A recent seminar organised by Teagasc looked at “Innovation pathways for the Irish plant-based food sector using sustainable locally-sourced ingredients”. It discussed using plants directly as a source of food and as ingredients for other plant-based foods.
The event was organised to help raise awareness among stakeholders in the primary production sectors about the many food-related opportunities that are emerging. In doing so, it would also bring together primary producers, processors, food ingredient companies, researchers and other stakeholders.
Opening the seminar, Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Pippa Hackett, reminded the audience that tillage and horticulture are the most efficient land use sectors in terms of nutrient and carbon.
She emphasised the importance of having nitrogen fixing plants and crops in modern food production systems.
Minister Hackett commented that there is increasing potential to focus on current and emerging domestic markets for plant products, indicating that there is a growing potential to export plant and bio-based products. However, achieving this will require improved connectivity between research, producers and industry, she stated.
Enterprise Ireland support
One of the speakers, Martin Fleming from Enterprise Ireland, informed us about a survey of the sector they had completed. It looked at plant-based consumer foods and sought to quantify what is currently taking place, while also identifying new opportunities in the sector.
Reporting on the survey results, he commented that ‘Irish’ is seen as a marketing advantage and that this justifies pushing for increased home production of products and ingredients. He acknowledged that plants and crops have been the poor relation within the food sector in recent decades, but he stated that it is now time for this to change.
There is increasing potential to focus on current and emerging domestic markets for plant products
He said that there is already very active company engagement in the sector and many of these are dependent on imported plant-based ingredients. However, this is viewed as not being sustainable into the future.
Martin commented that this is more to do with a lack of processing capability in the country than the non-availability of basic ingredients.
While the survey asked the opinions of the various players in the sector, it was interesting that there was no mention of flour among the products that may offer potential into the future. Whether this is because industry players feel that it is not possible to produce flour from Irish wheat, or whether the respondents were unaware that all flour-related products are imported, was not clear from the presentation.
However, the previous comment about lack of processing capability would certainly apply here in terms of our ability or capacity to participate in the flour market.
The ongoing hike in production costs is effectively preventing new blood from entering the sector
Martin told the audience that Enterprise Ireland operates innovation partnerships to help evaluate new ideas. These are operated between Enterprise Ireland and research organisations to help evaluate and develop new products and technologies.
For these, Enterprise Ireland provide an 80% grant and he encouraged anyone with a good idea to talk to him about it. Projects are custom designed to suit the needs of the product to be evaluated.
The hope is that such a partnership can identify a high potential start up (HPSU).
A panel discussion at the event heard from MBio CEO Peter Corcoran, whose company is involved in producing a range of mushroom-related foods and functional mushroom powders which can be used across a wide range of different food chains.
Pat Fitzgerald, CEO of Beotanics, is working to provide a broader range of crop plants to the food and beverage industry, both here and abroad, with a strong focus on sustainability of supply.
A number of panellists stated that the greatest threat to the industry today is the ongoing loss of the intellectual property owned by the farmers on the ground
Owen Loughnane of Glas Foods, based in Birr, comes from a family in the butcher trade which switched over to a range of plant derived meat lookalikes.
The company now offers a range of plant-based burgers and sausages. He commented that “food is not sexy” and that already there is a visible pull-back in the market from the high profile burger products that generated a lot of publicity in recent years.
He stated that the products his company manufacturers are not organic and that they must import most or all of the ingredients.
Michael Hoey is the co-owner of Ballymaguire Foods - a sister company to Country Crest. The business is focused on the production of freshly prepared foods, which is done in partnership with retail and food service customers.
The business now produces 400,000 meals per week and Michael said that they are now investing further to help replace imports.
While the production of ready-made meals is impressive, Michael said that the company is currently product 160 different products.
He added that about 15% of the products are organic and that this demand is growing. He also said that vegan products may be growing even faster at the moment, but from a lower base.
Discussing the future of food production, a number of panellists stated that the greatest threat to the industry today is the ongoing loss of the intellectual property owned by the farmers on the ground with the production know-how.
The discussion stated that food production systems are really suffering, as they have been for decades. This is mainly because of the lack of return to primary producers. This is being driven by the retail trade, which uses food prices as a marketing tool to get customers through the doors.
If this situation is not fixed, it seems likely that the loss of this intellectual property will only accelerate over time, as the ongoing hike in production costs is effectively preventing new blood from entering the sector.