One of the biggest challenges facing Australia's $18 billion red meat industry is not from alternative proteins, but how we respond to the opportunities to meet unprecedented growing global demand for protein.
After enduring horrendous conditions during the past three years, including drought, floods, bushfires and a global pandemic, the red meat industry has shown how resilient it can be and has emerged in fantastic shape with a strong outlook.
Australian red meat is in high demand domestically and internationally in over 100 markets, with our reputation for eating quality, food safety, traceability and taste, driving this strong demand.
We now have a three-to-five year period where we have an opportunity that we've never seen before, with a forecast protein shortage across the globe driven by African swine fever (ASF) and demand set to grow as consumers become increasingly affluent.
While we hear much rhetoric about competition from alternative proteins, particularly plant-based proteins - much of it generated by vested-interests who have an agenda to eliminate red meat from our diets - it is firmly misplaced and sadly lacking in fact.
The reality is plant-based proteins are not new, with the trend being to replicate the sensory experience of natural and farm grown meat existing for several decades.
But we are still not seeing a huge groundswell of people becoming vegetarian or turning away from red meat at retail.
Recently released consumer sentiment research from MLA shows despite an environmentally, socially and economically challenging year, perceptions of the red meat industry are improving - 67 per cent of consumers feel 'good' or 'very good' about the Australian beef industry, and 62 per cent feel 'good' or 'very good' about the Australian sheep industry.
The research also showed the number of metropolitan consumers who identify as vegetarian has remained stable at about 7pc and, of those, 39pc still occasionally eat meat.
At the same time, 15pc of meat eaters have tried being vegetarian in the past, so there's a high return rate to eating meat.
This is not to say that, as an industry, we are not acutely aware of what our consumers and the community want.
We have conducted this annual consumer sentiment research for a decade because we need to be responsive to consumers if we are to grow and seize our opportunities.
Simply put - it's time to stop the denigration of our red meat industry and have a truthful conversation about the future global growth demand for protein, and more importantly how we meet that demand.
It's time for those with an anti-red meat agenda to acknowledge the environmental stewardship credentials of our producers and their work to date to lower emissions, as well as their proactive commitment to intergenerational sustainability and improved production.
It's also time for those with an anti-red meat agenda to acknowledge the important nutritional credentials of red meat and its important role in ensuring families across the globe can eat healthy and balanced diets.
When it comes to looking at the Australian red meat's emissions, we have already reduced Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions by 57pc since the baseline year of 2005 and we are actively working towards achieving our ambitious target to be carbon neutral by 2030.
Fascinating data reported this week shows global GHG emissions have dropped 8.8pc in the first half of 2020 - declining at a faster rate than any time since records began as COVID-19 crushes demand for travel and other energy uses.
While global figures do vary, data suggests that by sector, the livestock sector and its related impacts are globally only responsible for 8pc, and our red meat industry, including exports, have continued to perform strongly during this pandemic with limited supply disruptions.
It is a timely reminder that the global emissions reduction challenge is a collective one, with environmental impacts shared across many sectors.
Trust in red meat
Research shows that consumers trust red meat producers and our ongoing commitment to protecting the environment for future generations can only help to build that trust further.
Most experts predict that plant-based, cell-based and animal proteins will all have a place in the market - as they do now.
However, when we look at issues of labelling or calling plant-based proteins 'meat', the red meat industry's starting position should be if something is labelled or called 'meat' then it must be a traditional animal protein.
It is rightly a very emotive issue for many in our industry - and this issue is only fuelled by those who denigrate our product whilst seeking to use its name.
For me this is about fairness and honesty in the way products are promoted and described.
We should be mature and pragmatic - but absolutely excited - about the future and the opportunities ahead of us and we should defend and protect the credentials of our industry and the relationship and support we have with and from our customers
Ultimately, my message is simple. If you want to be like us and are truly committed to responding to the global protein demand while leaving the environment in better shape than we found it, then great, let's work together to make that happen.
However, if you are just pushing a personal crusade by selectively using information to damage the reputation of red meat to make your product seem better than it is, then we don't want anything to do with you and we sure don't want consumers to mistake you for us.
For MLA's part - we will continue to promote the attributes of our product to consumers globally, guided by informed research and data.
The future for Australia's red meat is bright and we are perfectly positioned to continue to supply the world with natural, quality Australian red meat.
- Jason Strong is the managing director of Meat & Livestock Australia
The story MLA boss: Alternative proteins aren't our greatest challenge first appeared on Farm Online.