If shoppers want fake meat, 'get used to it' says Kahlbetzer

Kahlbetzer tells ag to listen to consumers' food, textile moods


Agribusiness
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Farmers don't have to believe in eating plant-based burgers made to taste like meat, but shoppers want them

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Farmers furious with the hype surrounding "fake" meat and milk products made from plant protein will "just have to get used to it" says former pastoral industry identity turned new technology champion, Markus Kahlbetzer.

The former Twynam Agricultural Group principal, now an alternative investment promoter, said the rise and rise of protein products imitating red meat, milk and other foods was directly related to what consumers were talking about - and buying.

"It's not about whether you actually believe in eating plant-based burger patties made to look and taste like meat, it's what the consumer is interested in," he said.

"Plant-based burger producers are already there.

"Traditional meat product companies - Tyson Foods and Hungry Jacks, and new players like Impossible Foods - are already there."

I don't believe meat will be replaced by plant protein, and it's not what I'd want to eat when I order a steak. But, it has increasing appeal - Markus Kahlbetzer, BridgeLane Group

Livestock producers must recognise consumers were growing more "flexitarian" in their eating habits.

Rising demand was already making imitation meat cost competitive with the real thing.

"I don't believe meat will be replaced by plant protein, and it's not what I'd want to eat when I order a steak. But, it has increasing appeal," he said.

Indeed, the chief executive officer of alternative investment outfit, BridgeLane Group, would back new technology players behind these so-called fake foods, including laboratory meats grown from animal tissue - if the opportunity was right.

BridgeLane's current portfolio of 30-odd investment platforms includes 80,000 hectares of cropping and livestock country in Argentina; a founding stake in hydroponic business, Sprout Stack, which grows salad greens in transportable shipping container-sized "farms" in Sydney and Brisbane, and newly commercialised field robotics startup, Agerris, which takes robot-driven crop management breakthroughs from the University of Sydney to mainstream farms.

"It's early days, but we have lots happening in the pipeline in the tech space which we hope to announce as months progress," Mr Kahlbetzer told the Farm Writers' Association of NSW.

"Alternative protein foods - plant- or lab-based - are emerging, although it may be some time before the economics for lab meat stack up.

"We're considering what consumers want in the food space, including attitudes on crops, livestock and environmental issues.

"While farmers may not like some of these trends, they need to listen to what consumers want, and have to get used to it."

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Despite the farm sector's adaptive nature, he said farmers often failed to listen enough and adapt well to consumer themes.

Sheep sector should listen

The wool industry's preference to overlook, or dispute, marketplace concerns about mulesing and the need for on-farm pain relief practices, were classic examples of farmers not hearing customer attitudes or recognising their likely impact.

"One of the biggest messages we can take away from all this is just how conscious consumers are about food and farm production issues - our environmental footprint, water use efficiency or animal welfare concerns."

Mr Kahlbetzer's BridgeLane Group and venture capital offshoot, Tank Stream Ventures, has funded investments ranging from commercial property developments to bicycle coffee carts, the telecommunications and energy account company, Amaysim, and online job service provider, Airtasker.

BridgeLane also owns South American farming interests established in the 1980s by his father, John, a successful German migrant to Australia who initially worked in the mining and oil industry.

Twynam heritage

In the 1970s he switched his efforts to farming, building the 430,000 hectare Twynam Agricultural Group's portfolio of pastoral, cropping and citrus orchard farmland, including such prominent NSW stations as Mungadal, Gundaline, Buttabone, Jemalong, and Collymongle and the Colly Cotton ginning and marketing business.

The family's broadacre assets dispersed during the past decade, including Twynam water rights sold to the federal government for $303 million just before the millennium drought broke.

Markus Kalhbetzer and older brother, Johnny, were actively involved in Twynam's activities in its heyday, but also keen to diversify their agricultural investments.

With funding from his share of the Twynam sell-off, Markus founded BridgeLane in 2009.

Today BridgeLane's ownership of the family's LIAG properties in Argentina's Buenos Aires and Cordoba provinces provides a solid security base for the asset manager, complementing its interest in more innovative, higher growth ventures.

Argentine ag potential

"I don't have a problem with investing in Australian farmland, but I think Argentina, for cropping at least, has more to offer us," he said.

"Seasonal conditions are more reliable, the available land is better - it's some of the most productive land in the world."

Despite Argentina's historically volatile political and economic environment, he believed it had "by far the most potential in South America", regardless of how much others favoured agricultural opportunities in neighbouring Brazil or Paraguay.

"It certainly helps that our family has been there for 40 years and understands that environment," he said.

Reflecting on Twynam's agribusiness story and Australian farming opportunities now, Mr Kahlbetzer said unlike 50 years ago, when his father bought in, the sums around land values and commodity returns were more complex.

I think you need to be a lot smarter about working up and down the value chain - Markus Kahlbetzer

If he was to commit to Australian farmland today he would probably want to tie any investment to other parts of the agricultural value chain.

Look beyond farmgate

Corporate investing at the farm level alone did not necessarily have enough income diversity, given agriculture had seen declining, or flat, commodity returns (long term), which left investments largely relying on rising asset values.

"I think you need to be a lot smarter about working up and down the value chain," he said.

"If we'd not opted for a generational change in our investment focus, we'd possibly have built more interests like the cotton ginning and marketing we had with Colly.

"Nobody's going to get rich just buying farms, but it is a stable, long term investment."

Mr Kahlbetzer felt the right corporate investor could contribute a lot of innovative change and resource efficiencies to agriculture, including robotic crop monitoring, harvesting and spraying, or use of nanotechnology to limit the chemical footprint.

However, success required the right skills mix within corporate ranks, and a true appreciation of agriculture as "a whole lifestyle", not just an investing opportunity.

"Venture funds are looking at the food and agriculture space, including alternative food sources, but I think our group's got the advantage of being more than just a venture capital team," he said.

"We are farmers, venture capitalists and agronomists.

"If somebody has an agtech idea they want backing for, we send it to our farm managers and find out if it really has potential - can real farmers really use it."

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The story If shoppers want fake meat, 'get used to it' says Kahlbetzer first appeared on Farm Online.

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