There is a global rise in the amount of people switching to a plant-based diet. Roy Morgan research has recognised continued growth in Australians choosing more sustainable meals (eating all or almost all vegetarian) to the tune of 12.1% of the population in 2019 (up from 11.2% the year prior)

Similarly, we’re on the verge of a new decade and a transformative shift in the way food manufacturers are looking at consumer taste and demands. Tied to this is not only the increase in people wanting to advocate for their health, the environment, or animal welfare through their dietary choices, but also a need for these manufacturers to feed growing populations with quality products sustainably and safely.

Why plant-based?

Allen Zelden, founder of Intrinity Global, talks to insurmountable research uncovering the harmful effects of meat on the human body. “In 2015 the World Health Organization named red meat a Group 2 carcinogen and named processed meat like bacon and pepperoni a Group 1 carcinogen signifying that it causes cancer in humans. Asbestos and tobacco smoking are in this category too,” says Zelden.

Allen Zelden, founder Intrinity Global

Eating a plant-based diet on the other hand, has shown to improve human health by allowing the body to absorb key nutrients better, reduce inflammation, and support a healthy immune system. Plant-based foods are also rich in fibre and contain zero cholesterol which is one of the many reasons mounting numbers of people are switching out their animal products for plant-based alternatives.

When it comes to animal agriculture and livestock farming, animals are typically subjected to antibiotics and artificial growth hormones and raised in overcrowded factory farms. This is contributing to the antimicrobial resistance crisis in humans, another reason why more people are choosing to change the way they eat.

Food production (livestock, fisheries, crop production, land usage and supply chains) accounts for 26% of global greenhouse gas emissions (GHG).2 The process also demands high energy and water usage. “It’s estimated that 3000 litres of water are needed to produce 1 hamburger which is the equivalent of showering for 2 months,” says Zelden.

How Australia compares

The global plant-based/meat substitutes market is already valued AUD$28.8 billion and is expected to climb to AUD$52.2 billion by 2025. European and American governments have already invested several hundred millions of dollars towards this industry.

When it comes to the race for market adoption of plant-based foods, however, Australia is behind the mark. This is in part due to many plant-based food producers being “relatively young brands in a new but fast-growing market, [where] the barriers to entry are considerably high due to either expensive upfront proprietary production costs, or the lack of access to contract manufacturing in order to become a prominent player,” says Zelden.

We are rapidly progressing though – with Australian companies like Fable Food Co, v2food and Fenn Foods already making their mark. Popular Queensland plant-based food company Fenn Foods is on the brink of launching three new products which will be distributed across Australia, and exported to Singapore, South Korea and Hong Kong.

Part of this line-up includes the world’s first carbon neutral minced meat which is not only produced with less land and water resources, but with less carbon emission overall. How? By taking into consideration the carbon footprint of the entire product’s lifecycle from manufacturing through to disposal.

Fenn Foods co-founder Alejandro Cancino is an award-winning chef who not only wants to be part of the Australian Government’s solution to reach a 26-28% reduction in GHG emissions by 2030, but also wants to guide people on a healthier, more considerate way to eat. “We want to make this world a better place by producing more sustainable food and that core principal is at the heart of our strategy and mission,” says Cancino.

“Now it’s Australia’s turn to show landmark eco-leadership,” says Zelden. “Fenn Foods will be investing in a variety of renewable energies, locally sourced ingredients and other manufacturing methods to ensure all carbon emissions are offset during the production of their new pea-protein based meat.”

Similarly, Fable Food products are already widely distributed throughout Woolworths and other restaurants and retailers. Their popular Plant-Based Braised Beef has been praised by Michelin Star celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal, and Fable now also has a partnership with Blumenthal’s UK restaurants. Their next venture is to expand into the Singapore market in food service and retail.

Sustainability goals

There’s never been a better time for Australian food producers and manufacturers to start thinking about the future of homegrown operations. The recent announcement of the Australian Federal Government’s decision to invest $1.5 billion into the manufacturing sector is sure to ignite a welcomed spark into Australian manufacturers looking to start up or scale up. With concerns of food shortages and supply chains being upended because of the current world situation, this will also be the golden opportunity for them to put their stamp on the market and seize consumer mindshare for their brand.

Mike Briggs, Business Line Manager for Motion at ABB Australia, says “All we need to do is look at establishments like the Australian AgriTech Association and the work they’re doing to help emerging food and agtech companies. This encourages a world-class ecosystem that supports Australian agrifood innovation on a sustainable level to see the growth potential of technology embracement in the plant-based food industry.”

Mike Briggs, Business Line Manager for Motion at ABB Australia

In answering consumer demand and growing regulations to produce more sustainable food products, comes the corresponding plight to focus on clean energy solutions in manufacturing equipment. In particular, this has taken on the form of enhancing processing equipment with innovatively new digital technologies.

Consumers are seeking greater transparency into the food value chain of their dietary choices. Manufacturers are acknowledging consumer demands and working to heed the calls of tighter margins, shorter production schedules, and aging equipment. This can be seen through their utilisation of technologies to perform life cycle assessments on their manufacturing machines.

Digital solutions like smart sensors are a means to not only show where internal costs can be reduced through energy savings and equipment optimisation, but the data the technology generates is also evidentiary support to show consumers that they too are being more conscious about sustainable product development as a company. This is helping to establish a brand association in the mind of consumers that aligns with their own goals of reducing their carbon footprint.

Briggs notes how digital technologies, together with more energy efficient synchronous reluctance motors are helping to maintain an eco-friendlier agricultural production system from farm through to table: “ABB has designed the ABB Ability™ Smart Sensor which is used with our motors and pumps in water facilitation on farms to perform condition monitoring, extend the lifetime of motors, and reduce C02 emissions. They are essentially smart, wirelessly connected devices which show that with the right amount of water, the farmer can achieve an optimum balance between crop growth and water usage thereby maintaining energy efficiency,” he says.

With no hard wiring requirements, these smart sensors enable permanent monitoring at a fraction of the cost of traditional condition monitoring systems.

As many budding plant-based food companies look to overcome barriers to entry into the Australian market, these digital technologies will be vital to reducing operational costs through the discovery of real-time data to assess operating parameters and energy usage in order to optimise the asset management of their entire fleet of equipment to support their long-term growth.

The digital journey of a plant-based food company can start with a search for technology that is labour-saving, cost-saving and production-proof, but with the right supplier partnership they will also find that the data produced from these reports will also enable them to become drivers of food innovation with the added potential to export their quality and technologically-backed products.

According to Michael Fox, Chief Executive at Fable Food Co, “meat substitute companies are innovative by their nature and a core part of ours and our fellow meat alternative companies’ missions are to produce meat from plants that is better than animal meat on all qualitative and quantitative variables”.

Michael Fox, co-founder, Fable

For Fox, this means “better taste and texture, cheaper in price, healthier, lower carbon footprint, more ethical and more safely. Any emerging technologies that help us achieve this are very much of interest”.

How bright is the future for plant-based manufacturing in Australia?

As the plant-based lifestyle continues its swift ascent, so too will the inevitable transformation of the food industry to cater to this demand and align with consumer driving motives.

“Plant based meat is many orders of magnitude more carbon efficient than meat from animals,” says Fox. “Many plant-based meat companies are starting to leverage digital technologies to measure this and share it with consumers”.

Diversifying ways in which Australia produces and manufactures food to include innovative technologies will not only help companies to manage risk but also promote an environmentally conscious, high innovation, high productivity market, to become drivers of positive disruption in the global food supply chain.

Australia may be a small market now, but that’s evidently why plant-based manufacturers should be galvanised into taking present action to acquire consumer and market share. Looking at how existing food manufacturers are already using digital technologies to answer to consumer and operational demands will be key to new plant-based manufacturers’ ability to find their own success in producing sustainably, safely, and intelligently.

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