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Food for Thought: The Plant-Based Revolution

By Erin O'Connor, Trainee Patent Attorney

After indulging over the festive period many resolve themselves to a New Year of changes to better their health, well-being, and lifestyle. Many campaigns have taken advantage of this widespread dedication to change and promoted “challenges” for the month of January that encourage trying something new. One such campaign that has risen to prominence in recent years is Veganuary.

Launched in 2014, Veganuary challenges the masses to sign up and commit to a vegan diet for the month of January. The campaign spans 192 countries and in 2020, had over 400,000 registered participants, although data suggests that more than 10 times this number likely took part.1 With 2021 set to break previous participant records, it is clear that the popularity of the campaign is reaching new heights, but why are people motivated to get involved?

The vegan diet, like other plant-based diets (vegetarian, pescatarian, flexitarian), claims not only to be better for animal welfare, but boasts of many health and environmental benefits over conventional omnivorous diets, and many studies concur. For example, a study conducted by Oxford University in 2016 found that transitioning toward a more plant-based diet could reduce global mortality by between 6 to 10% and food-related greenhouse gas emissions by between 29 to 70% (compared with a reference scenario in 2050)2.

So, it’s unsurprising that a bigger consumer shift to plant-based living has been observed, not just in January. A study by the UK Food Standards Agency showed that between 2012 and 2018, there was a reduction in overall meat and dairy consumption in respondents. The data shows the consumption of beef, lamb and pork dropped by 20%, while poultry and dairy product consumption dropped by around 5%. The study also indicated that among the 2018 respondents over 1 in 10 reported adopting a vegetarian, partly vegetarian or vegan diet.3

In spite of the rising popularity of plant-based diets, data suggests that the key to further growth in this sector is product innovation in meat substitutes, as a key barrier to consumption by the average meat and dairy consumers is the difference in taste and texture to traditional meat and dairy products.4

Modifying features such as the taste, texture, colour, appearance and smell requires inventive technical solutions, which involves extensive scientific research in the fields of chemistry, biochemistry, bioengineering and food science. But the investment and demand are undoubtedly there; the UK market for meat-free foods is reportedly on the rise with predictions indicating that by 2024 the market could be worth around £1.1 billion.5

As innovation and investment continues, companies seek to protect their inventions and turn to the patent system for help. A search on the EPO’s worldwide search engine, Espacenet, for PCT publications containing the term “plant based” and the classification A23 (food or foodstuffs) revealed that, to date, there are almost 1500 published PCT applications in this area. Perhaps most interesting however, is the breakdown of publications per year, which appears to align with the increase in demand discussed above. While a general steady increase is seen from around 1996, from 2016 onward this increase becomes exponential, with 2020 having more than 3 times the number of publications than 2016. With patents in this field inarguably rising, there will be many a keen eye interested in how patent law and case law adapts down the line to meat the plant-based revolution.