Integration vs takeover: Plant-based experts disagree over potential directions for industry’s future

By Pearly Neo

- Last updated on GMT

Plant-based industry experts in the Asia Pacific region have not yet been able to agree on the future direction of the sector here. ©Getty Images
Plant-based industry experts in the Asia Pacific region have not yet been able to agree on the future direction of the sector here. ©Getty Images

Related tags plant-based plant-based meat Protein Sustainability vegan Nutrition

Plant-based industry experts APAc are divided on the future direction of the sector, with some believing that it is likely to be integrated into local culture and others still hoping for a more radical takeover.

The current challenges facing the plant-based sector in Asia amidst the current economic climate and overall slow consumer uptake were the main focal discussion point of an expert panel at the recent ReThink SEA Agri-Food Roundtable in Bangkok.

The panel comprised of Stealth Food Impact Startup Co-Founder and Advisor/ Consultant/ Mentor in Alternative Protein and Future Food Space Maarten Geraets, China Plant Based Food Alliance Executive Director Ryan Xue and Good Food Institute APAC Managing Director Mirte Gosker.

The group started off by acknowledging that the plant-based sector saw some initial success during the start of the ‘explosion’ in this region, which was driven mostly by the novelty of the sector and the consumer psychology of hopping on to the bandwagon as it was exciting – but not so much out of a will to do good or change their diets for the long term.

“We need to first address the elephant in the room, which is that here in APAC and actually in most markets apart from the EU, plant-based is suffering,”​ Gosker told the floor.

“There is a lot of forward thinking that needs to be put into what is next for the industry and how to get back on the radar for consumers and governments in a positive way, especially as this is a must given there is no other solution for the sustainability issues we are facing.

“There are of course multiple challenges that we will need to address, but the solutions may not be as far off as expected – when it comes to the discussion of these being overprocessed for example, our R&D in South East Asia has found that this is an issue only mentioned by naysayers of plant-based or those who are not interested in it, but never by the enthusiasts.”

Geraets added that there is certainly far less discussion pertaining to advancing the plant-based sector here in Asia than the EU or the US, but that indeed the negative perception of processing may be more overblown that it should be.

“We already generally consume a lot of processed foods from potato chips to bottled water,”​ he said.

“So it is more of a perception versus reality thing here, because if the reality of processing as a method being bad were true, it would need to apply to many different foods and beverages, not just plant-based.

“The thing to remember is that the focus should be on food technologies that can help drive consumers towards eating healthier foods, which will then decrease traditional protein consumption naturally – plant-based is just one of the solutions in the market now.”

Xue offered a different outlook on things, highlighting that in Asia there is a strong need to ensure that culture – including food culture – remains a part of the industry and any major transformations.

“Plant-based is not just slapping a label on everything or pushing tech advances or sustainable innovation – here in Asia, culture is very important and to effect a change of this size, it is very crucial to go back to the basics,”​ he said.

“This means celebrating our cultural heritage and diverse cuisines and also being unique – plant-based remains an opportunity to do that, but we know also that about 90% of the population is going to need solutions that break past solely focusing on plant-based ingredients.

“So in China, firms generally are advised to think about what they can offer locally and do differently instead of following what is already out there, as mimicking the success of western products is not going to work in Asia – in short, to position themselves as an Asian food firm, rather than a plant-based firm.

“It should also be noted that in Asia we are already eating hundreds of different types of plant-based proteins so there is a lot of space for flexibility and to include both – the ‘either/or’ mentality that consumers must choose a side or be a 100% carnivore or vegetarian is really a western mentality that won’t work here.”

Goske voiced a strong opposition to this argument, insisting that the alternative protein diet is the ‘only way’ to sustain future food systems and also satisfy the various sustainability challenges currently being faced.

“I very much disagree that mimicking traditional proteins is not needed because developing alternative protein as new categories [are less likely to make these products] appealing to animal protein eaters, hence will not solve the problem [of converting them to plant-based protein consumption,”​ she said.

“We know that by 2050, carbon emissions will mainly be coming from Asia [so this is the population that needs to be convinced], and current products just have not managed to convince consumers yet, even Impossible Foods which I feel has cracked the nut of taste and texture but not yet solved the pricing barrier.

“So I feel that instead this is actually more of a science challenge to be solved [and the research will take time], so blending alternative and traditional proteins is the interim solution before it is resolved.

Better marketing needed

Geraets surfaced that the plant-based industry also needs to work on image and presentation as this is particularly key when it comes to changing human behaviour.

“The category was undoubtedly overhyped in the beginning as we all forgot that in fact, changing habits is a very difficult thing especially when it comes to food, so it was more or less a dream to hope to push such dramatic change in just five or six years,”​ he said.

“There is still positive growth in the category though faster in some markets than others, but to really accelerate this here we need to pivot, change and adapt to learnings in this region, meaning that mimicry [may not be the best way forward].

“In my time as the Thai Union Alternative Proteins Director previously, we found that we could push out plant-based tuna to consumers, but there was always a comparison to the ‘real thing’.

“The learning was to move away for now from tuna and look at other things on the shelves whilst also offering consumers new propositions and experiences as opposed to pushing these as ‘plant-based’, as this can be said to be ‘lazy marketing’ on the part of the industry, and since it hasn’t worked, we need to do something different.”

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