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Fi Europe 2021

Solutions for building a sustainable plant-based food system [Interview]

Solutions for building a sustainable plant-based food system.jpg
Access to raw ingredients, industrial collaboration, and a supportive regulatory environment will help Canada to become a key player in meeting growing global demand for plant-based foods. Leslie Ewing, Executive Director of Plant-Based Foods of Canada, discusses what other regions can learn from her country’s experiences.

What are some of the current challenges facing the agri-food industry?

“Today we are facing some of the world’s greatest challenges: population growth, mass urbanisation, climate change, human health and nutrition, and income inequality. These needs are sometimes in conflict with each other, but we don’t have the luxury of dealing with any one of them alone.”

What about solutions?

“To feed the projected global population of almost 10 billion by 2050, a true foods systems change is required. This is a daunting task, but it is possible. We’re making progress, although not as quickly as we need to. We do know that current agricultural practices, supply chain systems and diets will not get us there alone.”

“Among the many lessons we can take away from the global pandemic, is that our food system is much more fragile than many assumed. I’m encouraged by the fact that food security is now a top agenda item for many jurisdictions and international organisations. The complexity of delivering sufficient food isn’t just a problem for individual countries, but for the whole world.”

Where do plant-based foods fit into this picture?

“Diets rich in plant-based foods carry an overall lower environmental footprint. That helps preserve the sustainability of the global food system in several ways. First, reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Current global food systems account for approximately one third of all man-made GHGs. Increased population growth will put greater pressure on those ecosystems.”

“Prioritising sustainable plant-based foods can create the conditions for a fairer distribution of resources, both socially and economically. As a more efficient way to feed a global population, they are a key step towards ensuring food security.”

“The relationship between the environment and plant-based foods has been getting more attention lately. The shift in consumer preferences and the importance of plant-based diets in creating more sustainable, healthy, and equitable food and agriculture systems, is recognised as a contributor to achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).”

What are some of the challenges to sustainably exploiting the potential of plant-based foods?

“Getting the most out of plant-based foods is a huge challenge, and one with different complicating factors in every jurisdiction. Speaking broadly, though, some obstacles seem to present themselves more frequently.”

“First, the challenge is coordinating efforts. Ultimately, strong corporate and governmental leadership is required to bring the industry together with one voice. Regulations are a part of it, but ultimately, the motivation must come from like-minded industry players themselves.”

“The supply chain also presents problems, particularly in the COVID-19 era. We find that the accessibility of inputs, for example, varies greatly from place to place. But I don’t want to end my answer to this question on a negative note. Just as I described these challenges in broad strokes, I would add that there is a genuine desire for action.”

Why is Canada so well placed to meet the growing demand for plant-based ingredients?

“This is a great question, and is a source of pride for me, personally, as a Canadian. There are a few factors that come to mind right away. Canada has the third-highest amount of arable land per capita, globally. We have secure and reliable access to fresh water, and other raw materials.”

“But geography is only half the answer. Canada’s advanced economy is home to innovative food producers, and a well-developed food production industry. We have world-leading sustainable agriculture production practices, and some of the brightest young minds in agriculture. Canada deserves its reputation as a global leader in the plant-based foods space.”

How would you characterise the Canadian regulatory environment?

“There have been a handful of policy decisions that have made a huge impact, and some that still lie ahead of us. First, we’ve seen recognition by Canada’s Federal Government that plant-based proteins are a major driver of economic growth. We hope to see this continue. Ongoing investment in our protein ‘super cluster’ (which is a new type of Canadian innovation investment) will help advance Canada’s position on a global scale.”

“Next, we believe that Canada’s Food Guide plays an important role in shaping how Canadian families understand nutrition. This, in turn, helps shape consumer demand. In the most recent update to Canada’s Food Guide, the government advised citizens that among protein foods, they should ‘consume plant-based more often’. This was a tremendous example of leadership by Health Canada.”

What about for the future?

“Looking ahead, I’d point to the Road to $25 Billion directional document. This is a big, collaborative, ‘swing-for-the-fences’ framework, that harnesses the energies of an entire industry. The goal is to grow Canada’s share of the plant-based foods space to 10% by 2035. The roadmap calls for significant investment, but it also points out the massive upside to Canada’s economy when we succeed.”

“Finally,we believe government policies should reflect contemporary eating patterns, and make it easier for an innovative and job-creating sector to thrive. Whether it’s food labelling or other types of regulations, we believe that the legislative requirements impacting plant-based foods must keep pace with innovation and technology, and with changing consumer demands.”

What can other regions learn from Canada?

“As mentioned earlier, Canada’s success is driven by access to raw ingredients, research and technology, and an incredibly supportive community. The sector is also very collaborative. Companies often come together to develop, test, and bring to market new products.  All this is very exciting, and it’s hard to imagine where it will lead in five, ten, or twenty years.”

“So, a key lesson is that there is strength in numbers. And I mean that in a few different ways. First, from growers, to producers, to food scientists, to investors – the industry has grown up together. These companies benefit from the attention the booming sector receives.”

“The second facet is collaboration. More than just having similar interests, Canada’s plant-based food companies have worked together to advance the sector. They develop products together. They fund research. They recognise the value in collaboration.”

“Finally, investment numbers. The Canadian Government’s approach deserves a mention here. Their innovation ‘super cluster’ strategy aimed big, with the goal of creating more than 4 500 jobs over ten years. I believe that the value of that investment is only just beginning to pay off. With continued support, it could be a game-changer.”
TAGS: Plant-based
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