Dan Pathomvanich, CEO, NR Instant Produce (NRF)

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On future foods and evolving consumer tastes

What is your assessment of the ecosystem for developing future foods in Thailand? 

DAN PATHOMVANICH: When the firm secured external funding in 2017, plant-based food production was among the fastest-growing segments of the Thai food sector, and the best performing at NRF. Climate change has proved to be an inflection point for the segment, driven by initiatives originating at the UN Conferences on Climate Change and environmental compliance regulations. Examples of the latter include supermarkets setting sustainability requirements for their supply chains and enforcing human rights protections. 

The use of technology by the private sector is key to ensuring a swift and effective transition to future food. There are several factors that highlight the importance of future food, including the fact that the world’s population is rapidly approaching 10bn; only half of arable land is available to support the related expansion in demand; and the food production industry’s emissions are at unsustainable levels. In order to achieve environmental sustainability, the global population will have to adopt diets in which everyone will eat some kind of alternative protein. The future of food will revolve around how technology will be leveraged to achieve this goal.

Future foods are gaining momentum. Food production companies in Thailand have started to announce plant-based strategies, and investors’ interest in the segment has increased following NRF’s initial public offering in 2020. The government is attempting to support this growth with strategies related to the promotion of insect protein and plant-based food. Moreover, incubators, accelerators and university innovation centres around the country are intensifying research into agriculture and food production.

To what extent is the appetite for plant-based food increasing in Thailand, and what are the main factors shaping new consumer trends in food?

PATHOMVANICH: Now, in early 2022, Thailand is where the US was around six years ago in terms of consumer trends. The main difference between the two countries is that sustainable food production is a key consideration for consumers in the US, while in Thailand there is more of an emphasis on taste and value. Plant-based protein accounted for around 4% of total US retail meat sales in February 2022, and is poised to expand to a market share of 15% in the coming years. Thailand will probably not reach the 5% threshold until around 2027, but a few factors will help facilitate this shift, including increased awareness thanks to social media and a wider variety of product offerings.

Vegans in Thailand represented approximately 2% of the population as of early 2022. However, flexitarians – or consumers actively trying to reduce their meat consumption and choose more plant-based options – make up a much larger and faster-growing segment. Restaurants are starting to introduce more plant-based food, boosting consumption further. 

NRF established a non-profit social enterprise called Root the Future to promote awareness about climate change and plant-based diets, with the aim of growing a community of future food consumers. The initiative has seen several achievements in terms of accelerating the transition towards plant-based food consumption in Thailand, such as the first national plant-based festival and food award.

In what ways can policymakers tackle the social challenges of transitioning towards more sustainable food sources, particularly in a country like Thailand where many rural communities depend on agriculture for their livelihood?

PATHOMVANICH: Agriculture is one of the most important sectors in Thailand, employing approximately 14m farmers. In terms of environmental impact, rice plantations represent 12% of global annual methane emissions and 2.5% of global annual CO2 emissions. Indeed, agricultural burning alone emits 20m tonnes of CO2 annually in Thailand.

There has been little attention to date on policies and regulations to reduce the negative environmental impacts of agriculture in the country, and it remains a sensitive political issue. Moreover, farmers do not receive sufficient incentives to support their transition towards more environmentally friendly solutions, and sanctions for non-compliance with environmental standards are not properly enforced. Even so, the use of technologies that have been available since 2010 can address many of the environmental issues related to agriculture and generate revenue for private companies in the sector.

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