Artificial meat is casting a bright spotlight on high-protein crops that are already capitalizing on broader consumer interest in their nutritional content, experts say.
The “unicorn” status of Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods and Just — plant-based meat startups whose market valuation has topped $1 billion — is a major driver in the rising popularity of plant protein sources, according to a recent report from Lux Research, a data analysis company.
As this market grows, it’s expected to become another important source of demand for plant protein crops, especially as other agribusiness companies invest in similar products, said Josh Haslun, a senior analyst with the firm.
“It’s exciting to see new opportunities for growers to increase their revenues,” Haslun said. “It’s really good news for people who are able to grow them, who are in the right growing area.”
The company’s recent report, “Plant Proteins: Present and Future,” specifically identified peas, canola, oats and chickpeas as up-and-coming crops that are poised to benefit from the protein trend, along with such staples as soybeans.
“They presented the best balance in terms of affordability, accessibility and abundance,” said Tommy Hayes, the report’s author and an analyst with Lux Research.
Restrictions on shipping associated with the coronavirus pandemic just highlight the need for resilient local and regional sources of the crops, which was already apparent from the trade disruptions seen before the outbreak, he said.
“You see the supply chain is being tested right now, for sure,” Hayes said.
Major meat producers, such as Tyson and Smithfield, have introduced plant-based products while Cargill, a global agribusiness firm, has invested $100 million in a joint venture with Puris, a company focused on pea protein, the report said.
“Either you’re part of that change in options or you’re not part of that change in options,” Haslun said.
The volume of crops needed for artificial meats isn’t big enough to significantly affect crop decisions among farmers yet, but it’s nonetheless a promising development for agriculture — especially in light of overall food trends, he said.
“High protein crops are becoming more prevalent across the entire food chain, that is important,” Haslun said.
Strong demand for peas, chickpeas and lentils in the U.S. has helped these high-protein pulse crops withstand pressure from retaliatory tariffs imposed by China and India in recent years, said Tim McGreevy, CEO of the USA Pulses industry group.
“If we hadn’t had that domestic consumption pick up the slack, we’d see much more challenging prices than we have today,” McGreevy said.
Aside from artificial meat, these crops are being added to baked goods, pasta substitutes, snack foods and even beverages to boost their protein content, he said.
“The product innovation in pulse crops right now is just off the charts,” he said.
Consumer demand for pulse crops spurred their U.S. production to grow from about 1.2 million acres in 2008 to a peak of 2.8 million in 2017, McGreevy said. Since then, though, acreage has declined to 1.7 million acres due to the trade situation.
“We’re still well above where were were 10 years ago but down from where we were at the highest level,” he said. “The trade tariffs have certainly suppressed the overall market.”
Nonetheless, McGreevy said he’s optimistic about the outlook for pulse crops, given their nutrient content and their affordability as a source of protein.
“The demand for these crops will grow as the population continues to grow,” he said.
The prospects for canola are also bright from the demand perspective, which will hopefully help domestic growers, said Anna Scharf, president of the Willamette Valley Oilseed Producers Association.
Currently, much of the canola consumed in the U.S. is imported from Canada, but the crop can be produced by local farmers who need an alternative to crops with high labor demands, Scharf said.
However, canola currently faces regulatory restrictions in Oregon that limit acreage in the Willamette Valley to 500 acres, though they may be reconsidered during next year’s legislative session, she said.
“How do you continue to say no to a growing and emerging market?” Scharf said.