That’s the view of Jacek Plewa, CEO at Healthy Farm Food Innovation, who noted that food trends tend to arrive several years later in the Middle East.
While other markets are working on the next plant-based meat, egg, cheese and dairy, the Middle East region is currently at a stage where food services are beginning to offer plant-based options such as almond milk.
The Middle East region is also relatively quiet on private equity funds and venture capital firms focused on plant-based projects. On the industry side, Plewa said there were not much activity going on.
Plewa said the plant-based industry need to better respond to consumer needs in terms of health, sustainability, animal welfare and food security.
In the UAE, meat per capita consumption is 73 kg per year, far exceeding the WHO’s recommendations of 18kg. Similar high numbers are across all the Middle East neighbouring countries.
Healthy Farm Food Innovation is a new food business vertical within the Albatha Group set up in February 2020 to develop sustainable and healthy food concepts and products. It will also further develop the frozen food brand Healthy Farm, which was previously under Global Food Industries.
Plewa said in order to accelerate this trend, governments and business leaders need to realise the need for plant-based diets.
From the government side, it requires policy makers to introduce regulations supporting plant-based nutrition. He cited an example by New Zealand government on considering a tax on the meat industry in the future to pay for the climate damage.
Plewa thinks UAE is well positioned to lead this, by implementing a national plan or agenda for plant-based nutrition.
He added that governments would also hold the key to attracting investors to support their policies.
For instance, a plant-based nutrition institute could be a possible initiative to bring together industry, academia, opinion leaders and investors not only in UAE, but across Middle East, to discover and develop products for the population.
Education and awareness
Plewa told FoodNavigator-Asia that educating consumers from all ages was key to drive the plant-based industry.
In schools, he recommends educating children on nutrition, specifically plant-based nutrition and its benefits.
For the older population, creating social movements can raise awareness of plant-based nutrition.
He cited an example of Dubai’s 30 by 30 fitness challenge where the population is encouraged to complete 30 minutes of activity daily for 30 days.
“I think a similar social initiative should be created to support plant-based,” he said.
To kick things off, Plewa together with his colleague, Tasos Petropoulos has created a social movement called meatless Sundays, where the public is encouraged to refrain from eating meat every Sunday.
“Our attempt is to start the week on a good note and educate consumers to do something good for yourself, and that we don't need to eat meat seven days a week.
“It's better for you, it's better for the planet. So, I think there is a lot to advocation and building onto the social network side.”
The UAE currently imports 90% of its food, and has set a target to be the world’s most food secured nation by 2051.
Traditional rearing of livestock uses too much land, water, feed and emits greenhouse gas.
Plewa said creating a plant-based industry will not only contribute to food security by building a new resilient and sustainable food system, but it also creates jobs and contribute to the GDP of the nation.
One way to do so is by food technology. Plewa explained that the Middle East has many local ingredients suitable as a protein base, so does not need to rely on imports.
For instance, the national tree of UAE, the Ghaf tree is abundant in Middle East. It contains about 16% protein, 20% fibre and 18% calcium. When made into flour, its protein content is multiple times high than wheat flour.
Another local and abundant ingredient is dates, which when turned into flour, contains 26% of protein. Date-seeds protein are currently researched as an alternative to soy protein.
Fermentation is also the next technology which could solve many current challenges faced by alternative proteins by creating nutritious, clean protein in a highly efficient and low-cost way.
With UAE’s recent normalisation with Israel, it is set to further develop food tech in the plant-based industry.
In terms of applications, there was an ocean of opportunities. While North America were produced plant-based burgers and nuggets and European brands producing meatballs, Plewa said there was potential to produce a plant-based Middle Eastern dish such as manakeesh, halloumi and Shakshouka.
We’ll be shining the spotlight on Plant-based Innovation in our Growth Asia 2020 interactive broadcast series. Register for free here.