Shehani Liyanage tracks the evolution of dietary patterns to manage costs

Compiled by Ruwandi Perera

Q: What are the latest or emerging trends in the food sector?
A: We have seen a whole host of changes and trends emerging in the food industry recently – especially with a sense of regained freedom as well as the need to stay in control post-COVID.

The industry as a whole is also being shaped by global events such as the Russia-Ukraine war, which is causing a series of sourcing limitations and price hikes around the world.

The focus on sustainability and plant-based food has increased following the growing demand from consumers looking to make a difference with their food choices without having to compromise on taste or performance.

In addition to these factors, innovative channels are being introduced from ‘delivery in a minute’ outlets to ‘metaverse shops.’

Q: How have plant-based diets and vegan lifestyles been shaping the sector in Sri Lanka?
A: Sri Lankan diets traditionally lean towards plant-based foods. Now, especially given the economic crisis and affordability issues, consumers are becoming more flexitarian – i.e. mostly vegetarian but also consume meat and/or fish sometimes – and plant-based to manage costs.

In other countries the world over, plant-based diets and vegan or vegetarian lifestyles are identified as being a clear path to becoming more sustainable, which is not the case in Sri Lanka.

According to Google keyword search analytics on ‘veganism,’ there are only around 700,000 people in our country who have an interest in this trend with a definite purpose.

Q: In your opinion, what is the bigger picture regarding the benefits of plant-based products?
A: Sedentary lifestyles and poor eating habits over the years – even decades – have resulted in increased rates of heart disease and diabetes among the human population of the planet.

This phenomenon, which is further fuelled by our people’s low consumption of fibre and micronutrients, can be prevented by adopting a well-balanced, high plant-based or flexitarian diet that gives consumers more choice and doesn’t enforce a complete vegan lifestyle.

If you consider the magnitude of the situation at hand, since the 1900s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have increased by over 1,000 percent, causing global average temperatures to rise by 1.2°C. According to an assessment by the Livestock, Environment and Development (LEAD) Initiative, animal agriculture accounts for 18 percent of the world’s GHGs as measured in its CO2 equivalent.

In 1900, the world’s population was 1.6 billion. It’s 7.9 billion now, which means that many more people need to be fed. Based on a lifecycle assessment by Quantis, in 2018 plant-based margarines and spreads compared with dairy butter, the former have a 70 percent lower carbon impact, occupy two-thirds less land and need less than half the water to produce.

According to the 2020 World Population Data Sheet, the Earth’s populace is predicted to reach 9.9 billion by 2050; but the planet doesn’t have the land, water and other resources to feed people with meat and dairy. The only way we can survive is if we embrace a sustainable plant-based lifestyle.

Q: When it comes to innovation, are there any insights you could share on how food sector players are optimising their offerings?
A: Sustainability is no longer a buzzword in the food sector. According to a 2020 Capgemini Research Institute study, a large majority of consumers (79%) are changing their purchasing preferences based on sustainability.

And the Global Sustainability Study 2021 conducted by Simon-Kucher & Partners reveals that a third of the world’s consumers are willing to pay a premium for more sustainable products. Slowly and steadily, we are seeing this converting to changes in the food sector as well.

According to an Oxford Econo­mics survey, executives representing 73 percent of consumer goods businesses say that sustainability issues were a major concern or top of mind at all stages of the supply chain process – from planning, design and R&D, to manufacturing, logistics, delivery and product maintenance etc.

This is because it’s not simply about the end product but mostly the processes and everything in-between that need to change.

Q: What are the unique characteristics of an organisation operating in the plant-based food sector? How do these add value to various stakeholders, in your assessment?
A: Being simply plant-based may not add much value. However, being plant-based and sustainable will.

If you run a sustainable plant-based organisation, this has to be the purpose of the enterprise – and everything must revolve around it.

If your products are plant-based, natural and sustainable, you’re offering what is right and nutritious to consumers – and providing real value for what they spend. If your sourcing, supply chain and logistics are sustainable, you’re ensuring the longevity of the business – thereby offering value to shareholders.

And if you focus all your social responsibility activities on driving consumer conversion to becoming plant-based, you’re inevitably doing what is good for people and the planet. Shouldn’t this be the goal of every organisation?

The interviewee is the Global Marketing Manager of BlueBand