A plant-based juggernaut is shaking up the North American food industry, and even conventional meat and dairy companies are making significant bets on the future of veggie-based eating.
A wide range of agricultural and food industry leaders were in Calgary this week for a three-day international conference on the future of plant-based foods and plant protein ingredients. Organized by the Dutch networking company Bridge2Food, the conference — held in Canada for the first time in its 13-year history — focuses on consumer trends and opportunities for businesses as the demand for plant-based products increases around the world.
In session after session, conference attendees were told by retailers, restaurant owners and food processors that plant-based eating is no longer a fad, and that the growing portion of consumers who say they want to reduce meat consumption or eliminate it entirely is a market that can no longer be ignored.
“We are going through a very transformative time in the food industry,” said Jeremy Oxley, vice-president of marketing with Danone Canada. “As a leader in the food industry, we need to recognize that not only is this a world we need to play in, we want to play in it.”
Danone Canada’s parent company — the French multinational food company Danone — is best known for its traditional dairy-based yogurt brands. But in 2017, the company acquired non-dairy company WhiteWave Foods in a more than $10-billion deal, giving Danone ownership of plant-based brands such as Silk soy beverages and So Delicious Dairy Free frozen desserts.
While Danone’s non-dairy product line is small compared to its conventional dairy products, Oxley said a lot of the company’s growth will come from the plant-based side.
That message was echoed by Rory McAlpine, senior vice-president of government and industry relations with Maple Leaf Foods. The iconic Canadian company is best known for cold cuts and sausages, but in 2017 it acquired two established plant-based brands — Lightlife and Field Roast — and in 2018 opened a new division, Greenleaf Foods in Chicago, to oversee them.
In April, Maple Leaf announced it will spend US$310 million to build a 230,000-square-foot plant-based processing plant in Indiana. The new plant — which the company says will be the largest of its kind in North America — will double Maple Leaf’s capacity to make meat alternatives.
In fact, McAlpine said Maple Leaf no longer even refers to itself as a “meat company,” preferring to be called a “protein company.” He said some analysts are projecting a 7.5 per cent annual growth rate globally between 2016 and 2022 for the meat substitutes market.
“The meat industry is certainly large and it’s not shrinking in the sense of the global demand. The per capita consumption, as countries become wealthier in Asia and the developing world, is just increasing steadily the demand for meat protein,” McAlpine said. “But in terms of North American consumption, absolutely it’s soft. The growth opportunities (for meat), certainly in North America, are very limited.”
According to a study by the University of Dalhousie, 6.4 million Canadians are already following a diet that restricts meat at least partially. The new Canada Food Guide, released in January, urges Canadians to adopt more plant-based sources of protein while a report in the medical journal The Lancet said a global reduction in meat consumption will be necessary by 2050 for environmental and food security reasons.
California-based Beyond Meat, the company that uses pea protein to make the meatless burger patties that have been a runaway success story for A&W Canada, has seen its stock shoot up nearly 300 per cent since going public last month. The company is now valued at more than $6 billion.
But while there is a great deal of excitement in some agriculture circles around the plant-based food sector, the industry group that represents Alberta’s most iconic agricultural export — beef — is calling for balance.
Jill Harvie, public and stakeholder engagement manager with the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, said consumers sometimes assume that if something is a plant, it’s automatically “better.” But she said beef has a number of positive selling points, including its high protein content and the fact that cattle production on the Prairies helps to conserve native grasslands and the wildlife that live there.
“When it comes to growth in agriculture, that’s a great thing,” Harvie said. “But I think it’s important to keep that focus that we need both. Not only for our diets but for our environment as well.”