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What Farmers Need to Know About Plant-Based Protein

Q&A: Danny O'Malley, Before the Butcher

Danny O’Malley is the president and founder of Before the Butcher, home of Uncut plant protein. He has been in the food industry for 30 years, working for Sysco Food Service and then Beyond Meat, before starting his own plant-based protein company two and a half years ago.

O’Malley spoke at the Land Expo 2020 in Des Moines, focusing on the evolution of plant-based meats and what the future holds, as well as the market’s broadening consumer base.

Successful Farming caught up with him ahead of time to get a preview.

SF: Have you been surprised by how these products are taking off?

DO: I live this every day, so I saw it coming. The average consumer thinks these products hit the market overnight, but they didn't. The companies involved in plant-based meats, mainly Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, have been working on them for about 10 years. The evolution of plant-based meats really started when the Beyond Burger was introduced into Whole Foods Market in Colorado three and half years ago. That was the start of the plant-based evolution. Once fast food companies jumped on board, it blew up.

SF: What’s ahead?

DO: It's still the tip of the iceberg. There is so much to happen internationally. We're seeing that fire up in a big way. 2020 is going to be a landmark year for plant-based foods.

SF: Where are you looking internationally?

DO: Both Impossible and Beyond are looking closely at China. My company is focused on Japan. Asia is the biggest opportunity for growth in plant-based foods for 2020. Those countries already eat three times what we eat in plant-based or soy proteins. The Asian market is really going to explode in the next couple of years. We will see the percentage of growth there larger than anywhere else in the world.

SF: How much will the plant-based protein market grow in 2020?

DO: We're going to see a growth in the range of 15-20%. That’s huge. For comparison, I see animal-based proteins growing 1-3% in 2020.

SF: The first plant-based burgers we tested eight years ago were pretty bad. What has changed?

DO: Technology. It helps us to better mimic meat, from smell to taste, texture, and look. What you tried eight years ago was the first phase of plant-based meats, and that is absolutely nothing like what's out there today. In fact, those burgers were almost unpalatable compared to what's out there today. It would have been better eight years ago to eat products specifically made for vegans and vegetarians than to eat some of the products that were being developed to mimic meat. It was very limited.

SF: Are you targeting more than vegetarians now?

DO: The products today mimic meat in such a way that meat eaters are going to want to try them. They might make adjustments in their eating habits to eat more of our products than eating the animal-based products.

SF: Is there a focus on using non-GMO ingredients?

DO: Not everybody leans on non-GMO. Beyond is non-GMO, but Impossible is not. Before the Butcher, my company, uses a non-GMO soy. We realize that much of the general public doesn't fully understand what that means. We have focused on non-genetically-modified products up to this point, but that doesn't mean we won't have another brand that has genetically modified beans in there.

SF: What about gluten-free?

DO: Gluten free has become a very big thing. Impossible has gone gluten-free, using soy protein instead of wheat. Beyond uses pea.

SF: Are there crops that farmers should look at growing to meet the demand?

DO: Most of the plant-based proteins use wheat, soy, and pea protein. Pea protein is the hottest protein alternative today. It’s being used in plant-based meat, milk, energy bars, protein drinks, and more. There are concerns about whether the supply is going to be able to keep up with the demand from the manufacturers and the consumer. For farmers, there is tremendous opportunity in yellow peas, not green peas. It’s difficult to sell a product that's green in color. Yellow is neutral enough that we can make it work. If there is one plant-based protein that would be beneficial for everyone, it would be peas.

SF: Anything else?

DO: Mung bean is something we are considering. We're also looking at quinoa. Lentil is a consideration, but it’s more difficult to work with.

SF: China has a shortage of pork due to African swine fever. What is the potential there?

DO: There are some challenges with the Chinese market because of trade issues, but the opportunity is there. These are premium products, so we're talking about feeding the upper echelon of the Chinese people, the ones that have the income that can afford these types of products, which is still very substantial. Chinese companies are jumping in very quickly.

The big question is whether animal protein will ever recapture what was lost. Will plant-based protein replace pork in China? I don’t know the answer.

SF: Even meat companies are in this business, aren’t they?

DO: Smithfield, the largest pork producer in the world, has a brand, Pure, as part of their Farmland division. Nestle acquired a company here in the U.S. called Sweet Earth, and is growing its portfolio in plant-based protein that way. Tyson is creating its own brand, “Raised and Rooted.”

We may see these companies buying smaller companies that have created their own niche market and have done some unusual or unique things. Sometimes it's easier for those large corporations to just buy a company that's already established and has a brand name, and move forward from there. We’re going to see a lot of players come into the market, perhaps even from Asia and Australia.

SF: Final thoughts?

DO: There's a mission behind most of the companies that are plant-based. Yes, we’re in business to be profitable, but beyond that, our mission is to help protect the earth for ourselves, for our children, and for our children's children going forward. We're providing plant-based products that use less resources than the animal-based products we're trying to mimic. We are concerned, not just for the animals and our own human health, but for the health of the planet, as well.

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