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Putting down new roots, part two: How the success of Sunfed Meats could spark a new future of New Zealand farming

Our farming systems stand on the precipice of intense change. The task of how to feed a growing population that is set to reach 10 billion people by 2050 in the face of climate change, resource scarcity, and land degradation has forced innovation to spur. Scientists and technologists have blown the whistle on traditional farming methods and subsequently, new systems of agriculture have emerged. Plant-based meats have sprouted, cellular agriculture and alternative protein products have spread across supermarkets and fast food joints, and farmers have more environmental accountability. Thankfully, strides in technological development have opened the gates for a fourth agricultural revolution, but will New Zealand – with its national identity that’s deeply entrenched in traditional farming methods – be willing to move with it? In part two of a series, Findlay Buchanan talks to one of the pioneers growing the pastures of agricultural posterity.

The emergence of plant-based proteins, or meat-free meat, is a possible solution in the quest for cleaner food systems. Here in New Zealand, Sunfed Meats have spearheaded the movement, having developed IP and infrastructure to locally manufacture meat-like products out of its premium yellow pea protein. It has proved popular, having consistently sold out its chicken-free-chicken products, and has big plans to unleash new offerings and increase local production.

Sunfed Meats came to be after what founder Shama Lee describes as ‘a bit of an existential crisis’.

“I had everything you are told to achieve in life, I did my degree, got a good software programming job, and climbed the ladder. I have a good marriage and met the love of my life. But I was feeling hollow and unfulfilled to the point where I quit my job. During that process I went into a self-imposed exile. I took a whole year out, no noise, no social media, nothing. So, through that process I had to figure out what I wanted to do with the limited time I have on this planet. And that is how Sunfed was born.”

Lee speaks in a matter of systems – possibly a result of her background in software engineering – where she dispatches our food system as an ‘energy problem’.

“Food is just another source of energy we consume on this planet. Just like there are other sustainable and non-sustainable energy such as coal, oil and solar, so too is food.” Lee tells me, before stating that meat has become one of the most unsustainable forms of food energy on this planet.

“It is unsustainable because the more it grows, the worse it gets. That is the definition of unsustainability.”

Lee specifically points out the series of risks attached to animal agriculture: animal disease outbreaks, pollution and deforestation, human health, as well as animal suffering – problems she believes alternative plant protein production could help solve.

“People always talk about inefficiency, but I always say look at the risk,” she says. “I feel that for too long capitalist systems are built on exploitation, where the more it grows the more it exploits. But I don’t believe that. At Sunfed, we wanted to build something that is highly scalable, where the more it grows, the more it invigorates. It doesn’t take and deplete – it adds value.”

To do so, Sunfed has built from the bottom up. It has forged its own hardware and proprietary techniques, in which the production method consumes at least five times less land and water than animal farming. Furthermore, it’s Sunfed Chicken Free Chicken boasts higher levels of protein, zinc and iron than animal farmed chicken.

Lee says, “We are the only ones who went out with a naked minimalist product that doesn’t hide behind flavours. The reason we were able to stand behind that is because we are product-led and hence engineering-led and have invested considerable R&D, time and capital into getting the product right. The Sunfed production method is very clean, we had to build our own, we didn’t want to use standard things off the shelf that would compromise the integrity of the product. Nothing existed that could do what we wanted so we built our own.”

Sunfed is continuously expanding its production infrastructure in Auckland, which Lee says, will have significant volume, giving Sunfed economies of scale.

“In the three plus years of engineering, we haven’t worked on chicken, we have worked on how to take plant proteins and make meat out of them. To then make chicken or beef or pork, it’s not much of a stretch, once you have the product texture right, then you have a good foundation to work from.”

Its strategy is product and engineering focused and aims to have the cleanest, most minimalist ingredient deck in the market. It also tastes considerably different from its existing competitors. For example, the texture of tofu, the mushy bean curd, is significantly different from meat, while Sunfed retains the tough and versatile qualities of chicken. Because of this, as well as the multitude of nutritional benefits, Sunfed has gained strong support. It is sold as a premium product, and it seems to be working.   

“We don’t have a marketing budget, we were just a start up when we launched the product, and it kept selling out everywhere. Our launch video went viral and received 12 million views, it was insane. You can’t make this stuff up. The product is really important – too often people put out a subpar product and big companies put all this money behind it and market it – but without first getting the product right, it’s not sustainable.”

While Sunfed claims to be a global leader in its ability to replicate whole pieces of fleshy meat, international companies are also rising to the challenge. Unsurprisingly, Silicon Valley has produced a roster of alternatives, including Impossible Foods, who banked a healthy US$389 million of investment and is served across 1000 restaurants in the states, while welcoming the endorsement of top chefs and consumers along the way.

However, it’s evident that meat plays a larger role than its textural, nutritional, or economic benefits. It has become, ostensibly, a part of our identity. Think of the widely shared Sunday roast, the cherished summer barbeque, or the traditional hāngi – meat has long been at the heart of our cultural orientations. Therefore, it was no surprise when brainy scientists developed meat-free-meat, many felt a sense of umbrage.

Tellingly, when Air New Zealand deployed the plant-based Impossible Burger to be served on two of its international flights, a series of disgruntled responses followed. These cries extended into government, where National MP Nathan Guy took to Twitter stating, “It was disappointing to see Air NZ promoting a GE substitute meat burger” and later declared “the national carrier should be pushing our premium products and helping sell New Zealand to our world”. These thoughts were bolstered by deputy prime minister Winston Peters, who stated he is “utterly opposed to fake beef”.

The pushback signified an obstacle for the newly minted industry of whether alternatives to meat could be welcomed through the farm gates of New Zealand culture. Asked if we as nation need to fully detach ourselves from meat, Lee argues we don’t need to, nor does she feel that she is against the meat industry.

Lee says, “I don’t think we need to detach ourselves from the meat industry. Our meat and milk industry has been amazing for New Zealand, we have been built on it. What you are talking about is change, humans have an aversion to change, even though change is the only constant. Everything evolves, everything changes. This is an evolution of protein. I stand on the shoulders of all of those people who built animal agriculture, we would never deny that. But it’s about lifting the next generation, doing something new that is better for all.”

Certainly, the dawn of alternative meats provides a new competitor for our meat industry, but more importantly, it provides a choice for consumers about what agricultural system they choose to buy into. To help provide inclusivity, Lee is careful not to label her product as vegan or vegetarian but aims to be a binding force between meat and non-meat eaters.

Lee says, “We are not about preaching, we are not a vegan company, we are only trying empower the consumer with a real choice and empower the farmer with a real choice.”

From a farming standpoint, Lee says because of such a heavy history of farming animals, there has been little infrastructure to support other forms of farming in New Zealand. Certainly, in the long run, harvesting pea proteins provides a huge opportunity for both our farmers and our economy, but currently the focus for Sunfed is to set up resource and infrastructure to boost supply and demand.

“For New Zealand, you can’t yet go straight to the farmers right now, you have to build the whole infrastructure first. So, you first have to build the consumption end before you build the supply end, which is the farming side. We have to scale the consumption end and get the volumes we need. Once we have the necessary volumes, I plan to go back into the supply chain and invest in key infrastructure points to allow us to go all the way back to the farmer. That is the Sunfed vision.”

 - Read part one in this series, here.

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