Changing diets hard for cattle farmers to stomach

Shift towards plant-based substitutes eating into market share of traditional meat, dairy

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.

Some consumers are 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 cafe 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.

Livestock is also responsible for 15 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

But the shift has got Australian farmers worried.

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. 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 has 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 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.

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".

Ms Sharp said the meat industry could face a similar fight in the coming years if products start using terms - such as "cutlet" - which are specifically related to meat.

Mr Tim Hunt, Rabobank's head of research in Australia and New Zealand, said in an interview recorded by the bank that the growth in the alternative-protein sector was likely to have an impact on 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."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 13, 2018, with the headline 'Changing diets hard for cattle farmers to stomach'. Print Edition | Subscribe