COVID-19 has changed a lot about what we do, and how and where we do it. But beyond home offices, Zoom birthday parties and social distancing in bars, the pandemic could have had a long-term effect on the way we eat.
And I’m not just talking about your new-found penchant for home-baked banana bread.
Over the past couple of months, Australian plant-based meat startups have been booming, and while the cause-and-effect may not be immediately clear, these experts believe the pandemic may have sped up the shift towards alternative proteins.
A vego of four years himself, Fable co-founder and chief Michael Fox, who previously founded Aussie custom shoe startup Shoes of Prey, tells SmartCompany he entered this space to tackle some of the problems with animal agriculture.
“I’m a pretty terrible activist,” he admits — he doesn’t have a good track record in convincing others to forgo their meat fix.
So, instead, he decided to turn his entrepreneurial spirit towards offering a guilt-free meat alternative.
“I realised a lot of people want to reduce their meat consumption,” he says.
“But it’s difficult to do. They don’t want to eat tofu and falafel balls.”
Fable launched in December last year with a partnership with UK celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal, and a $1.5 million raise co-led by Blackbird Ventures and Grok Ventures – the VC fund of Atlassian co-founder Mike Cannon-Brookes.
Since then, Fable products have rolled out in 50 Australian restaurants, launched with Marley Spoon in select Harris Farm markets in New South Wales, and just last month hit the shelves in 600 Woolworths stores.
“It’s all grown pretty rapidly,” Fox says.
Elsewhere, another Aussie-grown meat alternative startup, v2food, is also seeing “exponential growth”, founder and chief Nick Hazell tells SmartCompany.
The startup, founded in collaboration with CSIRO and with backing from Hungry Jack’s boss Jack Cowin, rolled out almost immediately into Hungry Jack’s stores, and has since expanded into Burger King restaurants in New Zealand.
V2food has also partnered with Marley Spoon, and in June it paired up with Deliveroo for meat-free week, with 70 Aussie restaurants offering plant-based alternatives to some of their dishes.
“We’re on this crazy exponential growth curve — a hockey stick,” Hazell says.
“All of the massive growth is ahead of us, but it’s now beginning to happen.”
So, things are picking up in the plant-based meat space. But it’s all against the backdrop of a global pandemic and an economic crisis. Is it possible that the two are connected?
A shift towards mainstream
Speaking to SmartCompany, professor Michelle Colgrave, molecular analysis team leader in CSIRO agriculture and food, notes that in the early days of COVID-19 in Australia, we saw supermarket shelves emptying.
“The meat section was pretty much bare, but there were still some plant-based proteins still sitting on those cabinets,” she says.
On the face of it, that’s not a glowing endorsement of such products. But, it also presented an unlikely opportunity for them.
“There was no availability of the standard products, it presents an opportunity for that customer to try those products,” she says.
“They might find they are actually much better than they imagined, and they would return to purchase some of these.”
At the same time, even outside of the COVID-19 context, there is a shift in dietary patterns happening.
“About a third of Australians are actively seeking to reduce their red meat consumption,” she says.
“That in itself is leading to an increase in interest in plant-based food.”
Part of that shift is because of a perception that plant-based products are healthier. Now, more than ever, people are thinking about immunity, gut health, and how best to protect themselves from illness.
“We have people who are looking at health as a primary driver, but they’re also looking at planetary health and sustainability, and considering animal welfare,” Colgrave notes.
“All of those three combine to shift people’s diets towards plant-based products,” she says.
“We’ve got increased availability of these products, they are reaching price parity with traditional products, and there’s been significant improvements in flavour and texture, which means that those plant-based foods are really becoming mainstream.”
Food habits in flux
Hazell thinks believes there’s something bigger, perhaps something more philosophical, going on here as well.
The pandemic has proven, with stark clarity, how one person’s actions can have a global impact, he muses.
“Actually, people realise that individuals make a difference,” he says.
“You are in a position to actually do something, as an individual, and when we all do it together, something important could happen.”
It all plays into the ongoing discussion around sustainability, and food production that doesn’t exceed what the planet can handle.
While the media conversation around environmental sustainability reached a peak towards the end of last year, with the schools climate strike and business walk-outs, news about COVID-19 is now taking up much of that column space. But, that doesn’t mean it’s out of sight, out of mind, Hazell says.
“Actually, individuals, people are changing their behaviours in all sorts of ways. They’re examining the way they do work, their work-life balance, their travel, their diets.
“All of these things are now thrown up for discussion.”
As we’ve all seen over the past few months, the pandemic has caused the whole population, on a global scale, to rethink the way they live their lives. It’s not often a person’s world gets turned upside down like this.
But when it does, that’s when habits — including eating habits — change, he suggests.
“People’s habits don’t change very often. When they do change it’s normally when something throws their life into flux.”
Usually, such an event could be moving in with a new partner, having a first child, or moving to a new country, for example.
“With COVID, everybody in the whole population has been exposed to that sort of disruptive input, and therefore things can change quickly,” he says.
Speeding up the timeline?
When it comes to the physics of plant-based meats, and creating something that tastes and feels like the real deal, “we’re always going to push it to the end game”, Hazell says.
The question is how quickly these startups will get there, and if consumers are ready a little earlier than anticipated, whether they can capitalise on that.
“I think it is an opportunity for us to really accelerate our growth, and we’re doubling down on everything to create the capacity, both for Australia and for export, to take advantage of that,” Hazell says.
“It’s time for a deep breath and for taking some risks to do this.”
Fox also sees the extent of the opportunity here. Currently, meat alternatives make up less than 1% of the meat market in Australia. But dairy alternatives make up about 13% of the dairy market, he explains.
“Just based on that, there’s a lot of room for growth in the category.”
He also suggests Fable’s products have reached a point of comparability to animal meat, and they’re only going to get better. Fable’s ‘braised beef’ product is also on par cost-wise with Woolworths’ pulled beef product.
“We don’t yet have the scale that the meat industry has, but as we scale up and become more efficient our cost-base will come down,” he explains.
“I see a point in the very near future where we at least match, if not better, on taste and texture, and we’re cheaper on price.”
If that happens for a range of plant-based protein products, “then meat alternatives are going to be a hell of a lot more than 1% of the meat market”.
In five to ten years’ time, Fox predicts the meat alternatives category will be where the dairy alternatives category is now, with a double-digit market share.
“I would be reasonably confident placing a bet that in 20 years’ time, meat alternatives will make up potentially the majority of the meat market,” he says.
Food of the future
Of course, both Hazell and Fox predict significant growth in the sectors they’re building their empires in. They wouldn’t be running startups if they weren’t insatiable optimists.
But, Colgrave also doesn’t think growth here will be slowing anytime soon.
“The growth in the plant-based sector is almost double the growth in traditional industries,” she says.
However, she sees a future where the two are complementary.
“We’ve got 7.7 billion people on earth right now. We’re going to have another 2 billion by 2050,” she says.
We need to produce more protein, generally, simply to feed the booming population, she notes. But, that has to be high-quality protein that meets their nutritional needs.
According to Colgrave, there may well be people who continue to eat red meat and seafood products, for example. But, the serving sizes could be smaller.
We could even see hybrid products made partly from plant-based proteins and partly from ‘real’ meat, she suggests.
But, if we’re looking 10 to 20 years into the future, our meals could be almost unrecognisable.
“We have to reimagine the plate of the future,” Colgrave says.
At the moment, plant-based burgers look like burgers. But we have technologies available to us that could lead to new product formats — think functional foods designed purely for health purposes, or familiar foods created using ingredients we’ve never thought to use before.
“At the moment, we’re reliant on, I think, 12 plants and five animals for almost all our nutrients,” she says.
“We haven’t really explored everything the planet offers.”
Food scientists are exploring ways to get more foods from the sea, such as seaweed and algae products. Eventually, we could even be looking at foods created in bioreactors, similar to the way beer is made now.
“Food that’s brewed,” Colgrave calls it.
“We’re doing a really good job at the moment of recreating the flavours and textures, and mimicking the products that exist now,” she says.
“Who’s to say that’s what we should limit ourselves to?”