Alternative proteins have been a fact of life for a while now - and sheep producers will be getting used to seeing increased media attention given to these products with usually over-blown claims around their benefits.
On the one hand, we are told of a rising tide of consumers who are opting for these products but on the other hand, we have record high prices for sheep and lamb and producers struggling to keep up supply.
Surveys from MLA have found that the number of people identifying as vegan and vegetarian is actually fairly static.
The real issue for producers is competing in a market where there is more variety in all food types and the traditional larger meat portions are being squeezed by consumers who want to try everything.
It is clear is that red meat demand continues to rise worldwide and, with the potential for trade negotiations to deliver longer-term improvements in market access, this may continue for many years.
There is no doubt lab-grown proteins create interest, mostly around can it be done and will cuts be produced, not just mince. While this is fascinating, eventually, as always occurs, consumers will examine the ingredients to see exactly what is being placed in the vats to grow the cells to create the product. This is where sheep and lamb will compare favourably in being the 'natural' and sustainable product.
One area of the meat-free movement that sheep producers should be concerned about is domestic sales, because lamb has a higher percentage of that market segment than some other proteins. However, there is no need to over-react because lab-grown competitors are desperate to manufacture something as good as the real thing.
With our international best practice systems in quality and animal welfare, and the eventual realisation that sheepmeat and lamb are the best natural and sustainable product, the future for sheep producers is very good.
The industry's biggest issue is lifting sheep numbers to ensure supply and to support Australia's place in domestic and international markets. As long as we ensure there is 'truth in labelling' in both description and ingredients, sheep producers can be assured their product will compare more than favourably in all markets.
NSW Farmers will be hosting a forum on alternative proteins on March 10, in Sydney. SPA would support producers finding out more by contacting them on (02) 9478 1000.