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The Plant-Based Food Industry in the UK is Mobilizing – Here’s How

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Earlier this month, 40+ people gathered in the head offices of a plant-based ready meal company in an inconspicuous industrial unit located at the edge of London. The second gathering of its kind this year, everybody there was there for one, shared, collective mission. To help create a roadmap for the plant-based food industry.

Plant FuturesLed by Indy Kaur and her company Plant Futures, who specialize in working with the plant-based food industry, this initiative is quite unlike anything that’s come before it. Sitting in that room were decision makers from Tesco, Oatly, Impossible, Linda McCartney’s and Vivera, alongside campaign groups and NGOs including Meat Free Monday, The Vegetarian Society, Made in Hackney and ProVeg International. They were joined by academics active in the space including University of Nottingham and University of Birmingham, and groups including Plant Based Universities, Women In The Food Industry and the Alternative Protein Association. Despite varying backgrounds, everybody agreed on one thing – the plant-based industry needs to join forces.

You might be wondering – plant-based isn’t new, so why is now the time to be mobilizing? I believe the answer is twofold. Unless you have avoided the news for the past 5 years, you will have heard about the dairy and meat lobbying groups working overtime to restrict the plant-based food industry. These lobbying groups typically take aim at labelling, citing supposed consumer confusion around terms such as “Oat Milk”, “Vegan Cheese” and “Plant-Based Steak”, and their lobbying power is so significant that it’s working. Around the world, governments are restricting the language plant-based products can use to describe themselves, and although there are groups representing the plant-based industry pushing back, they hold nowhere near the financial power or influence to have their say.

To add to this, the plant-based industry has been facing a corrective phase since the boom that took place during the pandemic, and the slowing of sales that followed (fuelled by a cost-of-living crisis which has affected the entire food industry). The result is shrinking shelf-space for plant-based products in supermarkets as retailers reduce their ranges out of caution. Despite this, research demonstrates there is still significant headroom for growth in the plant-based industry.  A statistic shared during the Plant Futures workshop showed that 34% of the population are eating plant-based meats, and a whopping 30% are open to eating these products according to the 2021 EU Smart Protein Project research. Ultimately, transitioning to consuming more plant-based foods continues to be the largest and easiest solution for helping our planet, an issue which will only increase in relevance in the coming years.

So what did this meeting of plant-based industry stakeholders look like? The day started with an introductory presentation describing the project to create a roadmap for the industry, as well as looking at some of the data that’s currently available and addressing some of the challenges. People were then split off into smaller workshop groups to identify specific strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats to the sector, which inspired some great conversations. Each team presented those back to the entire audience, which, despite teams discussing their topics in silos, successfully identified core themes that ran through all groups. This format was then repeated in the afternoon (after a fantastic lunch buffet put on by the host All Plants), focusing on actions that could be taken.

Here is our summary of those core themes and actions:

Messaging
As an industry we need to focus on promoting “eat more plants” instead of “cut out meat”. Plant-based foods add so much variety and health benefits to diets, we shouldn’t be emphasising restriction as it won’t resonate with a broader audience. Offering a simpler value proposition for the consumer could work better, such as simplifying all of the labels (vegetarian, vegan) and reframing food as the ‘plant option’ to mean plant-based.

Audience
We must focus on creating plant-curious consumers (people who to explore eating more plant-based foods) and supporting them on their journey down the funnel towards sustained long-term plant-based dietary habits. A common issue that’s supported by mainstream media rhetoric is that when it comes to diets, it’s one or the other. You have to be a vegan or a carnivore. We need to get rid of this binary thinking, alongside equally unhelpful vague terms like flexitarian.

Availability
There needs to be an increased focus on partnerships with foodservice and grab & go products. These create accessible, affordable, and wide-spread plant-based tasting opportunities in a controlled manor, generating better consumer first impressions. We need to look to the success of product rollouts such as the Gregg’s Sausage Roll and identify the next high-impact product launch opportunity.

Collaboration
The sector needs to be working together, and that’s going to take resources including financial backing. Supporting initiatives like the Plant Futures roadmap sessions is the simplest way to do this right now, but in the long term we will need to collaborate and combine resources (and funds) to generate a single, powerful voice for the industry to combat lobbying efforts of the meat and dairy industries.

So, what’s next for this project? This was the second of five planned workshops, designed to get input from those working in and around the industry. Upcoming workshops will take a closer look at dairy, and then wholefoods, refining plans along the way. The roadmap will be accompanied by a consumer campaign that both manufacturers, retailers and foodservice operators can get behind, as well as an always-on research plan. It will also look to pilot and share best practices with strategic international markets such as the USA and Germany.

To conclude, now is the perfect time for key stakeholders in and around the plant-based industry to collaborate, share ideas and come up with a roadmap for growing the sector to where it needs to be (for both planetary and human health). The work of Plant Futures is doing exactly what the name suggests – it’s bringing together those who can help plant-based thrive, both in the short-term and in the future. If you would like to be involved with the next Plant Futures event, email Michelle Russell [email protected] and details for next event will be sent to you.

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Abigail Stevens