Soy sector seeks protein ceasefire

U.S. group starts collaborative effort with meat industry called Protein First to boost overall global protein consumption

SAN ANTONIO, Texas — The United Soybean Board is pushing for a truce in the protein war.

The group has launched Protein First, a collaborative effort to work with the meat sector on boosting global demand for all types of protein.

USB chief executive officer Polly Ruhland said the introduction of plant-based meat alternatives has created a “rock ’em sock ’em” environment in the protein sector.

“The animal industry and the plant industry in U.S. agriculture started to take shots at each other about ‘our protein is better than your protein,’ ” she told reporters attending a news conference at the 2020 Commodity Classic event.

Ruhland, former chief executive officer of the Cattlemen’s Beef Board, is ideally situated to broker a ceasefire between the plant and animal protein sectors.

But so far the poultry sector is the only meat group willing to join the initiative.

“We haven’t had as positive a reaction from all of the meats,” she said.

Greg Tyler, senior vice-president of marketing with the USA Poultry & Egg Export Council, said joining the coalition was a no-brainer because key members of the council were already going down that road.

Tyson Foods, which is one of the world’s largest chicken producers, is now offering plant-based protein products.

He said six percent of the U.S. population is vegetarian or vegan and 18 percent of processed meat sales will be plant-based protein by 2030.

Tyler said he would love it if every person in the world ate chicken every day, but the reality is that people in developing nations need plant-based protein.

“Cheap protein sources are vital to those economies,” he said.

Tyler said the council is working with the U.S. Soybean Export Council in markets such as India to increase protein consumption.

There are a lot of vegetarians in India, and Indians consume a mere 10 percent of the protein that Chinese people eat.

The two commodity groups are trying to get Indians to eat chicken because that will boost demand for both commodities since soybean meal is a key ingredient in poultry diets.

“If those vegetarians are going to try meat for the first time, it may be chicken,” said Tyler.

Ruhland said Protein First is a pre-competitive collaboration.

“If we can grow demand for protein as a whole then everybody wins, even if one sector or type loses a couple of (market) share points here or there to another type,” she said.

“If we’re talking about selling U.S. protein as a category, we need to think bigger than immediate bashing of each other.”

The collaboration is targeting emerging markets. The North American market, where a lot of the bashing is taking place, is a mature market with not much room for growth in protein consumption.

Ruhland said the plant protein market is expected to reach US$85 billion in sales by 2030, up from $4.6 billion in 2018.

“We know that plant protein in many countries can be a stepping stone to animal protein,” she said.

Todd Hanten, a USB director and a farmer from South Dakota, said he has been getting a lot of negative feedback from farmers who are upset about plant-based meat alternatives eroding markets for traditional meat products.

“At first I was too because I raise livestock,” he said.

However, he has learned to view things in a different light after spending time on the USB board.

“We’ve got customers who want different (protein) products,” he said.

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