Plant-Based Food Alliance – We Need a Roadmap For The Plant-Based Food Industry
Uniting to promote the plant-based food industry at the top level is crucial to tackling the multiple challenges the sector faces. This was a strong message from the recent Plant-Based World Insider Talks – a forum for leading thought leaders in the sector. Marisa Heath is the Chief Executive of the Plant-Based Food Alliance, a UK non-profit coalition of organisations committed to driving forward plant-based. She told Insider Talks that lobbying government together is now vital to enable plant-based businesses to thrive.
The overarching objective of the Alliance is to have a seat at the table for policy formation. Marisa Heath pointed out that recently plant-based was largely absent from policy forums and ignored from decision-making, compared to the huge influence that animal agriculture has in government circles: “We all know the livestock industry has been the main influencer of food policy. They have strong connections in the government and have been very effective in lobbying. There are also elements of resistance to plant-based food, with some narratives that we’re undermining British farming, telling people what they shouldn’t eat, and pushing highly processed foods that lack the nutritional value of meat and dairy. These false narratives have been built up by the animal industry.”
This has led to specific threats for the plant-based industry: “Now that we are out of Europe, the reform bill is looking at what legislation to keep, bin or amend. This is a huge risk. The government are considering what to do about dairy descriptors. If they want to stop using phrases like plant-based alternative to mozzarella or misspellings such as Mylk that will be problematic. Changes to nutritional labelling could also have huge ramifications for our sector.”
Despite these challenges, the Plant Based Food Alliance has a strategy for change: “When I started in government over 18 years ago, I worked in the environment and animal welfare arena. Back then, it was considered really niche, and we had very little influence. It’s changed recently. We’ve had strong outcomes: lots of new legislation, strong engagement with industry and the Department for Business and Trade, and new funding initiatives for alternative proteins from UK Research and Innovation. We’ve started to have positive conversations with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). I think it’s starting to happen because, as a sector, we are coming together. We also have NGOs who are putting pressure on the government to make changes to food systems.”
Marisa Heath believes the best way to influence is to prove that plant-based food is of value to the government. “The more I’m in this arena, the more I think we solve so many problems for the government. We can solve issues around net zero, land management issues, air pollution, nature recovery, health, economic growth, and innovation. Plant-based food creates jobs and economic growth. We have some government funds for alternative proteins, but we need much more access to funding.”
An important part of the Alliance’s strategy, and an immediate priority, is building a roadmap. Marisa Heath says it is time for the plant-based sector to up its game: “The meat industry has done very well in creating strategies and has a clear roadmap. We don’t yet have this in the plant-based industry. The government is influenced by those who know the system, and the animal industry does. It has benefited from the government having subsidised them and told the public to buy their products. I understand for plant-based businesses, government engagement doesn’t return quick money. But government influence will deliver big time in the long run. If we have a long-term vision, we can get immense returns.”
One area where plant-based businesses would benefit from a roadmap is public procurement. The public sector spends about 2.4bn per year procuring food and catering services and the Alliance is calling for much more plant-based food purchased for offices, hospitals, prisons, and schools. They would also like to see land use shifted from livestock production to plant-based so that companies can get the ingredients they need from the UK. “We need the government to start nudging the public away from meat and dairy and letting them know that plant-based food is healthy and nutritious. We need to really push that into the mainstream.”
Maris Heath also believes that better collaboration with the meat industry would be helpful.
“I’ve worked across both sectors as I used to work in animal health and welfare in the meat and dairy industry. My view is that we should approach them and say we can solve your problems. You’ve just got to stop denying the problems and get down to the facts, and we can help you. We know that lots of companies are diversifying. Companies like Danone and Pilgrim are working across the space. We’ve got to have honest grown-up conversations with them. We’re all on the same side because it’s about the future of our planet. We need to work together. We’re very keen to have conferences on farming, for example, inviting the NFU and saying stop acting like we don’t exist. Come and speak to us because we’re producing food as well. We need to reach across and say let’s solve the problems together.”