The COVID-19 pandemic is fuelling a boom in the plant-based food industry and Australia has a role to play

Beyond Meat plant-based food

Beyond Meat is one of the fastest growing plant-based food companies in the US. Source: Beyond Meat

It’s clear the plant-based food industry is booming. With an escalating shift towards healthier lifestyles, consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the nutritional benefits offered by plant-based foods.

However, in times of crisis when most industries are slowing, the plant-based food industry is experiencing record growth and milestone launches as the pandemic continues to expose the links between meat and animal-borne viral illnesses, leading more consumers to rethink their diets.

But where does Australia stand in this global market and what opportunities can we project to benefit from in these uncertain times?

Explosive growth in the US

Over the last few years, plant-based foods have undoubtedly been one of the hottest US food trends, demonstrating seismic growth and blockbuster business activity. You only need to look at Beyond Meat’s skyrocket debut on the NYSE where it nearly tripled in value on its first day of trading to make it the most successful IPO since 2000.

With sales growing 31% year on year since 2017, the total market value of the US plant-based food market was US$4.5 billion in 2019 (according to SPINS retail sales data). However, as the pandemic continues to reshape most industries, recent data suggests this trend is undergoing a monumental surge.

Nielsen data shows that plant-based meat and milk sales have skyrocketed and have outpaced conventional meat and milk sales as Americans continue to stock up on food supplies amid COVID-19 shutdowns” says Caroline Bushnell, associate director of corporate engagement at the Good Food Institute (GFI).

The GFI is a non-profit organisation, with branches in Brazil, Europe, India, Israel and the Asia-Pacific, comprised of scientists, entrepreneurs, lawyers and policy experts working to accelerate the transition of the world’s food system to plant-based and cellular agriculture.

“For example, dollar sales of plant-based meat grew 454% in the week ending March 21, while fresh meat sales grew 100%. For the week ending March 28, plant-based meat grew 255%, while fresh meat sales grew 53%”.

Whilst it’s accurate to note the comparative growth of plant-based meat sales is from a smaller base, the pandemic may also have a more unanticipated positive effect on driving consumers to meatless products in the longer term.

“The recent history of plant-based meat showed stronger growth in refrigerated versus frozen plant-based meat, but with consumers now more interested in longer shelf life, the frozen category might gain a growth boost that could build long-term loyalty.”

Major launches in China

In a time where most businesses are hitting the pause button to launch new products, the plant-based market in China has been bursting with exciting announcements. In one week alone, China’s food scene has seen Starbucks debut a new plant-based menu featuring Beyond Meat and Oatly; KFC launch plant-based fried chicken to select chains; and Chinese vegan food venture Starfield partner with six major restaurant chains to offer plant-based options across hundreds of locations.

So why is the world’s greatest consumer of meat with a retail value equal to roughly $170 billion annually (according to Euromonitor), taking such an immediate interest in plant-based foods?

Regardless of their current complications with local food contaminations (such as DIV1 shrimp virus and African swine fever), China has one-fifth of the world’s population but only 7% of its total farmland, making it exceptionally vulnerable to any trade restrictions.

David Yeung, founder and chief executive of Hong Kong-based Green Monday, says the pandemic has “exposed the public health and sustainability risk of our meat-reliant food system, which represents a window of opportunity for the plant-based sector”.

With access to the world’s leading plant-based brands and distribution channels in nearly 10 countries throughout Asia, Yeung is involved in all major industry sectors and is considered to be the most prolific business leader in the Asian plant-based movement.

He believes the momentum for plant-based foods will continue to accelerate in the future, bringing some necessary disruption to the food economy.

“Everyone will inevitably have to rethink and re-examine the entire food supply chain. We simply can’t afford to have another devastating incident like the coronavirus ever happen again.”

State of play in Australia

Whilst Australia may be comparatively small on a global scale, the forecast for Australia’s plant-based food industry shows tremendous growth, with the CSIRO estimating our plant-based meat market will be worth more than $6 billion by 2030.

However, to get there we have some unique hurdles: oblige with the challenges of our dominant retailers and capitalise on global opportunities driven out by our perception in market.

Australia is uniquely positioned when it comes to grocery food retailing, with our concentrated supermarket duopoly of Coles and Woolworths dominating the Australian grocery market by a total 61.6% (according to Roy Morgan’s 2019 survey data).

If Australian plant-based food companies are looking to scale locally, they have little choice but to negotiate with these two retail entities, where it is widely understood they will have to combat an aggressive agenda to lower margins. This will make it difficult to invest in equipment, infrastructure and innovation.

Given this, alongside the growth of their own private label offerings, it’s clear our grocery duopoly have their own challenges to deal with in meeting market expectations and fending increased competition. It is therefore critical that Australian plant-based food companies invest aggressively in building brand and relevancy if they are to navigate and succeed in our grocery retailing landscape, particularly in times of heightened interest.

It’s these distinct retail conditions that suggest why the majority of newly funded and recently established local plant-based businesses invest in gainful entry via food service channels as their primary step.

However, with retail sales booming and the food service sector suffering, the pandemic has forced most of these businesses to adjust forecasts and pivot their launch plans, moving instead to ready-meal delivery and online pop-ups as the best way to bring their products to market.

As for opportunities beyond our shores, generally there is strong global demand for Australian produce and foods as they are perceived as very high-quality. For instance, Australia recently overtook the US as the world’s top exporter of beef by value in 2019, according to Meat & Livestock Australia, so it’s only a matter of time before this global sentiment trickles across to Australian plant-based meat.

The current value of Australian exports for the Australian plant-based sector in 2018/2019 was $0, according to a recent report by Food Frontier. However, there are a variety of new buyers throughout Asia and Europe working to access the best product offerings from Australian plant-based food companies.

Yet another market notably affected by the pandemic is exporting. With longer lead times due to travel restrictions, diminished freight capacity and increased market access complications, many export opportunities have stalled. And most active buyers in affected nations, even those early in the purchasing cycle cannot meet and taste samples due to distancing and lockdown regulations.

Regardless of any short-term setbacks, the rapid growth of the plant-based industry is undeniable with recent data suggesting this trend has only accelerated in recent weeks. Though it still only represents a small portion of the total global food market, it’s clear the pandemic has created greater awareness around the public health challenges of our current food systems and is driving more consumers to switch to plant-based foods.

As with all emerging disruptive industries, speed and resilience is everything, and with the Australian plant-based industry still in its infancy, the question is not if or when, but who in Australia will gain mind and market share first?

NOW READ: As Australia’s meat-free scene sizzles, Hungry Jack’s boss backs plant-based protein startup

NOW READ: “Basically broccoli”: Boost Juice founder Janine Allis weighs in on the plant-based trend

You can help keep SmartCompany free for everyone to read

Small and medium businesses and startups have never needed credible, independent journalism and information more than now.

That’s our job at SmartCompany: to keep you informed with the news, interviews and analysis you need to manage your way through this unprecedented crisis.

Now, there’s a way you can help us keep doing this: by becoming a SmartCompany Supporter.

Even a small contribution will help us to keep doing the journalism that keeps Australia’s entrepreneurs informed.

And it’s not all one-way traffic either. SmartCompany Super Supporters get to dial into our monthly editor’s meeting and attend a monthly, invite-only webinar with a big-name entrepreneur.