Beyond soy and wheat: Regional collaboration and brand influence needed to diversify Asia’s plant-based meat sector
According to the Good Food Institute’s (GFI’s) Asian Cropportunities report, soy and wheat are ingredients currently dominating the plant-based meat industry despite a wealth of alternative options – a scenario that is risky for the sector as a whole, especially in Asia.
“Consumers in Asia [are] familiar with mock meat products predominantly made from soybean and wheat [which] are often perceived as inferior sources of protein compared to animal protein,” said the report.
“[As such, companies] have begun producing 2.0 plant-based meats—products that are attractive not only to vegetarians, but also to meat eater, [and] consumers of these products are unlikely to be satisfied with plant-based meat products that are primarily soy- or wheat-based.”
One of the main ‘risk areas’ here is China, a target country for many firms due to its large population base and rising income, but also where such mock meats have long been associated with religious reasons and often with inferior quality – so there is a clear and present need for ingredient diversification if firms wish to conquer this market.
“The use of new and innovative ingredients may play a key role in differentiating a plant-based meat product from the association with traditional mock meat, which is expected to be sold at a low price point [and] comes with historical image baggage,” GFI APAC Managing Director Elaine Siu, also one of the report’s authors, told FoodNavigator-Asia.
“While innovative applications of soy and wheat have ushered in the latest generation of alternative proteins, relying exclusively on such a small handful of crops may also mean that we are overlooking the massive potential of locally sourced ingredients in Asia that could reduce costs and reap huge rewards for domestic producers,”
“[Thus, we are encouraging] ingredient diversification [as] a product differentiation strategy, to make sure the range of plant-based products is sufficiently diverse to satisfy the needs of different markets and consumer segments.”
That said, Siu highlighted that it will be crucial for food manufacturers, big and small, to help ensure that such ingredient diversification takes place, as consumers will respond to brands they are familiar with.
“Food manufacturers play a critical role in helping to prepare the market for new products and ingredients,” she said.
“Thankfully, [we have already seen] many of the world’s largest manufacturers signal that they believe alternative proteins are the future.
“Global multinational brands like Nestlé and Cargill have shown a keen interest in diversifying the protein sources consumers can choose from, and we fully expect this trend to continue to grow throughout 2021.
The other major area of support needed is in terms of regional collaboration between countries, mainly due to the different resources and skills that different countries can bring to the table.
“The diverse and fragmented nature of the Asian continent is both a strength and a weakness,” said Siu.
“Within East and Southeast Asia alone, there are vast agricultural landscapes capable of mass-producing alternative protein ingredients. [Then there is also] existing manufacturing infrastructure in Thailand or mainland China, [and] world-renowned food innovators in Singapore, Hong Kong, and other tech hubs.
“Regional collaboration [between the different countries in Asia] is critical to [helping the local plant-based meat sector] compete on the global stage with the U.S., Brazil, Australia, and other regions.”
The report highlighted 12 other crops apart from soy and wheat with the potential to be used by plant-based meat manufacturers in their product development, namely: Sunflower seed, Konjac, Potato, Field pea, Chickpea, Lentil, Mung bean, Lion’s mane mushroom, Mycoprotein, Millet and Rice.
“[We wanted] to shine a spotlight on some representative examples that we believe show large potential for further expansion, [but] these are just the tip of the iceberg,” said Siu.
Suggestions for individual Asian countries to focus on were based on available technology and economic development – for example, Singapore was advised to focus on crops such as lion’s mane mushroom which require low land-use for cultivation but is somewhat more premium in price, whereas konjac was suggested for Vietnam and Thailand as an intercrop on rubber plantations.
“Broadly speaking, we aimed to lean into crops and raw materials that are familiar to local farmers, because that creates a shorter path to market by reallocating existing crops for a new purpose,” she said.
China was urged to take up less thirsty crops like millet and lentil in light of water scarcity, Thailand was suggested to expand its national jackfruit output, Indonesia was advised to take advantage of its large size to increase rice, potatoes, and mung bean production, and Myanmar urged to focus on existing crops like chickpeas and sunflower seeds in light of infrastructural challenges.
However, despite looking like attractive propositions, the reality of implementing these suggestions is actually much more complicated – take Malaysia for example, a country with a vast array of land and existing oil palm plantations for intercropping, but where lion’s mane mushroom was the authors’ main suggestion instead of peas or other land-enriching crops.
“Seizing these opportunities is not be as straightforward as simply planting it and then selling it on the global market,” said Siu.
“Malaysia does indeed have tremendous potential as a producer of alternative protein crops. However, we were modest in our recommendations because historically palm oil producers have deeply objected to intercropping their land with multiple raw materials.
“It’s also not clear whether the Malaysian government would be willing to override the financial benefits of large-scale palm oil production to make room for other ingredients. That’s why we instead recommended an ingredient like lion’s mane mushroom, which does not clash with palm producers’ desire for land, since it can be grown indoors and vertically.”