Alternatives to meat are nothing new in Thailand. What is new is who's eating them.
Traditionally, plant-based meats -- made primarily from wheat and soy -- have catered to vegetarian-leaning Buddhists who seek to avoid animal consumption for religious reasons. In 2020, though, innovative new products made from a more diverse range of ingredients began to entice a lucrative and unlikely audience ... meat eaters. For agricultural nations throughout Southeast Asia, that shift could translate to a cash infusion of unprecedented scale. It's a signal of how much the paradigm has shifted that plant-based meats have now begun to appear on select Asian menus at several internationally-known restaurant chains.
While many food service providers struggle, new plant-based offerings continue to be launched, raking in net sales and growth rates that surpass their animal-based counterparts. This growth is driven, in part, by consumers' rising fears of animal-borne diseases and demand for natural products. Indeed, despite the pandemic putting the global food system under extraordinary strain and uncertainty, Asia Pacific-based companies focused on alternative proteins like plant-based meat have raised more than US$230 million (6.87 billion baht) in funding over the past year to accelerate their growth.
As my colleagues and I outline in a new report -- titled Asian Cropportunities -- producers of certain raw materials stand to benefit from this societal shift away from animal meat. One such raw material that has huge growth potential in Thailand is jackfruit.
Already a common ingredient in curries and custards, jackfruit's fibrous texture has been likened to pulled pork and soaks up whatever seasoning is added, making it a popular meat alternative for consumers seeking products that are "less processed." Jackfruit is high in fibre and is one of the rare fruits that is rich in B-complex vitamins.
Despite its nutritional benefits and usefulness though, most jackfruit -- which is often grown as roadside flora, rather than in orchards -- goes to waste in a given year, meaning there is a huge amount of bioavailability growing naturally.
Some local companies have already seen the writing on the wall. In a recent interview, Danai Pathomvanich, chief executive officer of Thailand-based food exporters NR Instant Produce PCL, said that his company has been doubling down on jackfruit because "consumer focus on health is a huge megatrend right now. The growth potential is massive." Mr Danai said that plant-based products currently accounted for about 7% of his company's revenue but that he expected that to jump to 30% within four years.
Looking beyond ingredients that are already readily available in Thailand though, there are additional "cropportunities" just waiting for local producers and investors to give them a closer look. Konjac -- an underutilised root vegetable that has emerged as a critical ingredient for mimicking certain textures in plant-based seafood -- is well-suited for expanded cultivation, given that it can be successfully planted alongside rubber, which is already big business locally. In addition to its textural benefits, konjac is perhaps best known as an ingredient in dietary supplements aimed at helping people lose weight.
In many Asian markets, a key driving factor among consumers who choose to adopt a more plant-based diet is to lose weight, so a plant-based meat product based on or containing konjac has the potential to be very attractive.
A shift away from conventional animal meat carries many benefits beyond our own health. Meats made from innovative plant-based ingredients like jackfruit and konjac also have a tiny fraction of the climate footprint of their animal-based counterparts.
In fact, raising and killing animals for food is one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from global to local.
Producing meat from chickens, for example, requires feeding nine calories of chicken feed to an animal to get only one calorie back in the form of edible meat. In a world of increasing climate risk and diminishing natural resources, this is an inefficiency that Thailand would be well-advised to reduce or eliminate. Thailand's national leaders have already put forward many programmes to support what has been described as "smart farming" by integrating new technologies to increase output and modernise farming practices. This governmental support perfectly tees up local producers and business leaders to capitalise on the gold rush towards alternative proteins and plant-based meat -- if they're forward-thinking enough to seize it.
Ryan Huling is Head of Communications and Programmes for The Good Food Institute Asia Pacific. He served as an International Expert on Nutrition and Sustainable Food Systems for the Food and Agriculture Organization.