Australian agriculture & alternative proteins: A view for the future

By Samuel Lawrence, Director of Policy & Government Relations, Food Frontier. Alternative proteins: a burgeoning sector in Australia...
May 29, 2021 AU/NZ news Food Frontier news
Australian agriculture & alternative proteins: A view for the future

By Samuel Lawrence, Director of Policy & Government Relations, Food Frontier.

Alternative proteins: a burgeoning sector in Australia and overseas

Global population growth – estimated to reach 10 billion people by 2050 – raises a crucial question for farmers, scientists, businesses and governments the world over: what will people eat?

The data is abundantly clear: feeding a highly populated and increasingly affluent world with finite resources will require new protein sources alongside traditional ones. This presents lucrative opportunities for nations that invest early to position themselves for success in the fast-growing market of alternative proteins. 

The impetus for diversifying and growing total protein production is now widely understood amongst the world’s top investors, agribusiness giants, policy think tanks and economic development authorities, and continues to drive major investments in alternative proteins locally and globally, including in recent weeks.

From the  world’s largest meat producer JBS acquiring a plant-based meat business, to Australian Plant Proteins securing A$45M to expand its domestic plant protein fractionation facilities, well over a billion U.S. dollars is now being invested into the space each year, driven by both future projections and immediate growing demand amongst consumers. 

There’s no question that the shift to diversify protein supply across the globe will continue to accelerate. The question for Australia is: to what extent do we want to be involved?

Australian agriculture’s opportunity to meet growing global demand  

As new protein sectors scale-up and consumer trends continue to evolve, Australia is in a unique position to develop profitable new protein industries. The alternative proteins sector is already generating jobs, economic development and new agrifood opportunities down under – complementary to traditional protein sectors that have increasingly focused on export markets.

Plant proteins, which are in high demand amongst a range of food industries, offer an as yet untapped new market for the many thousands of Aussie farmers who grow protein-rich crops like legumes. Australia’s emerging alternative proteins sector is focused on developing and expanding the bandwidth of domestic plant protein processing capabilities, which will allow farmers to supply crops into a new value-added supply chain rather than into more volatile global commodity markets, and create new jobs in regional communities where these new facilities are being built. Plant-based meat alone – a fast-growing local industry that uses plant proteins as the base ingredient – is projected by Deloitte Access Economics to generate nearly $3B in domestic consumer sales by 2030.

Realising this potential for Australia’s agriculture sector means greater expansion into export markets, in particular Asia, which is leading the global rise in demand for protein. There is strong evidence of the continual and growing appetite for Australia’s high-quality protein products in international markets, as we have seen demonstrated over the 50+ years since Australian agricultural exports overtook domestic consumption, largely driven by the traditional meat industry. As a net exporter along with our neighbours in New Zealand, our nation can and should leverage existing trade channels and the strength of our premium reputation to increase the overall volume and value of our protein exports with new, value-added products like plant-based meats.

Food Frontier’s support of agricultural leaders and businesses

Since Food Frontier’s inception, our aim has been to work with businesses, innovators and policymakers across the spectrum to better understand how our region can position itself as a leader in emerging protein industries, alongside those we’re already known for.

From start-ups to grocery giants, farming bodies to regulators, our reports, partnerships and events focus on building understanding about the value of alternative protein industries such as plant-based meat and cellular agriculture, and enabling leaders to engage with them. Many of our engagements centre around helping those in Australia and New Zealand’s strong agriculture sectors to understand the complementary nature of alternative proteins and ways that our primary producers can benefit.

These conversations come to life across initiatives like the Future of Protein Forum, an alliance with NSW Farmers and the National Farmers Federation, and many other direct engagements with farmers and farming organisations such as at Hort Connections, NSW Farmers, New Zealand AgriFood Week and The Australian’s Global Food Forum 2020 amongst others. We’re passionate about helping to unwind some of the misconceptions around alternative proteins and explore their synergies with established agrifood sectors. Our highly skilled team brings to these conversations diverse perspectives from their collective decades of experience working with and within food and agriculture sectors, from farming to marketing and food retail.

Hailing from a farming family myself, and having grown up on a dairy farm and worked with and within the Australian agriculture sector for the better part of a decade across animal-based protein (pork), horticulture and alternative proteins, I am a vocal supporter of our farmers and our regional communities. I am constantly impressed by the ingenuity and dedication of many within the sector. With the vast opportunities presented by alternative proteins, notwithstanding the sheer excitement of helping grow a brand new food sector, I’m hopeful our continued conversations with savvy, forward-thinking farmers and those who represent them will continue to help realise this potential.

The national conversation trends positive, but challenges remain

It’s encouraging to witness the growing momentum behind alternative proteins in Australia coming from a wide array of actors, including some who are uniquely positioned to enable Australians – from farmers to small business owners to governments – to participate in the growth of an emerging industry.

One stellar example is the CSIRO’s Future Protein Mission, focused on helping Australia capture a share of high-growth global protein markets to expand our domestic protein industry by $10 billion over five years, in line with the Australian Government’s industry-led plan to lift farmgate output to $100 billion by 2030. CSIRO’s Professor Michelle Colgrave said that “Alternative protein industries can play an important role in Australia, contributing to regional and national prosperity,” and that the agency is researching plant-based,  traditional and emerging proteins.

The Australian Farm Institute also reinforced the complementarity and necessity for protein diversification in its 2020 report commissioned by Agrifutures, which stated ‘the emerging market for alternative proteins should be seen not as a threat to existing production systems but as a means of diversifying choices for producers, processors and consumers to fill the growing gap between global protein demand and supply.’ Media reported that the study found “there is more than enough room for both animal-based and alternative proteins in the global food market, with forecast global demand for protein continuing to grow, accommodating growth in both sectors.”

In 2020, NSW Farmers demonstrated a forward-thinking and inclusive approach with the adoption of an internal policy position identifying alternative proteins as ‘a new opportunity’a national first for an agriculture body. Along with the National Farmers Federation and Food Frontier, the joint development of the Future of Protein Forum is another demonstration of a smart alliance to explore how emerging and established industries can collaborate to expand Australia’s total protein production.

It is clear and encouraging that many across our national science, research, agriculture and food agencies are well informed about the critical role alternative protein industries will play in the future, and have acknowledged the need for Australia to make new investments to remain competitive in a changing global protein market.

Despite the many forward-thinking voices contributing to this national discussion, there are still some who misrepresent the emergence of a new protein industry as taking away from long-standing ones, when in reality, both can coexist. For the many thousands of Australian primary producers who stand to benefit from the growth of the alternative proteins sector, such misdirection is disingenuous, especially when considering Australia’s growing export potential as populations and prosperity in our region continue to swell. 

Considering the clear and compelling evidence on the economic benefits of alternative proteins, attempts to limit the potential of this emerging industry as a valuable component of our future food system, such as through further regulating plant-based product labelling in the absence of an evidentiary justification, are out of sync with many of the nation’s leading agriculture, science and food authorities.

Moving forward, collaboration and leadership will be key

As the Director of Policy and Government Relations for the lead educator and facilitator at the centre of Australia’s alternative proteins ecosystem, I’m proud to be helping enable a future in which alternative proteins are a fundamental part of our country’s food system. 

Our engagements reinforce the importance of collaboration with partners across industry, academia and government as we deliver insights and information on the benefits to regional Australia of investing in new protein industries. Plant-based meat alone presents a potential $3 billion contribution towards our nation’s $100B food and fibre goal, and new jobs for 6,000 Australians by 2030.

Australia is renowned for our world-class food research, production and exports, making us exceptionally well-placed to capitalise on our intellectual and infrastructure assets to lead our region in new protein markets as well.

We strongly welcome constructive, evidence-based dialogue that advances this important national conversation, as our team continues our efforts to unite forward-thinking leaders across food and agriculture to seize the multi-billion-dollar opportunity before us. We must not be distracted by misinformed voices that trend towards protectionism and scarcity, rather than the abundance of future demand we can collectively capitalise on if we work together to grow, diversify and deliver Australia’s premium protein offerings to the world.

The global expansion of new protein markets will continue, with or without Australia. We want to see our farmers, regional communities, innovators and manufacturers succeed, and it’s time for all in the supply chain, and those who represent them, to work together to realise our national potential.

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