A plant-based alternative for global food crisis

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A plant-based alternative for global food crisis

Lee Cherl-ho

The author is honorary chairman of the Korea Food Security Research Foundation and professor emeritus of Korea University.

Even though the world has made considerable progress towards ensuring steady availability of nutritious food to this very day, too many people are still left behind, failing to benefit from human development, innovation or economic growth.

A dramatic increase in food prices, skyrocketing pressure from ongoing conflicts and threatening pace of climate change are endangering people’s livelihoods across the globe. More than 193 million people were estimated to have experienced high acute food insecurity in 2021, and that figure is assumed to be much greater at this very moment.

The problem is only expected to aggravate in coming years due to growth in global population. According to a report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the global population is projected to reach 9 billion by 2050, and the global food supply has to rise by 60 percent to meet the expected demand. The FAO also forecasts the global consumption of meat proteins over the next decade is projected to rise by 14 percent by 2030 compared to the average between 2018 and 2020.

To avoid well-expected food supply crisis, meat alternatives rise as one of the most promising solutions to ensure steady supply of nutrition for the global population.

In marking this year’s World Food Day on Oct. 16, the world needs to consider how important this technology is in terms of sustainability and what benefits we can enjoy as producers and consumers in the foreseeable future if the market is met with competitive players and financial support.

By reducing the demand for animal-based protein and having people increasingly choose plant-based alternatives, the world can reduce the amount of land used for livestock and food for meat sources and use it to harvest more food resources for people in need. Meat consumption itself will not be completely eliminated soon, but meat alternatives present a visible path that we can take to limit carbon dioxide and methane emissions from livestock.

Yet meat alternatives to this day are still labeled as “vegan food” by many, preventing many against the idea of giving up on meat from even giving a first try. Studies have shown that many have lost interest in the product for it being seen on the same line as tofu or bean pastes, the typical source of protein for those practicing meat-free lifestyles.

To break away from the ill fame, it is important that we remind ourselves that meat alternative products are not just products out there for vegans; rather, they present groundbreaking solutions on the ongoing climate crisis and help us promote sustainable growth.

Replacing animal protein with plant protein is an expression of taking part in environmental, social and governance (ESG) related efforts, which is thankfully accepted and practiced already by growing proportion of young population in their 20s and 30s. According to an Embrain survey of 1,000 people in their 20s and 30s commissioned by Shinsegae Food, 71.4 percent of respondents said the food culture should be changed to better accommodate plant-based meat alternatives in concern of the environment.

Recognizing the potential the plant-based meat market could have in the future, advanced countries in Europe and the United States have aggressively invested in growing their meat alternative markets, which led to birth of competitive businesses with high-profile meat alternative products. Many surveys have predicted explosive growth rate for the plant-based meat market in coming years, and the Research Dive projected the global market could reach as much as $68.4 billion in size by 2027.

The United States has been at the forefront of the industry, with many key players like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods capturing the taste buds of thousands of consumers with almost meat-like flavors in their plant-based burger patties and sausages. But we should also recognize that producing meat-like quality and taste with plant-based protein like tofu and soybeans has been common for thousands of years in Northeast Asia including Korea.

Luckily, the Korean government recognized the importance in growing local players for the growing market and has devoted investments for those with promising ideas. The Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs in 2021 invested 2.8 billion won on 10 local companies developing meat alternative products. The incumbent Yoon Suk-yeol administration is eager to grow the local food tech industry as well, with Prime Minister Han Duck-soo vowing to provide regulatory fixes and support R&D efforts.

It’s also lucky that Korea already has promising players gradually rising to the global stage with competitive products. Shinsegae Food has been active in Korea and overseas by presenting its line of Better Meat-branded alternative meat products like canned ham and cold cut meats while Nongshim launched Veggie Garden to showcase frozen alternative meat options. CJ CheilJedang has been exporting a variety of vegan food products under vegan brand Plantable. It is an attempt that traditional food technologies of Korea is making to take charge of food supply and care for health over the global population.

These examples altogether show a clear sign that Korea will not miss the sacred opportunity. It is exciting that Korea can once again contribute to tackle the impending food supply crisis and provide business-based solutions for sustainable future.

This year’s World Food Day may be an opportunity for us to reflect on our impending tasks for sustainability and try to see how a small change in dietary pattern can sprout a butterfly effect for the greener, safer future.
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