The plant-based revolution: How new proteins are disrupting more than just what we eat

A condensed version of this article was published in The Post on 18 July 2023.

By Kirsten Taylor and Catherine Jeffcoat

What you eat has always been a political act, whether you know it or not.

Read more: The plant-based revolution: How new proteins are disrupting more than just what we eat

What we put on our plates reflects our upbringing, our income, our attitudes to health, nutrition and animal welfare – and increasingly our desire to have a cleaner environment and sustainable planet for our children. Academics from Otago University researching climate friendly diets within Aotearoa New Zealand found that a vegan diet would have the most significant benefit, reducing diet-related emissions up to 42%, gaining 1.46 million life-years (quality-adjusted) of health gains and saving the health system NZ$20.2 billion).

New research shows that choosing plant-based proteins may be more than just an environmental or health decision. It may be a vote for a new way of doing business.

In Kirsten Taylor’s Master’s thesis, submitted to the Ara Institute of Canterbury for the Master of Sustainable Practice, she delves into what drives the founders of small and medium enterprises producing plant-based proteins, and what sets them apart.

Plant-based proteins are not a new idea. Many cultures have consumed lentils, chickpeas and soy proteins for millennia.

But depending on our dedication to reducing meat and dairy in our diets, especially when faced with fussy eaters, some of these can be challenging to work into our regular consumption. They require a different approach to preparation and flavour.

In recent years curiosity about plant-based eating has increased across the spectrum from vegans to flexitarians and Meat-free Mondays. The Facebook group What Kiwi Vegans Eat has over 20,000 followers, and vegan hospitality businesses are now on the map.

The revolution comes from the emergence of products which act more obviously as meat and dairy replacements, which can be more seamlessly integrated into diets and offer a familiar transition away from animal-based foods.

Plant-based proteins include oat, almond and soy milk, as well as meat analogues (nuggets, sausages, and even chicken, beef and bacon) which give a similar cooking and eating experience. There’s vegan sour cream, vegan cheese and vegan mayonnaise. Even the middle-of-the-road Foodstuffs own brand “Pam’s” has a whole range of plant-based products.

But even before we buy the product and take it home, the small Kiwi companies bringing us these proteins are germinating a quiet revolution of their own. Not content with upending the way we structure our meals, they are starting with their own approach to business.

Kirsten investigated the values that are important to sustainability entrepreneurs in the plant-based protein sector. As can be expected, they prioritised environmental justice, reflecting on how things are connected in nature itself. This seemed to go with a holistic view of the company as part of an ecosystem itself, and a vision for changing the food system. They go beyond just measuring their carbon footprint, they also take into account other sustainability measures such as the importance of biodiversity.

The entrepreneurs constantly assessed their company’s practices to avoid unintentionally greenwashing, which is consistent with the values of authenticity and transparency. Their values also translate into less conventional business structures and ways of working which are more focused on co-operation and decentralised decision-making.

The advantage of starting a business that reflects your values means that sustainability entrepreneurs naturally put climate and sustainability at the centre of business activity rather than having to graft it onto a traditional business structure.

These characteristics give plant-based protein producers the potential to influence change beyond their own organisations and transform the way we do business. These values and non-traditional structures will attract highly skilled and motivated employees with similar values, who may then go on to found similar companies or look for other companies with these values in their next career move. There are approximately 30 plant-based protein producers in New Zealand, which represents an emerging sector gaining critical mass.

Kirsten also looked at barriers to progress in the plant-based protein sector. Common debates hinge on the amount of protein in products, for example in plant-based milks versus animal milks. The results of this debate favour animal-based products, but the focus on protein content may be misleading because Western diets are very protein heavy, and so we are very likely consuming far more protein than we actually need. The question is not about direct replacement. Rather, we need to shift our thinking, from the nutritional value created for humans, to the overall impact of our food on the planet. We need to balance the amount of animal products we consume with more plant-based alternatives.

Traditional dairy and meat sectors market their products with images of beautiful green paddocks and happy animals. This does not reflect industrial farming’s effect on land use, the intensive irrigation demands, and the treatment of animals as commodities. Increasing consumer awareness of the environmental impact of dairy and meat farming may reduce future demand, both here and overseas. As Aotearoa has just signed a free trade agreement with the European Union which includes agreeing to respect the Paris Climate Agreement and trade sanctions in case of material breaches, our ongoing trade relationships will depend on meeting emissions reduction targets. The incentives are clear for New Zealand to rapidly diversify what we produce towards proteins with a lower environmental footprint.

Once we start to shift the story to lowering our impact and eating food that aligns more with our values, plant-based protein producers have an authentic story to tell about being embedded in their local communities, caring about farmers and producing protein with a much lower environmental footprint.

Despite the fact that food production contributes to one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activities, we often underestimate its impact when making purchases. Carbon emissions are only one aspect of the problem, and consumers who genuinely intend to make environmentally friendly choices by buying food with low-carbon labels may unknowingly end up purchasing products that contribute to biodiversity loss or contaminate local water streams. Consumers have a growing desire to understand the full impact of the products that they are consuming. In the same way as we have commonly understood nutrition labelling – ingredients, fat and sugar content, the Heart Tick, etc.

Now is the time for mainstream impact labelling to avoid potential greenwashing. As an example, Oxford University and a global food service company are trialling an environmental impact framework which clearly communicates the impact of their products. By incorporating various factors such as biodiversity, pesticide toxicity, and water usage, the impact score presents a comprehensive narrative about our choices that extends beyond greenhouse gas emissions. This approach allows for a holistic evaluation of a product’s overall impact throughout its entire life cycle, providing a complete snapshot of its environmental footprint.

Plant-based proteins also connect to the emerging discussion around degrowth, where common themes are not producing or consuming more than we need. Degrowth discourse also gives us a lens to rethink the role of business in society, which sustainability entrepreneurs are already doing. Policy makers could do worse than keep a watching brief on these new ways of doing business, and integrate the lessons to be learned into future economic strategy for Aotearoa New Zealand.

At present, the most common assessment of a nation’s success is focused on economic factors and GDP growth. In New Zealand, we largely rely on dairy and meat exports. However, if we were to measure and report the true impact of this production, taking into account its negative consequences, the detrimental effects of these products would become much more transparent. By incorporating the genuine costs associated with their production, we can gain a clearer understanding of the environmental and social implications, leading to a more comprehensive evaluation of a nation’s overall well-being.

In the same way that Perpetual Guardian pioneered taking the four-day week seriously, plant-based producers could spearhead a move to different business structures. These new ways of working prioritise inclusion and collaboration, meaning they are more conducive to hearing diverse perspectives and tapping into less traditional business wisdom. They are leaning into their role being embedded within an ecosystem with a vision of changing the food system. These perspectives are exactly what we need to make as much progress as possible towards solving the climate crisis.

Kirsten Taylor worked for several years in the brewing industry and was involved in launching the Fermentist, New Zealand’s first Toitū net carbonzero certified brewery. She now works as a sustainability specialist, based in Christchurch.
Catherine Jeffcoat is a sustainability communications freelancer, based in Wellington.

Published by Catherine Jeffcoat

Wellington-based communications manager.