The egg industry of tomorrow: Embracing a more sustainable food future
Morten Ernst is a second-generation “egg man” and longtime industry ambassador. He has spent his entire life in the poultry world — processing, importing and exporting around the globe, setting up and partnering in some of the first egg processing factories in India and China. In addition to his work with JUST, he serves as CEO of Ovotec Limited in Hong Kong, a consulting and marketing company active in the global egg industry.
Over the course of my long career in the global egg industry, I’ve gained a deep understanding of the popularity, nutritional benefits and food security that eggs provide, as well as their dietary relevance. I’ve also observed the 70% increase in global egg consumption since the mid-1990s, and the fact that the industry is facing unprecedented challenges.
Much of the world’s water use fuels agriculture, including a significant amount for egg production, and water will be an even more precious commodity as we feed billions more in the next 30 years. With rising incomes and urbanization, the appetite for animal-based proteins is climbing, too.
This staggering demand and the detrimental impact on our natural resources will be truly unmanageable if the industry fails to adjust their current practices. We must begin to adopt agricultural practices that greatly reduce environmental impact and embrace newcomers who are exploring plant-based proteins.
At the same time, demographics are changing and millennials are driving more sustainably minded consumer behaviors. That will impact how we produce food 30 years from now. These shoppers are embracing new diets and are moving away from traditional animal proteins that we've historically relied on so heavily as our primary sources of protein.
Recent research has found that 40% of millennials are embracing meat alternatives and a more plant-centric way of eating. Whether the motivation stems from a health or allergen standpoint, from religious beliefs, or from animal welfare or sustainability concerns, times (and appetites) are certainly changing. This trend is also an indication of broader changes occurring in food consumption habits, and we in the food industry need to take notice and adapt.
This movement has grown in tandem with the rise of food companies that have created plant-based products – from non-diary milk (Califia Farms, Ripple, Oatly) to meat (Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat) and the nascent “clean meat” innovation, which is real meat made from cells instead of live animals. All of this has made me increasingly curious about the sector, especially as it pertains to the egg industry and the development of egg-free, but egg-like, products.
While egg replacements have existed for some time, consumers have found them lacking. Some require additional steps or ingredients, some have longer cook times and some are far from the familiar flavor or texture of a chicken egg. But several years ago, I was introduced to a startup called JUST that wanted to get it right. Their team spent nearly five years developing a plant-based egg alternative using the 4,400-year-old mung bean as the foundational ingredient. The product is rolling out to foodservice partners in the U.S. and Asia, with plans for further expansion in foodservice and retail this year.
I feel a synergy with these forward-thinking companies’ collective mission to facilitate a new way of thinking within the food industry. It’s why I’m working with JUST on new opportunities for collaboration, including large partnerships with major egg companies. I believe a joint effort is needed between novel and traditional approaches to feed the growing population sustainably while meeting variable consumption requirements across the globe.
Some of the big conventional meat companies like Tyson and Cargill are already investing in alternative meat products, and for the first time we’re seeing retailers and restaurants feature plant-based options alongside their conventional counterparts. Why shouldn't the egg industry follow suit and help reach parts of the population who, for one reason or another, can’t or won’t consume egg products?
It won't happen overnight, but I clearly see the changing tides. This is a huge opportunity for our industry to support forward-thinking innovators to set a new industry standard together. I’m excited about our shared future and am encouraged by the knowledge that so many other global egg players feel the same way.