SYDNEY - Australian beef and dairy farmers are facing a growing threat from the emerging global taste for "substitute" meat and milk products which are often derived from plants and nuts rather than animals.
Increasingly, consumers around the world have been adopting a plant-based, or alternative protein, diet. This can involve abandoning meat in favour of products such as chickpea patties or drinking non-dairy milk made from items such as soy, almond and rice.
At cafes and health food stores, such choices have become increasingly popular and customers apparently sometimes struggle to tell the difference.
Ms Allie Pyke, a café owner in Melbourne, told ABC Rural News earlier this month that she has been using jackfruit - a tropical tree fruit - as the "meat" in a Hawaiian burger, with some occasionally surprising results.
"I had a girl come up the other day who was devouring it," she said.
"This poor girl, she was halfway through her Hawaiian burger when she came up to one of the cashiers and said 'I think there's meat in my burger and I'm vegan'. My cashier had to assure her there was no meat in her burger."
This changing diet has been motivated by health reasons and lactose intolerance, or by a preference for a vegetarian diet.
In addition, there are growing concerns about animal welfare and the environmental impact of traditional farming. About 15 per cent of global greenhouse gases come from livestock, particularly from methane emissions.
But the shift has raised concerns in Australia about the potential impact on the nation's farmers.
A report by agribusiness specialist Rabobank in November found that alternative proteins are likely to capture an increasing share of the market. It said the alternative protein industry in Europe was likely to grow 8 per cent annually over the next five years.
A similar trend in Australia could have huge implications. Australia produced about A$4.3 billion (S$4.5 billion) worth of milk last year and A$20.6 billion worth of slaughtered livestock and meat such as beef, lamb, chicken and pork. There are about 22.3 million beef cattle in Australia and about 2.7 million dairy cows. The farming sector, excluding food processing, employs about 250,000 people.
Meat & Livestock Australia, which does marketing and research for the meat industry, said the growing desire for alternative protein had increased the need for the sector to promote the benefits of meat, particularly its health benefits and the use of sustainable farming practices.
"It is slow, but we are seeing current patterns of consumption change," the organisation's chief marketing and communications officer Lisa Sharp told The Straits Times.
"We need to ensure that our product delivers the benefits that consumers seek better than any other."
Experts say the emergence of alternative proteins will not replace traditional meat and dairy products in the immediate future. But it will affect the market share of traditional farmers, who are increasingly seeking to promote their products as sustainable, unprocessed, and higher in protein than most alternatives.
Some dairy farmers in Australia have been lobbying to reclaim the word "milk" which they say is unfairly being used by producers of plant-based products.
A group which represents the dairy industry, Dairy Connect, has been running a campaign for "truth in labelling" targeting non-dairy products made from soy, cashew, almond, oat, hemp, rice and coconut extracts. It wants these products to be barred from using labels such as milk, cheese, yoghurt or cream.
"Fresh liquid milk is a premium quality, short shelf-life food of immense nutritional value," the group says in an online petition it has launched.
"(It) has for generations been a fundamental pillar of the Australian rural and regional economies and communities; unlike less nutritional plant-derived liquids calling themselves 'milks'."
The campaign follows a decision last June by the European Union's court which ruled that plant-based items cannot use terms for dairy products such as milk, cheese and yoghurt. Canada has a similar requirement.
Ms Sharp said the meat industry could face a similar fight in the coming years if products started using terms - such as "cutlet" - which are specifically related to meat.
Many dairy farmers have already been struggling in recent years due to lower wholesale prices. Some say it is unfair for plant-based items to call themselves milk, noting that cow milk can cost as little as A$1 a litre compared with up to A$5 for some nut-based "milk".
"People are increasingly concerned about the health implications of consuming meat and milk, rightly or wrongly," Mr Tim Hunt, Rabobank's head of research in Australia and New Zealand, said in an interview recorded by the bank.
"(The alternative protein sector) is unlikely to take a major market share in the next five years, but the key caveat is that the growth will be enough, particularly in Europe, that it is going to impact the growth opportunities for traditional food products."
He added: "You can be quickly left with a stagnant or declining market… We need to keep an eye on this."