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Serving: United States

Are plant-based foods an opportunity for U.S. growers?

Michael Thomas/Getty Images In this photo illustration, an 'Impossible Whopper' sits on a table at a Burger King restaurant on April 1, 2019, in Richmond Heights, Missouri.
Plant Based Foods Association says growers can improve soil health by including diverse crops used in plant-based foods in their rotations.

Plant-based foods are often viewed cautiously by conventional agriculture, but representatives from the Plant Based Foods Association say plant-based foods offer opportunity for domestic growers.

Carl Jorgenson, agriculture consultant, and Julie Emmett, senior director of retail partnerships, both with the Plant Based Foods Association, spoke during a recent Agricultural Utilization Research Institute Fields of Innovation webinar.

Plant-based foods are defined as foods that are derived from plants and are direct replacements for meat, poultry and dairy products, Emmett said. Impossible burgers, for example, would be defined as a plant-based food, but apples would not.

One of the initiatives for the coming year is to revisit the definition of plant-based food and to see if more aspects of the agricultural industry can be brought into the plant-based foods arena and how the industry defines itself, Jorgenson said.

The Plant Based Foods Association is the trade membership association for the plant-based foods industry. The association is comprised of 197 companies that make plant-based food. Investors and affiliate members bring the total membership to more than 300, Emmett said. The association is active in two main areas, she said, policy and consumer access.

Plant Based Foods AssociationPlant-Based Foods Experiencing Astronomical Growth

Plant-based food policy

Laws that deal with labeling at both the state and federal level are one of the primary focus areas of the association. There are several laws or bills that prohibit brands from using the terms "meat" or "dairy" on their labels, despite the fact that there's qualifiers to make it clear that the product is plant-based.

"Our goal is to really support consumers to make it easy for them to find and to have confidence in what they're buying," Emmett said.

The association is actively working to defend bills in Texas, Wisconsin, Kansas and New York and is also doing proactive work.

They will be commenting to USDA on the link between food and climate change and highlighting the positive impacts of plant-based diet. Further, the PBFA is encouraging the USDA to expand dietary guidelines to include plant-based foods. They are asking the USDA to include plant-based foods in USDA feeding programs, which include the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs; Women, Infants and Children and summer food service programs.

Plant Based Foods AssociationFlexitarians Have Grown to 32% of Population

Consumer access

Last year, PBFA conducted a research study with Kroger where all plant-based meat was placed in one section. Sales of the plant-based meat increased. In the test stores where all the products were together there was a sales increase of 32%, because that's where consumers were expecting to find the products, Emmett said.

The association also speaks to buying teams and shares information.

"Ultimately our goal is just to increase access and to expand plant-based foods," she said. In total, there are 30 categories of plant-based foods, which has grown from less than 10 just a few years ago.

Demand for plant-based foods is growing, with sales growing 28% in the 52 weeks ending Nov. 1, 2020. Plant-based milk sales account for nearly half of all sales, at 48%, with plant-based meat accounting for about a quarter, with 26% of sales. Plant-based milk sales account for nearly 15% of all milk sales, Emmett said.

According to their research, 77% of shoppers in the United States have purchased a plant-based alternative in the past six months. Most of those buying plant-based foods are not vegans or vegetarians, but flexitarians who are actively reducing their meat or dairy intake. Flexitarians comprise more than a third of the population, she said.

Why are consumers choosing plant-based foods?

"We've known for a long time that health, the environment and sustainability of the environment and animal welfare, have been strong drivers the reasons why people buy plant-food," Emmett said.

Plant Based Foods AssociationWhy Choose Plant-Based Foods

Millennials and Gen Z, which comprises 30% and 32% of the population, are highly engaged in plant-based foods, she said, and are really fueling the growth.

Fast food outlets are also getting on board and offering plant-based food options. This allows people to sample products and takes the guesswork out of preparation.

"We are still finding that price is a barrier, both at retail and in food service, but as plant-based foods continue to gain . . . we anticipate the price will continue to decline," Emmett said.

Food sourcing

The majority of ingredients used in plant-based foods are actually made from crops grown and or processed outside the United States, Jorgenson said. Soy is a major ingredient in many plant-based foods, but its growth as an ingredient is very slow compared to dry yellow peas and up-and-comer chickpeas. Gluten is also used in a lot of meat substitutes. Oats, with oat milk being the No. 2 plant-based milk, are also being used in plant-based foods.

"The interesting thing for Minnesota is that all these ingredients are northern crops," Jorgenson said. "Minnesota really has a big opportunity here to grow these ingredients for the fast-growing plant-based foods industry."

If companies can depend more on domestically sourced ingredients, it will create more opportunities for domestic growers.

"What we're really doing is we're providing a wider range of profitable crop opportunities for farmers," Jorgenson said. "What that can mean in terms of sustainability is more diverse rotations, and we all know the impacts of more diverse rotations on soil health. Soil health, of course, is the big topic in agriculture today. We believe that plant-based ingredients can contribute to developing more robust soil health on the farm."

So how does the plant-based foods industry transition away from foreign sourced ingredients? PFFA is connecting brands to domestic sources. Brands are developing relationships with farmers where the brand specifies what they want grown and how they want it grown and in what form they want it delivered.

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