Novel food solutions for a more sustainable future
As climate change and disasters jeopardise food security, could the switch to alternative proteins be the solution to the region’s need for a sustainable food ecosystem? Money Mind reports.
SINGAPORE: Shredded and minced mock meat made from young jackfruit grown and harvested in Sri Lanka has found its way onto the plates of diners in Singapore and Hong Kong.
Founded three years ago, Singapore-based Karana has found a way to turn jackfruit into a plant-based substitute for pork, using just four ingredients and a proprietary processing method.
Jackfruit has long been eaten and enjoyed in the region, but these new uses of a traditional fruit are leveraging on its perceived natural meat-like qualities.
It also has impeccable sustainability credentials - jackfruit grows so abundantly that an estimated 60 per cent of the world’s jackfruit crop goes to waste.
Karana’s founders are on a mission to scale up and in effect, help ease the region’s food waste problems.
“By utilising this under-utilised source, we're able to reduce that waste, promote biodiversity, and give additional income streams to smallholder farmers,” said Mr Blair Crichton, co-founder of Karana
Karana is doubling down on research and development as it looks to explore new crops and ingredients that have gone under the radar in the region.
ASIA'S AGRICULTURAL BASKET
Traditionally, Asia has been a major agricultural basket for the world.
More than 90 per cent of global output of rice as well as more than 30 per cent of corn are produced in Asia. But the region’s crop yields are growing vulnerable to severe heat and flooding due to climate change.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, Asia’s agriculture sector suffered US$49 billion in losses between 2008 and 2018 due to disasters.
Should Asia’s crop yields become volatile and grain prices rise by more than 100 per cent in the next three decades, around 750 million people below the poverty line will be affected, said McKinsey.
With the global population set to hit 10 billion by 2050, experts say a switch to plant-based proteins could be a solution.
Globally, about a third of available land is used for agricultural purposes. The majority of this is for livestock pasture. A large proportion of food crop production is also channelled into animal feed. This is not sustainable in the long run, said experts.
Agriculture and deforestation also account for more than 20 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. And livestock is expected to lead the rise in the sector’s emissions over the next 10 years.
According to a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, cultivated meat using renewable energy could reduce global warming impacts by 17 per cent versus conventional chicken production, 52 per cent against pork production, and 85 to 92 per cent compared to beef production.
This could lead to many business opportunities, said experts.
THE ALTERNATIVE PROTEIN PIE
“Today, the market for alternative proteins is about 1 per cent of total meat consumption. Looking ahead, given the drivers on climate and environmental awareness, the focus on health and well-being, alternative proteins could amount to up to 11 per cent of meat consumption by 2035. And this is a US$300 billion market. With an upside of up to 22 per cent. So it's fairly substantial,” said Mr Dave Sivaprasad is Southeast Asia leader for climate action at Boston Consulting Group.
Global consumption of alternative proteins reached about 13 million metric tonnes in 2020.
In funding, more than US$4 billion of global venture capital has flowed into the alternative protein space over the past years.
Firms in the plant-based alternatives, micro-organisms and animal-cell-based proteins have attracted the biggest investments.
“We see two areas where there's interest and increasing investment. One is in critical steps of technology and in the process of development of alternative proteins, for example, specific ingredients that enhance flavours. The second is investments in scaling production. That refers to increasing the capacity on the extrusion technologies or the other bioreactor technologies that are needed to scale for widespread production," said Mr Sivaprasad.
The Boston Consulting Group expects plant-based and micro-organism-based substitutes to achieve price parity in the next three to five years.
Cultivated meats will take another decade.
For start-ups in the novel food space, experts say it all boils down to the basics.
“Taste is king and the cost is queen. So we need to consider both. Food innovation needs to be simple and cost effective because only then is the scalability there. If you scale up a particular process to make novel food, the cost is always important to keep it within the reach of consumers,” said Professor William Chen is director of the food science and technology programme at Nanyang Technological University.
For Karana, the journey to turn jackfruit into a pork substitute has been a welcome challenge.
"It’s tough to replicate that whole sensory experience of meat. We're still improving but by and large, when people try our product, they're pretty blown away by it. We're not altering the structure of the ingredient. We're just finding ways that we can push it in the direction to make it a better experience for consumers," said Mr Crichton.
In the next two months, Karana’s ready-to-cook dim sum products will start retailing in supermarkets. It’s hoping the health benefits of young jackfruit will be a major draw for buyers.
Karana estimates that a third of Singapore consumers are interested in flexitarian diets, meaning they actively reduce the amount of meat consumed.
Still, it will take a while before alternative proteins become a staple in people’s diets.
“A big part of it comes down to consumer choice and consumer habits. These typically take many years to shift. But we see the momentum picking up. Our projections show by 2035, about two-thirds of the alternative proteins will be consumed in Asia,” said Mr Sivaprasad.
Consumer education, regulations and risk assessment of processes will be crucial in growing the alternative protein market.
For now, consumers can play their part in the sustainability agenda by being mindful of what is on their plate.
The next move, according to Professor Chen, will be to move the technology beyond Singapore.
“Because the impact will be greater, and then the market demand will be greater too. So in a way, we will be helping to enhance regional food security.”