Uplifting Sustainability in the Plant-Based Food Industry

Plant-based foods have taken off in the past decade as they counter complex challenges, such as increased pressures of climate change and the rise of malnutrition and obesity. Positioned as being superior in both health and environmental impact, plant-based foods have gained traction with several segments of the population. Today, plant-based food products are available in many local grocery stores and restaurants.

Although plant-based foods have become more mainstream, recent inflation has resulted in their decreased demand and the closing of several plant-based food startups. Furthermore, recent media coverage has called into question the true health implications and environmental footprint of highly processed plant-based foods. In response, players in the plant-based food industry are facing an inflection point with the opportunity to forge a sustainable path forward.

With the knowledge that sustainability of the plant-based food system must be a central priority in order to thrive, our client engaged RTI Innovation Advisors to identify the major sustainability-related themes impacting the industry. The analysis included both drivers of growth for the industry as well as challenges that the industry must strive to overcome. Our research highlighted major themes that the industry should adapt to and presented respective actions for consideration. 

Some of our major sustainable plant-based food themes include:

Climate assessments provide an opportunity for the plant-based food industry

While plant-based foods are presented as a solution to climate change and nutrition disparities, this must prove to be true in order for plant-based foods to thrive. The growing popularity of life cycle assessments provides a means for plant-based foods to identify where in their lifecycle they may improve their production sustainability as well as communicate their environmental impact to consumers. The data generated from life cycle assessments should help inform areas of focus for specific products and subsequently lead to the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions, water consumption, nitrogen and phosphorus utilization, and more. Ensuring plant-based food production aligns with its mission of reducing environmental impact will enable its long-term viability.

Lower plant-based food prices are necessary for a positive environmental impact

Food accessibility and availability are critical to maintaining food security. Consequently, the plant-based food industry must critically consider its affordability and accessibility as it strives to be a mainstream offering. Our research found that the industry is faced with manufacturing constraints. As new plant-based food companies attempt to scale, they often find it difficult to utilize the technology used at bench top or pilot scale because the commercial equivalent doesn’t exist or the capital investment is too high. 

Further, the manufacturing facilities with the equipment to process plant-based foods are limited. Proposed solutions range from retrofitting facilities traditionally used for cereals and meat processing to shared manufacturing facilities across companies and even industries. Scaling the production of these products will be one of the main drivers to reducing cost. Cost has improved in recent years, but it has not reached similar pricing to its animal-based counterparts. When premiums are reduced, plant-based foods become a more viable option for the average consumer, and any positive environmental impacts of plant-based products are compounded. 

Better food regulations will propel the plant-based food industry forward

Today’s financial incentives are structured to support many animal-based products on the market, but the parallel subsidies and tax-breaks to support alternative plant-based options are lacking. The recent PLANT Act represents an attempt to improve crop cultivation and research supporting plant-based production. Continued pursuit of support for the industry will bolster its ability to deliver plant-based foods to the masses. 

The industry must also be prepared for possible incoming regulations. As plant-based foods have positioned themselves to be both environmentally friendly and healthy, labeling regulations that strive to communicate these attributes to consumers are worthy of attention. Plant-based products manufacturers should understand the implications of these labels in light of the products they are producing. Across Europe, front-of-pack labeling continues to spread. In the U.S., the FDA is currently working to define ‘healthy’ and considering a new label icon to complement the definition. Furthermore, COP26 and COP27 have encouraged trialing environmental footprint labels on food, and several countries have included plant-based diets as part of their national decarbonization plans. 

Accelerating sustainability involves both improving the sustainable production of plant-based foods and increasing adoption of plant-based foods at large to improve the sustainability of the food system. Our client recognized that acting on the themes outlined will provide the forward momentum that the industry needs to ensure a viable future. 

Disclaimer: This piece was written by Micaela Hayes (Innovation Analyst), Andrea Strauss (Innovation Analyst), Lawrence Blume (Food & Agriculture Sector Lead, Senior Innovation Advisor), and Jamie Pero Parker (Innovation Advisor) to share perspectives on a topic of interest. Expression of opinions within are those of the author or authors.

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