If you plant it, they will come: Little Bird Organics and the rise of plant-based diets in New Zealand

Little Bird Organics co-founder Megan May. Photo: Lottie Hedley

Is going meat-free the way to fight climate change? In part one of a series, we explore the plant-based food companies in New Zealand that are tickling Kiwi consumers’ taste buds, while showing them there’s alternatives to meat that aren’t as impactful on the planet. Here, Little Bird Organics co-founder Megan May talks the rise of the plant-based diet and the company’s upcoming crowdfunding campaign. 

New Zealand has long been synonymous with being an agricultural nation.

Visitors to our country will often remark on the vast expanses of farmland they see in their travels, while our meat and dairy exports can be found in far-reaching corners of the globe.

However, it seems as though change is a foot.

Data from the most recent OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook report shows that New Zealanders are eating significantly less beef and lamb than 10 years ago.

In 2007, Kiwis ate an average of 20.1kg of beef and 18.5kg of lamb. In 2017, they ate an average of 13kg of beef and 3.2kg of lamb (However, chicken and pork consumption has risen, with people eating an average of 30.4kg of chicken in 2007 and 37.9kg in 2017, as well as 16.1kg of pork in 2007 and 18.1kg in 2017).

Kiwis’ changing taste buds are also reflected in the rise in local plant-based alternatives to meat, which are taking up an ever-increasing amount of market share from consumers.

Little Bird Organics, an organic, plant-based food brand, begun in 2009 after co-founder Megan May, who has lactose intolerance and celiac disease, begun exploring raw food and its health benefits, while also researching new ingredients.

Her and partner Jeremy soon realised there might be a growing appetite for plant-based goods and started building a product range in a commercial kitchen in Kingsland, and then one day opened café alongside it.

Within a week, there were queues out the door. Within six weeks, Little Bird Unbakery was voted one of the top ten cafes in Auckland by Metro just over a month after opening its doors.

Although they were passionate about their products, May says the sheer of intensity of the demand for Little Bird products took them by surprise.

“We certainly didn’t have any notion that there would be this ongoing explosion of interest in plant-based eating,” she says.

But fast forward to the present-day and business is booming, with Little Bird Organics playing a key role in bringing a plant-based diet into the New Zealand mainstream.

The company has now has two more Unbakeries in Auckland, including a flagship café in Ponsonby, and currently ships over 20,000 units per week to retailers. May has also put out two cookbooks, and in 2017, it also begun supplying ready-made meals to Emirates Leisure Retail at Auckland International Airport and to Huckleberry and Commonsense Organics grocery stores.

Little Bird Organics Britomart

And in its latest move, it’s partnered with ecostore co-founders Melanie and Malcolm Rands, who built their own environmentally friendly empire of cleaning, laundry and skincare products, to drive even further innovation of the plant-based food sector in New Zealand.

An equity crowdfunding campaign is going live on PledgeMe this Thursday, with 20 percent of the total shares in Little Bird Organic being offered to the public. The campaign will run for a month with a target of $500,000 and a limit of $2 million.

The aim of the campaign? To make Little Bird Organics a key player in the FMCG market, locally and globally.

May says it’s an exciting time to be making moves in the plant-based sector, as she believes there’s still so much potential yet to be untapped.

“There is so much evidence both nationally and internationally showing that healthy food is the fastest growing category in supermarkets," she says. “The demand for our products from both supermarkets nationwide and international distributors just keeps growing."

Looking at the drop in red-meat eating over the last decade in New Zealand, she says she speculates the primary reasoning behind this is health related.

Red meat has been linked to an increased risk in heart disease, while a plant-based diet has many health benefits. A study conducted in Gisborne last year found people who embraced a plant-based diet shed weight, had lower cholesterol and fought type two diabetes better than their meat-eating counterparts.

“A delicious meal or product that also makes you feel good will go a long way to changing people’s minds about what this way of eating can look like,” May says. “I find Kiwis are open to new ideas and keen to try new experiences, it’s one of our best traits.”

However, May says more recently, consumers’ reasons for switching to a more plant-based diet goes beyond their health.

She says environmental issues associated with agriculture have become far more prominent in conversation, leading to consumers altering their lifestyles for the good of the planet.

“A large part of this growth has come from the awareness that the current way of eating and consuming food is significantly contributing to global warming,” she says.

“A meat and dairy based diet is not a particularly efficient or sustainable way to be producing food. We are also seeing big countries such as China engaging in the conversation around reducing meat consumption. It’s a major issue and we can’t ignore it any longer.”

Experts are in agreement that eating meat is resource-intensive, both for the grain and water required to feed the animals, and for the huge amount of greenhouse gasses produced in the process. According to the Worldwatch Institute, livestock production is responsible for up to 51 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions a year (at least 32.6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide).

If meat eating continues at the current rate, scientists have predicted greenhouse gas emissions will continue to soar by 80 percent by 2050.

But many cite a plant-based diet as the silver lining in an otherwise dire situation. In an article by the Guardian last year titled ‘The seven megatrends that could beat global warming’, plant-based alternatives to meat clocked in at number one for being the trend that could make the most difference. May echoes this.

“If we all work together to reduce our reliance on animal-based products, it can have a significant impact on the environment and our health,” she says.

“If we [New Zealanders] embrace being leaders in the space, this will have a positive impact on our economy as well. Plant-based eating is the future of food. And Little Bird is at the centre of it in New Zealand, making sure the products being made are truly healthy, created from high quality, organic ingredients, taste incredible and are processed and packaged in a sustainable way. We want to keep New Zealand’s organic food sector honest as it hits the radar of big food companies out to capitalise on this growing industry.”

She says the Little Bird Organics PledgeMe campaign this week is a call to action for people who believe in healthy, organic food being the future, as anyone who invests will be part of New Zealand’s diversifying food economy, shifting the focus away from our reliance on dairy and farming and into sustainable, plant-based food.

The PledgeMe campaign starts Thursday. Find out more information about it here.

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