KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI, US — With 52% of global consumers identifying as flexitarians (incorporating both animal-based and plant-based proteins into their diet), according to a Mintel market research report, oilseeds and legumes processors stand to benefit from this shift toward alternative protein sources. Of those consumers, nearly two-thirds are defining their eating styles as “trying to consume more plant-based foods,” leading to expanded protein options and fueling overall demand for plant-based proteins.

A recent series of investments made by the three largest US agribusiness companies indicates they’re increasingly confident in the future of plant-based proteins. ADM, Bunge and Cargill (known as the ABCs of agribusiness) during the past two years have announced mergers, joint ventures, greenfield construction projects, and acquisitions and expansions of existing processing facilities as they position themselves to meet burgeoning consumer demand for plant-based protein for both food and feed uses.

The companies agree that the demand growth for plant-based protein will not be a short-lived fad like, for example, the low-carbohydrate Atkins Diet in the early 2000s, but a long-lasting evolution in how people consume protein.

“The global transition to plant-forward eating is more than a trend; it’s a lifestyle,” Allyson Fish, ADM’s president of Global Plant and Alternative Proteins, told World Grain

Mark Stavro, senior director of global marketing and product management for Bunge, cited several reasons why interest in plant-based protein has surged and likely will have staying power. Not only is it viewed by many as a healthier alternative to meat-based protein, it also is seen as better for environmental sustainability, an issue that is of great importance to younger generations.

“In Generation Z, which is people 25 years old and below, the proportion of vegan diets and vegetarianism is very high,” Stavro told World Grain. “Looking at how different this generation is from other generations, whether it’s baby boomers, Generation X or millennials, their interest and dedication to sustainability and the environment is much higher. At the same time, they’re very open to trying different foods, and that’s one of the top drivers for plant-based eating. With all of those factors together, I believe plant-based eating when that generation reaches 30 to 35 years will be a fundamental piece of how they live.” 

Kaleb Belzer, Bunge’s vice president and general manager, protein ingredients, told World Grain that double-digit growth for plant-based protein products is taking place in a number of developed economies in Europe, including Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, as well as the United States. 

“Curiously, Brazil is another place that’s seeing significant growth,” Belzer said, noting that JBS, the world’s largest meat company, is investing in a plant protein product called Incrivel (Incredible) soy-based burgers that is popular among Brazilians. “Surprisingly, the proportion of vegetarians or vegans in Brazil compared to the US is double or more than double.

“Asia is another growth area for a lot of different reasons. Food-grade soybeans for tofu or SPC isolates are in high demand.”

Ironically, one of the biggest consumers of plant-based protein is the meat industry. The beef industry uses plant protein as an extender in its products, while demand is higher than ever in the growing poultry, pork and aquaculture industries.

“Overall, when we look at future growth, for us it’s not making a huge bet on plant-based meat,” Belzer said. “That’s not what we’re doing. What we’re saying is what are feed compounder meat producing customers requiring? They require functional plant-based concentrates for their feed applications. And what are the big (consumer packaged goods) companies requiring? They require sophisticated plant-based proteins for food applications and pet food applications.”

He noted that while demand for poultry, pork and fish is on the rise, beef consumption has leveled off in recent years in the United States. 

“In 2000, when the US population was about 287 million, about 27 billion pounds of beef was consumed,” Belzer said. “By 2022, we added another 50 million people, but the total disappearance of beef was exactly the same. It’s partly a function of price and partly a function of people’s perspective of meat and health implications.”

Bunge enters the arena

Unlike ADM, which has been involved in the plant protein business for more than 75 years and processes over 30 plant-based ingredients sources, Bunge only recently has added plant-based protein to its portfolio and almost exclusively uses soybeans as its raw material. 

Gregory Heckman, who became Bunge’s chief executive officer in 2018 and has lifted the company from a takeover target to a highly profitable enterprise, told industry analysts in 2021 that plant-based protein would be a priority for Bunge moving forward.

“We’re already enjoying that growth the last few years with our specialty lipids business as we provide a lot of the products that give the mouthfeel and the bite and the taste in those plant protein-based products that people love,” Heckman said. “And now we’re working with our customers backwards and to be a supplier of the plant protein. And that’s something you’ll see us develop over the next couple of years. That won’t be an overnight flip the switch, but we’re excited about that demand that is in place, and our customers are asking us to get involved. We’ve been a commodity supplier there before, and now it’s time to be a value-added supplier.”

Belzer said the company’s vast soybean processing capacity puts it in a great position to make an impact in plant-based proteins.

“We decided we should be playing in this space because Bunge is the world’s largest oilseed processor by volume,” Belzer told World Grain.

While Bunge has increased soybean processing capacity at several of its facilities in recent years to meet the growing demand for plant-based proteins and other soy products, its first move was to invest $10 million at its Creative Solutions Center to address product quality and taste issues for its customers.

More recently, Bunge announced it was investing $550 million to build a fully integrated soy protein concentrate and texture soybean concentrate facility adjacent to its soybean processing plant in Morristown, Indiana, US. 

The facility is expected to add significant scale, efficiencies and non-GMO capability to the company’s existing US-based conventional SPC and TSPC operation in Bellevue, Ohio, US.

While other companies are more aggressively pursuing the use of non-soy raw materials to produce plant-based protein, Belzer said Bunge has remained committed to soybeans as its primary feedstock for plant-based protein production.

“What we’ve seen is the winning formulations and applications are soy-based because it can deliver in the areas of price, taste, quality and functionality,” he said. 

“Players that bill themselves as soy-free are struggling a little bit to be relevant with consumers because they can’t hit the sweet spot of taste and price. If you don’t have a good-tasting product, nobody is going to eat it no matter how committed they are to flexitarianism. If you can’t hit a price point that allows you to indulge in a product occasionally, you’re not going to win either.”

ADM’s expansion strategy

With a long history in the plant-based protein space, ADM has accelerated its commitment to the sector with a series of investments and acquisitions. 

In 2021, ADM acquired Sojaprotein, a leading European provider of non-GMO human nutrition protein solutions. That was followed in 2022 with a $300 million investment to significantly expand protein production in Decatur, Illinois, US, as well as opening a new Protein Innovation Center in Decatur, which will include labs, test kitchens and pilot-scale production capabilities to drive innovation.

Fish told World Grain the facility will give the company “greater ability to collaborate with our customers in developing custom solutions that will meet the needs of consumers in the near future and beyond.”

“We are particularly focused on expanding our capabilities in Europe to meet the escalating demand for plant-based and alternative offerings,” Fish said. “The EU market is currently the largest for meat alternative products, with an anticipated CAGR of 11.8% between 2021 and 2027.”

ADM also recently partnered with Benson Hill, a US-based food technology company. Fish said the partnership intends to “scale availability of ultra-high protein, non-GMO soy ingredients that can require less processing and deliver considerable water and carbon sustainability benefits.”

Cargill’s bet on pea-based protein 

Like ADM, Cargill has decades of experience in the plant-based protein sector and uses a wide variety of raw materials, including oilseeds and legumes, in the production process.

Puris Proteins, a joint venture between Cargill and Puris, in 2021 opened a facility in Dawson, Minnesota, US, that more than doubled production of pea-based protein. It enables the companies to supply roughly half of North America’s pea protein. 

“Our investment allows Cargill, along with our partner Puris, to remain at the forefront of the plant-based protein revolution by meeting the growing demand for great tasting, sustainable and label-friendly pea protein for both current and prospective customers in North America and across the world,” said Mike Wagner, managing director for Cargill’s Starches, Sweeteners and Texturizers business in North America. 

Former Cargill Chairman and CEO David MacLennan, who retired on Dec. 31, 2022, predicted that the plant-based protein sector would flourish in the coming years at the expense of the beef industry.

“Our analysis is that in three to four years plant-based will be perhaps 10% of the market,” MacLennan said during a speech at the 2021 NGFA Convention. “We’re a large beef producer and that is a big part of our portfolio. So, there’s some cannibalization that will occur.”