The Plant-Based Future of Food

23 September, 2020

Plant-based protein—its expansion propelled by the pandemic—is poised to become an $85 billion market. But only if food makers can find people who understand the young sector.

“The plant-protein industry is going to be very big, and it is a top-of-the-house priority for every food company.”

The growth in plant-based protein isn’t coming at the expense of animal meat, however. People aren’t abandoning bacon and hamburgers—in fact, they are eating more than ever. Experts estimate the animal-protein market will grow at a compound annual rate of 6% between now and 2025, for instance, reaching $205 billion.

Much of that growth can be traced to geography and socioeconomic status. While plant-based protein is experiencing exponential growth in fully developed economies like North America and Europe, areas with less mature economies such as Africa, Asia, and South America are eating more meat. From a market perspective, Sean McBurney, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and sector leader of the firm’s North American Agriculture practice, says what’s happening is that as demand for animal protein migrates to new markets and demographics, plant- based protein consumption is rising up to fill the void.

That macrotrend is best evidenced in the popularity of flexitarianism, which refers to meat eaters who are making a conscious effort to substitute animal meat with plant-based protein in their diets. The practice has already been on the rise among younger generations, and more people appear willing to give flexitarianism a try as a result of the pandemic. For example, one in three millennials identified as flexitarian while two-thirds of Americans say they have cut back on their meat intake. Data shows that around 18% of Americans who have bought plant-based protein did so for the first time during COVID-19. More importantly, 92% of those said they would likely continue to buy plant- based meat alternatives.

“COVID led people to experiment with plant-based meat due to animal protein shortages, and those first- time buyers are turning into repeat customers,” says McBurney.

In full bloom

How big is the market opportunity in plant-based protein? Big. Here's a look at what analysts at the investment bank UBS are projecting.

graphic of market

The parallel growth trajectory of plant-based and animal proteins represents a challenge for food manufacturers from an organizational design perspective. Historically, large food companies are designed around product lines, and since many of them are commoditized, there isn’t much differentiation in how they are run. Now, however, in response to changing consumer habits, those companies require enterprise agility to develop new specialty products and quickly shift investments, talent, production resources, and more out of slow-growth areas and into fast-growing ones, McBurney says.

To be sure, Leticia Gonçalves, president of global specialty ingredients at the food ingredient company ADM, says future growth will depend on how companies can adapt supply chain distribution and innovate new plant-based protein products without compromising taste and texture. “It takes a lot more work to make chicken nuggets from plants than from a chicken,” she says.

And it takes a lot more experience. One of the biggest challenges with the plant- based protein market is that it is so nascent there isn’t a lot of talent who have experience or even familiarity with the field. Organizations need strategic talent to help determine how to develop the business, for instance, and commercial talent to formulate a sales and marketing approach for consumers. Given the complex web of regulations governing food production from country to country, they also need corporate affairs talent to navigate the political landscape. And they need biologists, chemists, nutritionists, and other research and development talent to create new plant-based food items.

One way food organizations are trying to solve this talent equation is through partnerships such as the one between ADM and the beef producer Marfrig called PlantPlus Foods. The joint venture calls for Marfrig to handle production and distribution, while ADM will contribute plant-based ingredients, flavors, and product development expertise.

“We’re creating an entirely new ecosystem in a high-growth area within the company that is separate from our other more traditional operations,” says Gonçalves.

Seeds to a tree

Plant-based protein is becoming a bigger part of consumers’ diets—and food companies’ bottom lines. Here’s what companies need in terms of skills for the field to really blossom.

Strategic thinking

Experience identifying and making new markets is vital, given how nascent the field is.

Commercial sensibility

With a more direct-to-consumer focus than ever before, food companies need talent to develop retail sales and marketing strategies.

Collaborative mindset

Partnerships, joint ventures, and co-creating mean talent must be comfortable working with vendors all along the supply chain.

Political diplomacy

Given the different regulations on food from country to country, having existing relationships and the ability to navigate the political landscape are in demand.

Purpose drive

Much of the growth in plant-based food is owed to sustainability and wellness, so talent must be versed in how to build a business as a force for good.

Technical know-how

Biologists, chemists, nutritionists, chefs, and other talent capable of combining ingredients and developing new recipes to replicate meat’s taste and texture are in demand.

Traditional food companies are also investing heavily in plant-based protein start-ups like Meatable as a way to forge relationships and gain expertise. For instance, 301 INC, a business development unit within General Mills focused on identifying top-line growth opportunities in emerging food companies, has invested more than $100 million in venture capital across a dozen start- ups, six of them plant-based, including Beyond Meat. Similarly, Tyson Ventures features an “Internet of Food” fund through which it has invested in plant-based start-ups like Future Meat Technologies and New Wave Foods.

“Large food companies aren’t as close to the ground as start-ups when it comes to consumer trends, so by investing, we can see early-stage growth ideas and how brands resonate with consumers early on,” says Pete Speranza, one of the founders of 301 INC.

In return, start-ups get access to distribution networks and operational and strategic expertise to help them scale. “There’s a lot of waste in early- stage start-ups, so we can help provide a roadmap to move them in the right direction without slowing them down,” Speranza says. That’s important, as the shrinking development cycle for new food products works against large food companies that can’t move as fast as start-ups in responding to changing consumer behaviors and trends.

Venture capital investments also provide both sides with a de facto talent pipeline. Executives at food companies making the investment often join the start-up company’s board to help recruit talent and sometimes end up on the other side as they follow their own passions. To be sure, Speranza recently left 301 INC to become the CEO of the plant-based food brand Wicked Kitchen. He made the move, he says, because for the health of people and the planet, “plants need to be at the center of the plate.” Similarly, venture investments give larger food companies a path to a merger or acquisition, bringing innovation and entrepreneurial talent in- house. “These deals put more muscle into changing food systems by taking new brands worldwide and moving traditional companies in a better direction long-term,” Speranza says.

Indeed, given the large barriers to entry and steep learning curve, consolidation along the supply chain between traditional food companies and plant-based start-ups is all but certain. There has already been sizable M&A activity, such as Unilever’s purchase of The Vegetarian Butcher, and according to one recent report, plant-based alternatives will continue to drive deals.

“ COVID led people to experiment with plant-based meat, and those first-time buyers are turning into repeat customers.”

Another combination of sorts is taking place on the talent side, with younger workers drawn to the sustainability and purpose aspects of plant-based food production converging with veteran food executives who have the operational skills and institutional knowledge needed to scale the market.

“Right now, it’s a barbell-shaped talent pool,” says Korn Ferry’s Kruythoff. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, however, as organizations are pairing mission-driven younger workers with experienced older workers in mentor-mentee relationships. “Each side gets something from the other,” she says.

Food companies are also looking to other industries that have gone through a similar transformation journey for talent. Roquette’s Gilson is a perfect example. Prior to joining Roquette in 2014, he spent the bulk of his career in the specialty chemical industry. Gilson says that while he didn’t know much about the structure of the food industry before joining Roquette, there were clear parallels with specialty chemicals in terms of how the business needed to evolve.

“The basic knowledge about separating and refining existed, but the talent and focus needed to shift from commodities to faster-growing specialties such as peas and other plant-based proteins,” says Gilson.

“The fight for talent is already underway and is only going to intensify.”

Another key change, says Gilson, is that food, like chemicals, is evolving from isolated silos to an ecosystem approach. This is a key change, moving from a single-ingredient focus to working more closely with partners all along the supply chain, from the farmers growing the crops to the technicians creating new products to marketing and sales. Under the traditional model, for instance, a product specialist would focus on a particular protein. In the new system, however, there is a greater need for technicians who can marshal a broad range of ingredients to create a flavorful product at scale and in-line with rapidly evolving consumer tastes.

“The field is growing so fast it needs to be separated from other activities and treated differently,” says Gilson.

That’s part of the reason Roquette is making its pea play in Canada. Canada ranks as the largest pea-producing country in the world and exports about 95% of its annual yield of the crop to countries like China and India. From a sustainability perspective, pea farming has one of the smallest environmental impacts. Most importantly, Winnipeg, the capital of Canada’s Manitoba, has aggressively collaborated with local companies to develop talent and retention programs to attract skilled young workers. Indeed, Roquette has said most employees for its plant were recruited locally, and the company worked with Canada’s Southern Chiefs’ Organization to match talent with its employment needs.

“We want to hire and train talent close to the plant, and the area is attracting a lot of young talent out of university who, from a sustainability point of view, like the idea of working with plant-based proteins,” says Gilson.

Now that’s a recipe for success.

For more information, contact: Frederika Tielenius Kruythoff at or Sean McBurney at