Inside the cavernous exhibition hall at Melbourne Showgrounds, crowds of people mill around watching others buy snacks from a vending machine.
They are curious because instead of the usual chocolate bars or packets of lollies, the machine is stocked with insect treats, such as barbecue cricket tortilla chips and saltbush and rosemary-flavoured meal worms. Reviews from customers are mixed.
“Everybody has that initial ick factor,” says Skye Blackburn, the founder of the Edible Bug Shop, who says insects are the food of the future. “But once you try it, you realise there is no buggy taste. It just tastes like a normal corn chip or normal lolly.”
“It’s just better for you – higher in protein, calcium and B-vitamins and amino acid. It’s a better option for the planet.”
The insect vending machine was a talking point at the Global Table, a conference bringing together experts to talk about the future of food and farming in Melbourne this week. It’s also a fun way to illustrate a much more serious dilemma – how can we feed more people in a world where the climate emergency is an existential threat to existing agricultural and food systems?
Developing alternative forms of protein to replace meat may be part of the answer.
Edible insects, for the moment at least, remain a niche in that market but plant-based faux meat products are becoming big business.
A study by Deloitte Access Economics released this week says Australia’s plant-based meat industry could create thousands of jobs and grow from a $150m business to be worth between $1.4bn and $4.6bn by 2030.
Another report that global consultancy AT Kearney released in June predicted that most of the meat people would eat in 2040 would not come from slaughtered animals. It estimated that 60% would be either grown in vats or replaced by plant-based products.
So far, the US and Europe have led research and development in the industry, which has mostly been focused on developing like-for-like replacements for processed meat products such as burger patties, bacon and sausages.
Compared with something like steak or a lamb roast, these types of meat are less complex to reproduce, but some companies have had success in creating tuna and prawn alternatives, as well as replacements for chicken products, such as nuggets.
New Zealand based Sunfed founder and chief executive Shama Sukul Lee has focused on replicating the texture of chicken using yellow pea protein.
“It’s about getting those protein strands aligned in a certain way that when you bite into it, you get that meaty experience, that meaty texture,” Lee says.
Her New Zealand company has grown 170% year-on-year.
“We sold out on our first day of launch, we kept selling out,” she says. “Our biggest problem was we couldn’t keep up with demand.”
Coles supermarket began stocking her chicken-free chicken in Australia about a month ago. The business hopes to expand its offerings to beef-free beef and launch into other western markets in the short term.
“We don’t tell anyone what to do, consumers go there and buy it, all we are doing is extending their choices,” Lee says.
“Essentially what people are saying with their purchasing decision is, ‘I’m willing to pay for protein that is better for me’ … there’s no reason to assume that trend is going to shift.”
Lee says there is big potential for Australia’s agriculture industry to tap into emerging plant-based protein products but it will require investment, particularly in technology.
“The nutrient separation part, that is completely missing,” she says. “None of the infrastructure exists here yet. We hope to build it here.”
Sunfed imports its yellow pea protein from Europe but in the long term it hopes to use locally grown products.
Pulses, like other legumes, fix nitrogen from the atmosphere into the soil; they are phosphorus scavengers and drought resistant.
“You grow yellow peas and harvest them, you leave [the soil] better than you found it,” Lee says.
Don’t believe the hype
Dairy Australia director and scientist Paul Wood says that while there is a lot of hype around plant-based meats right now, they are no silver bullets in food sustainability.
Wood says the buzz around plant-based meat is similar to that of the dot.com boom in the 1990s. He points to Beyond Meat, which makes a meatless burger that looks and tastes a lot like the real thing. Its stock shot up 840% after being publicly listed on the Nasdaq on 2 May but the company is yet to make a profit to justify its market valuation in the order of US$13bn (A$19bn). Analysts don’t think the fairy tale will last.
“You get [that kind of] valuation when people jump on a bandwagon without understanding what’s happening. It’s not sustainable,” Wood says.
He says the push by vegans for the elimination of meat production and consumption is unrealistic.
“You’ve got people who say we should get rid of red meat and just put all of that land into crops,” he says.
“The trouble is most of the land livestock are on is not arable. You can’t put crops in, the soil is not fertile enough, the water isn’t there. So that simplistic idea fails the first test.”
Wood says that while methane emissions from cows are in the spotlight for their contribution to global warming, the livestock industry is serious about taking action.
“We can do genetic selection … we can select for animals that have reduced greenhouse [gas emissions] and [improved] heat tolerance,” he says.
Meat and Livestock Australia has a plan for the industry to be carbon-emissions neutral by 2030, which includes tree planting, use of legumes and dung beetles in pastures, savannah fire management in northern Australia, feed supplements, feedlotting and vegetation management.
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