Thursday, December 7, 2023

New protein network to take on world players

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A new emerging proteins network launched this month aims to meet bigger, better funded overseas competitors head-on by coordinating New Zealand’s response to the growing food sector.
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Emerging Proteins NZ, run by FoodHQ in Palmerston North, was prompted by a report earlier this year which highlighted the progress made in emerging proteins by key competitor Netherlands.

It highlighted NZ’s need to ramp up investment and research focus in a sector where global plant protein sales surged 17% in 2018.

“One of the things we have seen in countries like the Netherlands is they are larger and better resourced. NZ has tended to be quite dispersed and smaller in scale with low visibility,” FoodHQ’s chief executive Dr Abby Thompson said.

“The idea of the network is to provide a forum for people in this space to find people aligned but ensure we have no unnecessary duplication,” she said.

Thompson says while NZ was quite capable of growing a wide range of plants suitable for the plant protein industry, the challenge was understanding the market for such products, and what they would be made into. 

The alternative protein market is currently dominated by the United States with its market three times larger than the next, the European Union. 

The Netherlands Nutrition Centre has a target ratio of animal to plant protein consumption of 50:50 set for 2025.

Animal proteins make up 62% of today’s Dutch diet, similar to New Zealanders’.

The Network imitates a similar model set up by the Dutch “Foodvalley NL.”

This cluster of plant protein development businesses resulted in 70 new plant-based products launched in Holland within a year.

In NZ, 30% of consumers are changing their eating patterns in response to health and environmental concerns and a 2020 Australian report estimated 20% of Aussies now class themselves as “flexitarians.”

Better visibility for NZs alt-protein sector will also hopefully attract more investment to a sector heavily reliant upon intensive processing to yield higher grade, more refined proteins from the raw protein materials.

“A lack of capital and infrastructure are the biggest barriers at the moment, we need a solid case for investment decisions to be made,” Thompson said.

This also comes in the face of massive overseas alt-protein producers who have received multi-million dollar investments from Silicon Valley tech firms in their initial stages.

The processing sector for plant proteins can tend to be capital intensive due to the added level of refining necessary to distil higher grade proteins from the raw material.

The inaugural chair of the Emerging Proteins network Miranda Burdon also founded Food Nation, a plant-based food company.

She said she saw first-hand how quickly overseas competitors are developing new techniques and ingredients, and how hard it can be to access them from NZ.

A promising emerging protein is in the form of duckweed, the pond-based plant prolific in waterways around NZ (see Farmers Weekly, July 29).

Thompson said she was encouraged by the constructive dialogue she had seen about non-traditional proteins between traditional pastoral suppliers and emerging companies. 

“That is even more so when we see we have three different milk companies and three meat companies all with representatives at the launch,” she said.

She believed there was plenty of opportunity for traditional and non-traditional to co-exist, but suspected it may take longer for traditional pastoral farmers to get behind it.

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