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Ensuring sustainability in the plant-based protein sector

19 June 2022

Nigel Devine explains how and why plant-based protein manufacturers need to valorise their by-products to ensure sustainable production in this growing market sector. 

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In recent years we have seen a growing shift in the consumption of plant-based protein products. However, the plant-based manufacturing sector is still some way behind its traditional meat counterparts when it comes to by-product valorisation - and it might soon face increased scrutiny around the use of its by-products.
One of the challenges facing plant-based protein manufacturers is to find a use for by-products which doesn’t compromise its values, and to develop a strong knowledge of the whole supply chain from field to fork.

The protein market structure has shifted towards plant-based proteins, as health and environmental considerations lead to more widespread adoption of vegan, vegetarian or flexitarian diets. As this trend continues, manufacturers must develop efficient supply chains which can deliver sustainability and financial benefits. 

Animal by-products – sometimes known as the ‘fifth quarter’ – are used across a range of sectors. This has resulted in strong supply chains, developed over a number of decades, which not only reduce the environmental impact of the meat-derived sector, a major producer of greenhouse gases, but also has a significant impact on the bottom line for manufacturers. 

As the plant-based protein sector looks at how to optimise the use of its by-products, there are significant learnings that can be taken from the learnings of animal-derived protein manufacturers. 

Drivers of change
Plant-based protein manufacturers might find it challenging to utilise by-products which don't compromise its values. Currently, most waste material is used as animal feed, however, with the increasing interest in vegan lifestyles, it could be interpreted that plant-based protein manufacturers are, indirectly, supporting the traditional meat industry.

The good news is that there are a number of other options for plant-based by-products, including textiles, packaging, building materials, biofuel or pet food. The most effective option is to divert it to feedstock for the creation of new proteins using biomass fermentation. This not only increases the protein output per hectare, but also sells the by-product at a higher value than it currently achieves as animal feed. 

The first practical step for plant-based protein brands and manufacturers is to develop a strong knowledge of the whole supply chain from field to fork. Only by understanding where waste streams are, can you begin to develop a strategy to drive value from it. 

Developing more sustainable agricultural practices will be vital for planet health, a report from WWF found that 1.2 billion tonnes of food produced globally is lost before it even leaves the farm. Precision agriculture, which uses satellite data, remote sensing devices, and data gathering technology to enable information-based farm management, is one example which could optimise overall output from the sector. 

Manufacturers could also benefit from the increased efficiencies as a result of more widespread adoption of precision agriculture. With better visibility of outputs from suppliers, manufacturing plants will be able to prepare and adapt their processes for precise quantities of raw materials, helping to minimise waste across the wider supply chain.

Once manufacturers have visibility of their waste streams, they can start to review their sustainability, assessing which waste products could be eliminated altogether, reduced, or reused. 

A localised approach 
Putting the right materials and processes in place to minimise waste will be increasingly important and can have a huge role in optimising the output of products.

Although the by-products market for traditional meat products is global, a more localised approach, focused on symbiotic relationships between manufacturers, could deliver even greater benefits for the plant-based protein sector. As the strategic players in the market look to achieve greater efficiencies and increase margins, site selection will be an important consideration. 

While plant-based protein supply chains remain relatively small and fragmented, if manufacturers and brands can achieve a greater proportion of coordinated and co-located businesses, there is a significant opportunity for small, high growth manufacturers to achieve much greater value for their waste streams. This could have a highly beneficial impact on both planet health and the growth of the plant-based sector.

Nigel Devine is associate director at Integrated Food Projects.

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