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Rob Seery discovers the food industry might be evolving in ways that can make us all feel more optimistic about sustainability

Record numbers of people are avoiding food derived from animals. As a result, demand for meat-free products has also risen. 30% of meals in the UK are now meat-free.

If Miguel de Cervantes hero, Don Quixote, were alive today and looking for another hapless cause to pursue he might well choose saving the planet. As recent research by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shows, the world is now heading towards a 3C increase - twice the recommended rate of warming.

A good time, then, you might think, for the delusional knight-errant to champion climate change initiatives, whilst belting out the Leigh and Darrion classic “Impossible Dream,” from the Broadway musical, based on Cervantes book. It’s a song which is all about pursuing a, seemingly hopeless, quest. Except, that is, thanks, in part, to some recent innovations in the food industry a little good news is, at last, on the horizon.

But there are, I’ll grant you, big hurdles to leap. According to the website of German plant-protein company, Amidori, “The food industry is claiming over 30% of the earth’s ice-free surface, 70% of the available fresh water, 30% of the transport sector and 20% of the generated energy, worldwide.” Their message then is, it seems, a simple one: Eat less meat. Turn down the heat.

As a company making meals from plant protein, that is, of course, exactly what you’d expect Amidori to say. But, at a presentation at a Houlihan Lokey consumer conference I went to a few months ago, they, and several other innovative players in the rapidly-developing “free-from” sector (including Gosh and Oatly), delivered persuasive arguments around the unsustainability of the current food supply-chain. And the planet-saving potential of non-meat based products.

These forward-thinking companies, collectively, made an excellent case as to how changing consumption patterns, especially the move away from meat toward veganism, could, over time, have a very positive impact. According to a 2018 'Compare the market.com' survey “with more than 3.5 million Brits now identifying as vegan, plant-based living is more popular than ever before”. So there is strong evidence that they might be on to something.

Like Amidori, both Gosh and Oatly offer primarily plant-based products. Gosh, with meal-time treats like beetroot burgers and falafel; Oatly, as the name suggests, with posh porridge but also plant-originated milk alternatives. As with Amidori, Gosh pushed the positive effect of their products on climate in their presentation: “Estimates suggest that if all meat eaters switched to a vegan diet it would roughly halve total greenhouse gas emissions associated with food.”

Oatly was founded back in the 1990s and is based around Swedish research from Lund University. The company’s patented enzyme technology copies nature’s own process and turns fibre rich oats into nutritional liquid food. They, too, cited research that underlined the importance of sustainability, not just as a vital environmental tool but, also, as a marketing strategy: “65% of UK adults are trying to live more ethically.”

What impressed me the most about all the presentations was just how fast the free-from sector is growing. This from Gosh: “Record numbers of people are avoiding food derived from animals. As a result, demand for meat-free products has also risen, leading plant-based items to now be considered mainstream. 30% of meals in the UK are now free from meat.”

30% meat-free? For me, that fact really struck home. What if it could be replicated on a truly global level? Well, that really got me thinking… All together now: “To dream the impossible dream, To fight the unbeatable foe…”

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