
Both Bosworth and Lee said the government should be following the suit of other countries and investing in the alternative protein industry. “We need to diversify our competencies and exports to strengthen our position. We shouldn’t fear change and resort to protectionism,” said Lee.
“I have a concern that he’s not alone in these views,” said Bosworth, “because if he wasn’t alone we would’ve seen solid frameworks and programmes put in place by our government promoting New Zealand’s science sector and entrepreneurs to harness and lead the way in this inevitable new global mega trend. We would have seen regulatory frameworks loosened to actually support and accelerate innovation in the alternative proteins space, new incubator programmes enforced, money being assigned to the sector to encourage the young generation, universities, farmers and industries to help us transition towards this new world of food production.
“But we’re not, we’re seeing constant money being aimed towards the [traditional agriculture] sector, polishing the old paradigm, and I don’t see any funds being allocated specifically to these new technologies to see us thrive in this new world. In fact our entrepreneurs, like New Culture, are having to leave our shore to do the science and make it internationally. So it doesn’t seem like there’s a wholesale shift of politicians towards embracing or even being cognisant of this new change, which is very concerning.”
Tim Ryan, managing director of New Zealand’s first oat milk producer, Otis Oat Milk, which is planning a major expansion in response to burgeoning demand for its product, said Jones was fuelling the urban/rural divide. “It’s kind of dangerous, I think. As a country we need to come together if we’re to solve these future problems.
“It’s concerning for the minister in charge of a purse as large as the PGF [Provincial Growth Fund] to make statements like that.”
While Jones was “playing to his base” in the lead-up to the election, leaning on our “legacy industries” would in fact leave farmers behind, said Ryan. “New Zealand’s over-indexed in what he referred to as its legacy industries. We need to diversify, we need to stay future-focused and relevant if we’re to survive. The diets of the 1970s could not be further from the diets of tomorrow that we need.
“We’re a plant-based brand but we’re incredibly staunchly pro-farmer,” he added. “We love our farmers, but we’re also equally a pro-smart ideas brand, so it’s frustrating.
“We’re not anti-dairy, we’re not anti-meat, we just want to be realistic about what is happening in the world,” said Ryan. “The consumers of tomorrow, the ones who are marching on Fridays for Future [the school climate strikes], they don’t consume in the same way and for the same reasons that Mr Jones’ base will have. They have a lot more at stake – a warming earth – and in their eyes no one is at the wheel.”
Lee said it didn’t really matter what Shane Jones thought, because consumers have the power. “They vote with their wallet; they decide. And they are demanding alternative protein products. Ask any supermarket and they will tell you that plant-based foods are the fastest growing segment.”
Similarly, Ryan didn’t think Jones’ comments would dissuade the burgeoning industry too much. “The thing about New Zealand is that we’re determined, and we won’t let a few people at the top undermine our determination to get New Zealand to where it needs to be to future-proof for farmers and consumers and for the economy.
“We get hundreds of emails from farmers who love what we do and love what we stand for. To us that’s kind of the proof. I feel like we’re in good stead as a country to push forward into a strong diversified economy, and a strong diversified agricultural export offering.”