We are on the cusp of a revolution in consumer tastes, which will rock the agri-food industry to its core, regardless of the Climate Change Advisory committee recommendations for a substantial reduction in the cattle herd to meet Ireland’s 2030 greenhouse gas emissions targets.
Increased awareness of climate change has driven a critical mass of environmentally-conscious consumers to look for better alternative foods that are less damaging to the planet.
Plant-based diets have increasingly shifted into the mainstream, as changes in consumer tastes, particularly amongst the influential millennial cohort, are shifting demand away from traditionally meat products.
In the US, recent reports show that 25% of millennials now consider themselves vegan or vegetarian. In the UK, an Ipso Mori poll showed that 540,000 British people classified themselves as vegan.
Businesses have responded to this trend and are offering foods that align with millennial tastes. Sales of vegan foods in the US have grown 10 times faster than overall food sales over the past two years. In the UK, big chains such as Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury and Pret-a-Manger have introduced vegan ranges.
Pizza Hut recently joined Pizza Express and Zizzi in offering vegan pizzas, while last year Guinness went vegan and stopped using fish bladders in its brewing process, after two and a half centuries.
Tesco Ireland - in response to increasing consumer demand for vegetarian, vegan and flexitarian convenience based products - launched a number of new products to the market here earlier in the year.
So, what does this mean for Irish agri trade? For those not committed to building walls around the traditional farming and processing techniques to meet food demand, there are enormous opportunities . The food industry will, however, have to reshape itself to meet the new trends.
The plant-based food category is forecast by the United Nations to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 28%, becoming an €85bn market over the next decade, as people opt for alternative environmentally-friendly foods.
The UN is a strong supporter of the plant-based solution to feeding the estimated two billion extra people who will live on the planet by 2050 , which will drive a 60% increase in global demand for food.
Growing food sustainably to meet this demand will be one of the greatest challenges we will face.
Unlike other megatrends, innovation in the vegan sector is mostly represented by start-ups, business units that are part of major food companies, and recently listed companies in fast-growing industries like food delivery and plant-based meat.
Irish start-ups are rapidly making inroads to the market; one such I recently tasted was the Nourishing Lunch Bowl range from Fiid. Shane Ryan - the founder of Fiid, which makes plant-based ready meals - advises he produces three varieties: smoky Mexican black bean chilli, Moroccan chickpea tagine and Italian sundried tomato and lentil ragu.
They come in single serving pouches and don’t need to be chilled. Their products are in the process of getting listed on the shelves of Tesco, Spar and SuperValu.
With a potential post-Brexit trade deal with the US threatening to flood the British market with farming practices currently prohibited in the UK by EU regulations – chlorinated chicken, beef with growth hormones and bacon with banned additives – the growing appeal in the UK of a plant-based diet could give the vegan or plant-based sector another substantial spike in the near future.
With or without such a trigger, a major shift is underway in how people think about the food they eat and how it is produced – driven by an increasingly internet linked, savvy millennial generation who realise that the world they are growing up in is deteriorating fast.
Veganism is seen as part of the solution, it is no longer the call of the lunatic fringe and is rapidly rising in popularity.
John Whelan is managing partner of international trade consultancy The Linkage-Partnership