Environment & energy, Trade and industry, Food & water | Australia

8 September 2022

Australia’s goals for decarbonisation offer agriculture a massive opportunity – a shift to meet the increasing global demand for premium-quality plant-based protein, Md Roushon Jamal writes.

Demand for protein is changing.

Growth in the protein industry is rising, driven by growing global demand, especially in Asia and the Pacific. For many reasons, the growth of the plant-based meat market is especially bullish and is projected to increase from $4.6 billion in 2018 to $85 billion in 2030.

But does Australia have enough plant-based sources to take advantage of the growing demand for these emerging proteins?

Currently, Australia produces most of its protein as livestock. While the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has projected that global demand for meat will reach 455 million tonnes by 2050, a 76 per cent increase from 2005, livestock production is under more community scrutiny than ever.

Its large carbon footprint, risks of animal welfare issues, and high land and water use are crucial costs of livestock production.

For example, lamb produces between 50 and 750 kilograms of carbon per kilogram of protein, beef produces between 45 and 640, and poultry produces between 10 and 30. Yet ‘pulse crops’ like chickpeas, broad beans, peas, lentils, lupin, and mung beans produce between four and 10.

In terms of land use, beef requires 37 to 2,100 square metres to produce one kilogram of protein, while lamb requires 100 to 165, poultry 23 to 40, and pulse crops between 10 and 43 square metres.

Plant-based alternate protein also has the advantages of versatility, affordability, and a lower non-carbon environmental impact. It is a growing market with increasing demand coming from new consumer behaviours such as a growing number of vegans, vegetarians, and flexitarians.

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Key sources of protein inputs for plant-based protein are also relatively inexpensive.

Per gram of protein, soybeans cost just $0.01 to produce, and wheat costs $0.03. This is much cheaper than cows at $0.32, pigs at $0.22, and chickens at $0.12.

Many traditional meat and poultry companies, including Tyson, Smithfield, Perdue Farms, Hormel Foods, and Maple Leaf, have entered the plant-based market, usually developing their plant-based meat products.

They should be incentivised to invest further by the Australian Government.

Currently, soybean, peas, lupin, and gram are the main sources of plant-based protein in the market. Fava beans, rapeseed, duckweeds, lentil, and quinoa are promising but currently niche sources.

Many unconventional sources of plant-based protein are poorly understood and technologically complicated. Policymakers should incentivise more exploration in this space – currently, more than 75 per cent of the global food supply comes from only 12 plant and five animal species.

Just three plant species – rice, maize, and wheat – make up nearly 60 per cent of calories the world consumes from plant-based sources.

Unconventional food plants such as white acacia, jatropha, bamboo, and edible flowers have great potential to be used as an alternate source of protein, fiber, and bioactive compounds, but few companies have taken this leap.

Discarded vegetable tissues such as seeds, stems, and leaves during post-harvest and industrial processing could also be an excellent source of bioactive compounds and protein, reducing waste in the process.

Australia can step up in this space. It should invest in a strengthened pulse crop industry with intensified pulse-based farming systems, looking to increase pulse area, yield, and quality. It should see this as a pillar of its vision of achieving a $100 billion agriculture industry by 2030.

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The country is ready for this. It has cutting-edge expertise in legume science in genetics, agronomy, adaptation, biochemistry, physiology, pathology, and food processing. Still, there is much room to grow. Currently, Australia is a tiny but promising player in the global pulse crop industry – it produces less than India, Myanmar, Nigeria, and Brazil. Investment in innovation and direct financial support can significantly increase pulse production in Australia.

By intensifying its pulse-based cropping systems, adding value, and implementing a market strategy, Australia could double its production by 2050, and even take the place of a leading actor in the global pulse crop industry alongside India.

Of course, pulse crops are not sustainable and profitable by default. Preparing pulse farmers for rising temperatures and ensuring sustainable water and land use takes work and pushing them towards intensive and sustainable farming is not an easy job. Besides, shifting to a new farming system or modifying an existing one is a slow process, even if it is sustainable and profitable.

The significant challenges for plant-based protein missions are supply chains, sustainability, safety, consumer acceptance, nutritional value, and climate change.

Pulse-focused innovation could help with these issues. It could take the form of government-encouraged research into plant genetics and food technologies that remove barriers like texture, quality, appearance, price, and flavour, to encourage even more uptake of plant-based protein.

Investing in farming system improvements, smart soil management, modern seed technology, and digital information systems can also help prepare the sector for a stronger plant-based protein industry.

In terms of direct support, governments could also incentivise farmers to adopt new technology, improve cultivation, and gather high quality data on their pulse crops.

An agricultural sector that is investing in plant-based protein can help unlock yet more of Australia’s economic potential and reduce industry emissions in the process. While this means facing many multifaceted challenges, the dream of a strong plant-based protein industry to support Australia’s future is worth investing in.

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