Vietnam could grow key ingredients for plant-based meat

By Ryan Huling   December 11, 2020 | 07:00 pm PT
Vietnam already has a well-deserved reputation as an agricultural powerhouse, but a recent public shift towards healthier and more sustainable meat alternatives—which has accelerated amid the Covid-19 pandemic—may mean that local producers are now serendipitously sitting atop some of the world’s most desirable ingredients.
Ryan Huling

Ryan Huling

In a groundbreaking new report—titled Asian Cropportunities—released this week by The Good Food Institute Asia Pacific, my colleagues and I outline how rising fears of animal-borne diseases and demands for natural products stand to specifically benefit producers of certain raw materials in the Asia Pacific region. The report also makes clear that while most eyes in the business world are on Asia for the sheer size and growth rate of its domestic consumption, that this conventional line of thinking buries the lede. Even bigger opportunities could be found in growing, processing, and manufacturing alternative proteins, which can then be sold to customers around the world. In that area, Vietnam is one of the most well-positioned nations on Earth.

Plant-based meat, made primarily from soy and wheat, has existed in Vietnam for centuries, mostly catering to vegetarian-leaning Buddhists who seek to avoid animal consumption for religious reasons. But increasingly, global brands are incorporating a diverse range of new ingredients and flavors to create products aimed squarely at meat eaters. These "2.0"-level plant-based meat products seek to replicate the taste, texture, and appearance of animal meat—and it’s working. Plant-based meats have now begun to appear on select Asian menus at Starbucks, Pizza Hut, KFC, McDonald's, Burger King, and many other major chains. Despite the pandemic putting the global food system under extraordinary strain and uncertainty, Asia Pacific-based companies focused on alternative proteins like plant-based meat have raised more than $230 million in funding over the past twelve months to accelerate their growth. This is an opportunity of unprecedented scale for Vietnam.

One food ingredient that is already produced locally and could be further expanded to meet rising demand is jackfruit. The bulbous tropical fruit has a naturally fibrous texture that has been likened to pulled pork, leading many Southeast Asian food producers to begin using it for everything from dumplings to tacos.

Other plant-based ingredients that are not currently produced in large volumes in Vietnam, but could be, include konjac and dry peas. Launches of products containing pea protein have more than doubled in the past five years, including by fast-growing global brands like Beyond Meat. Pea cultivation can also help restore degraded land worn out by other crops, making it a particularly good option for Vietnam. Konjac, by contrast, is an underutilized root vegetable that can be used to create the gelatinous texture needed to create realistic plant-based seafood products. China is currently the world’s largest producer of konjac, but given that the crop can thrive when planted alongside rubber—which is already widely cultivated in Southeast Asia—Vietnam has the opportunity to steal that top spot and dominate the market.

A burger made with black beans and canola protein powder at an alternative meats protein lab in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, August 23, 2019. Photo by Reuters/Shannon VanRaes

A burger made with black beans and canola protein powder at an alternative meats protein lab in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, August 23, 2019. Photo by Reuters/Shannon VanRaes

Consumers’ embrace of meats made from a diverse range of plants like konjac and jackfruit could carry many advantages for Vietnam’s efforts to mitigate natural-resource depletion. Raising and killing animals for food is one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global. Producing meat from chickens, for example, requires feeding nine calories of chicken feed to an animal, to only get one calorie back in the form of edible meat. Rather than funneling crops through animals, many leading food producers—including multibillion-dollar global brands like Tyson and Cargill—are increasingly looking at innovative ways to make meat from plants directly.

Vietnam’s leaders have a reputation for setting ambitious agricultural targets and then moving heaven and earth to meet them. In interviewing experts for our report, Moray McLeish, Vice President of Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainability at raw-materials supply giant Olam told us that when committing to national goals, Vietnam has the unique ability to "make it happen."

National leaders have already put economic programs in place that align well with expanding cultivation of ingredients used for plant-based meat production. The government currently offers tax incentives if an entity is focused on "clean, high-tech, and eco-friendly agriculture." Vietnam is also aiming to attract $8 billion in foreign direct investment in Vietnam’s agriculture and aquaculture sectors by 2030. Both of these initiatives stand to benefit farmers, producers, and companies that make supplying raw materials for meat alternatives a priority.

If political leaders and local entrepreneurs see the writing on the wall and continue to lean into the opportunities presented by a consumer shift towards plant-based meat, Vietnam’s economic rise will be unstoppable.

*Ryan Huling is the Head of Communications and Programs for The Good Food Institute Asia Pacific. He previously served as an International Expert on Nutrition and Sustainable Food Systems for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, based in Hanoi. The opinions expressed are his own.

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