If you plant it, they will come: Sunfed's Shama Lee on tackling the meat industry in New Zealand

If you plant it, they will come: Sunfed's Shama Lee on tackling the meat industry in New Zealand

Is going meat-free the way to fight climate change? In part two 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, we talk to Sunfed founder Shama Lee about creating a plant-based ‘meat-free meat’ that looks and tastes like the real deal, and the implications for New Zealand's food exports.

  • Read part one of the series on Little Bird Organics here.

Sunfed’s ‘Chicken-free chicken’ tagline sounds like a paradox and perhaps it is, if you listen to the complaints coming out of the poultry industry. The Poultry Industry Association New Zealand (PIANZ) filed a complaint with the Commerce Commission last year, saying Sunfed’s marketing could be considered misleading for a meatless product.

But founder Shama Sukul Lee isn’t phased. Since Sunfed Meats launched in 2017, it’s chick-free chicken has been flying off the shelves, with the company now gearing up to launch pig-free bacon and cow-free beef this year.

Unlike other plant-based alternatives, Sunfed has been created to replicate the taste, texture and nutritional value of meat as much as possible, so consumers don’t bat an eyelid when incorporating it into a dish that’s usually meat-based.

 How the company arrived at such a similar taste is a closely guarded secret, but Sunfed says its production method consumes five times less land and water than the living kind of chicken, whilst boasting higher levels of protein, zinc and iron.

Lee says when it comes t0 consumers’ eating habits, the issue between meat and plant-based options comes down to choice.

“Choice can only happen if there are at least two comparable options,” she says.

“I started Sunfed because I felt people didn’t have that choice when it came to their protein, and I felt that if there was a good choice, they would consider it. Existing meat alternatives on the market are not comparable in taste, texture and nutrition. Tofu is not comparable to animal chicken meat. So with Sunfed, I wanted to offer consumers a choice where they could buy an alternative protein which had both the meaty feel and good nutrition.”

But she doesn’t like to refer to her products as ‘vegan’ or ‘vegetarian’. Lee says it’s more inclusive than that. Think of it as the middle ground for those who can’t quite make the leap to removing meat from their diets completely.

“Sunfed is about empowering everyone with choices, the rest is up to them. If the choice we provide is good, people will value it. Sunfed is built on three axioms – good for us, good for the planet, good for the animals. And people seem to resonate with that.”

So, why did Sunfed decide to go after the poultry market first? Lee says because it’s the fastest growing meat on the planet.

Data from the most recent OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook report shows that although Kiwis’ red meating eating has dropped in 2017, their consumption of chicken rose that same year - going from eating an average of 30.4kg of chicken in 2007 to 37.9kg in 2017.

Clearly, there’s still a strong demand there– so Lee’s theory is give consumers the choice between meat and a protein that’s delicious, healthy, clean and convenient, while also being good for the planet and for animals.

“As we now significantly scale up our production infrastructure, with those economies of scale will come volume and cost reductions so we’ll be able to bring this choice in front of more and more people. That’s when disruption happens,” she says.

The buzz around alternative meats and their potential for the future even has some of the world’s biggest investors getting on board. Bill Gates has backed two plant-based burger companies and former Google CEO Eric Schmidt says plant-based foods can make a “meaningful dent” in helping solve climate change, while Richard Branson has said that in 30 years, all ‘meat’ will be lab or plant-based.

The rise in the number of start-ups operating in this space certainly reflects that, like US-based Memphis Meats, which closed a $17 million round of funding in August, with investors such as the aforementioned Branson and Gates. More locally, Life Health Foods recently launched Alternative Meat Co., which has chicken-free chicken and beef-free beef products on offer.

Lee says being the first female founder in the plant-based meat space gives her a strong competitive advantage, as does Sunfed’s clean, minimalist ingredient deck.

“As the first plant-based meat start-up in New Zealand, we have kickstarted and generated momentum towards our vision of creating a brand-new Kiwi industry that will not only diversify our exports, but put us at the forefront of leading the way in producing good clean sustainable food that can feed the growing world population.”

And not only is Sunfed talking the talk on making a difference – it’s walking the walk.

Lee says the company is currently building large-scale plant protein infrastructure in New Zealand so that it can give Kiwi farmers the choice to grow pulses, such as yellow peas, instead of managing livestock – meaning more people can shift away from the country’s exporting focus on meat and dairy and towards a meatless, tech-based future.

This would also elevate some of the pressure on the environment, due to less greenhouse gas emissions.

“I purposefully chose pulses for Sunfed’s protein because they are amazingly environmentally sustainable crops – they are nitrogen fixing so don't need fertiliser, and nitrate as we know is the biggest issue for our rivers so this would be a big win,” Lee says.

“They are hardy so don't need much pesticides. And they hold water in their soil so need minimal irrigation. And they can be vertically farmed so easily scalable. Such an environmentally friendly yet highly scalable industry will only make us stronger – we can punch above our weight with a strengthened economy without having to compromise on our clean green values. That is the Sunfed vision.”

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