The hype around meat-substitutes and tensions between conventional and startup protein sources were in clear evidence on Day One of Agrifutures Australia’s EvokeAg 2020 agri-technology conference in Melbourne on Tuesday.
A number of sessions put speakers on either side of the animal and non-animal protein fence on the same stage, resulting in some fascinating and at times slightly confrontational proceedings.
Some in Australian agriculture see the rapidly growing ‘plant-based’ product category as an existential threat to their industry, others view it as a major opportunity for Australian farmers to grow the plants required to supply the emerging market.
A recurring view of many of the speakers who addressed the topic on Tuesday was that alternative proteins will be needed to help fill a massive gap in the amount of protein required to feed a rapidly expanding global population, a volume of protein animal agriculture has no hope of supplying on its own.
One plant-based protein product developer was particularly enthusiastic in his desire to voice an opinion that animal agriculture is now an irresponsible and unjustifiable pursuit in a planet that needs saving from environmentally destructive livestock, but found some of the less-than-watertight facts underpinning his position called out by his co-speaker on the panel, AgriWebb co-founder Justin Webb.
Michael Fox is a lawyer who co-founded design-your-own shoe company Shoes of Prey in 2009, a company that for a time was a startup darling but which collapsed in August 2018. Media reports suggest the fallout has left investors owed some significant sums.
Mr Fox told the EvokeAg audience he has been a vegetarian for the past four years and said he has applied the lessons he learned through the Shoes of Prey experience to launch a new startup, this time focused on plant-based protein.
Launched nine weeks ago, Fable Foods’ primary product is a shiitake-mushroom based alternative to slow-cooked meats which is being supplied to high end restaurants, and for which a $1.5 million investment funding round has recently been completed.
Agriwebb’s Justin Webb, who combines an agricultural background with qualifications in economics, business and mathematics from Harvard and Oxford universities and has previously developed significant private investment funds, is now the chair and co-founder of one of Australia’s most successful ag-tech startups, the AgriWebb farm management software and digital ecosystem which is now growing internationally.
Both speakers were asked by facilitator Arianna Sippel from Austrade to offer some valuable life lessons to other startups about going global, which they indeed did, before Mr Fox directed the conversation back to sustainable proteins, telling the audience consumers globally are reducing meat consumption on health, climate and ethical grounds.
“That is a core part of the founding mission of our business, and the logic behind the product, and the trend between consumers wanting to reduce their meat consumption is definitely a global trend, it is western markets, it is happening in Asia, it is even starting to happen in traditional meat markets like South America.”
Mr Webb pointed out that global meat consumption is actually continuing to rise, fuelled by middle income growth in China in particular.
He said the concept of manufactured and plant-based meat was fantastic and would help to provide an important source of protein in future, but solving the sustainable protein issue was not a “one solution” problem, and work had to continue on making traditional livestock production more efficient.
“The analogy in this is a bit like – “cool, we now have the electric car. But we shouldn’t stop making the combustion engine more efficient.”
Eager to debate the topic Mr Fox again steered the discussion back to the same issue, describing meat consumption as a “massive problem for humanity”.
“Take all of the issues that are driving consumers to reduce their meat consumption – health, environment and ethics – they’re all big issues.
“But if we just take climate change, we’re at the moment on a train that there is a decent probably is going to crash and we will have a whole bunch of issues as a society.
“My concern is that with smart people like yourself kind of optimising industrial animal agriculture and making some small efficiency improvements in that space, it is not actually going to get us where we need to get to in reducing those emissions.”
He said he believed what was needed was more really smart people, more entrepreneurs and more managers “going hard at the problem of solving climate change rather than trying to optimise existing systems”.
“All of the farmers who are producing animal meat at the moment, we need more mushrooms, so if they could switch to growing more mushrooms, that would be helpful, we could convert a lot of land back to growing forests and capture the climate.”
A wave of laughter and applause swept the room when Mr Webb responded by saying ” I agree, I like unicorns and fairies as well”:
“I admire and I am excited about what you’re doing and I think it contributes wonderfully as part of the solution, but what you’re proposing effectively is ‘cool, let’s outlaw meat consumption, let’s outlaw meat production,’ and I have got to say that is a little facile, because it is not a reality.
“And to just say, ‘well, if we can’t make it perfect then let’s not do it at all’ is equally a non-starter.”
Mr Webb saidt processed foods were not without their own problems and noted that the mass production of mushrooms relies upon tonnes of fertiliser.
“There is a reality that we need to improve the efficiency with an eye to sustainability on all food production and on all consumption, and maintaining a breadth of diversity, not only on farm, but also on the startup space is actually incredibly important to that solution.”
Keeping the thread going Mr Fox said Mr Webb had obviously built a very good business with software helping farmers to optimise farming, but then asked why someone “as smart and entrepreneurial as you” is focusing on cattle production, why not “helping plant farmers to grow their plants or their mushrooms?”.
“I appreciate the high five and the stab in the back,” Mr Webb responded, to more audience laughter, before pointing out that 80pc of AgriWebb’s customers are mixed farmers who grow both livestock and crops.
‘if you really want to come back to your solution, don’t farm mushrooms, graze more cows.’
Responding to an earlier point made by Mr Fox that a large percentage of farmland is grazing land, he explained that was because it “doesn’t grow crops very well” and would need massive amounts of fertilser to do so, adding that Australia is a global leader in open grazing.
“In Australia 95pc of production is open grazing, or grassfed as you see on the menu,
“And that is actually carbon neutral or in most places carbon negative, because the regeneration of grass sucks more carbon out of the atmosphere than is actually being put out
“So if you really want to come back to your solution, don’t farm mushrooms, graze more cows.”
Market research and consumer actions don’t always match up
Mr Fox earlier told the audience one of the problems with Shoes of Prey was that while their market research showed consumers wanted to be able to customise their own shoes, in reality, most actually didn’t – they just wanted to buy shoes that were already popular and on-trend.
There was an interesting parallel to that comment in another session that also included a company selling meat and a company selling plant-based alternative on the same stage.
In that session James Madden from Flinders & Co, a meat company that sells ‘carbon neutral’ branded meat, pointed out that what consumers say about meat and what they actually buy are not necessarily the same thing:
“We looked at a heap of consumer data, a heap of millennial insights – I’m a millennial so I feel like I kind of get millennials – and all of the data was saying that they would love that, carbon neutral means it will go crazy, 75pc of millennials say they will pay more for sustainable food,” Mr Madden said.
“Since we have gone Carbon Neutral I can tell you that what a millennial says on a survey, and what a millennial actually does in a supermarket is quite different.
“I think there is a lot of buzz around sustainability and it is a good thing because it is driving large companies to make big changes but I think it is important that consumers actually step up to the plate when given the opportunity to buy.”
The plant-based protein provider on the panel was Nick Hazell, CEO and founder of v2food, a collaboration with the CSIRO which is now selling plant-based burgers through Hungry Jacks.
In contrast to Mr Fox’s position that there is no place for animal agriculture, Mr Hazell’s view was that there is indeed plenty of need for all:
“The guiding principle here is when you look at total meat consumption on the planet and you look at the growth in population and the growth meat consumption as people get wealthier, we have a physics problem here – it is just impossible to feed that number of animals through the traditional way.
“There is just not enough grain to be grown to feed the animals to feed a doubling of meat consumption on the planet.
“And when I did my due diligence and (looked at) what is the way of doing it, plant based protein seemed like a really interesting way to go because you can feed people directly one to one if you like, as opposed to 10 to one from meat made from animals.”
“If you’re defending you’re losing”: Mark Allison
In an interview with Beef Central on day one of EvokeAg, we asked Elders managing director Mark Allison if he saw plant based meat as a threat or opportunity for Australian agriculture.
“I think it is fantastic,” he said.
“I think from a holistic viewpoint, the demand for proteins is outstripped by the ability of red meats to meet it, and if there is a 10-15pc, maybe 20pc hub that plant protein can meet, absolutely fine.
“And it opens up significantly more market opportunities for Australian farmers, allows the rotations of the pulse crops, those crops are being grown now.
“To me fighting it doesn’t make sense – once your defending, you’re losing.
“I think we should all run with it, the beef industry has got so much opportunity, let’s talk about how we can make the best of this and adapt and respond, to be able to take opportunity.”