ING: “Policy Makers are Hesitant to Get Involved With the Food That’s on our Plate.”

Thijs Geijer
© ING

Almost nobody would connect veganism with the banking sector. However, finance is crucial to plant-based developments – not least because of investments. No wonder, then, that the bank ING is taking an eye on climate change, the (plant-based) food sector and has even conducted a market research called “The Protein Shift”. We have spoken to Thijs Geijer – Senior Economist at ING – about their research and the most important insights.

You are constantly researching the food sector. Lately you’ve published a report called „The Protein Shift“. Why is this research and the insights so important for you as a bank? 
Because it helps us understand the business of our clients in agriculture, food industry, foodretail and foodservice. The insights provide a starting point to discuss their strategy, for example on future investment. The insights in the report are partly based on the results of an international survey of 13.000 consumers. This gives us an unique understanding of the preferences of European consumers with regard to animal and plant based products.

What were the main /most surprising outcomes in your research?
I think we cover a lot in the report, but let me highlight a few interesting findings.

  • We found that on average 4% of European consumers replied that they never eat meat. This ranges from almost 8% in the UK to 1% in Spain. Germany and France are both around 4%. As solid data on vegetarianism/veganism is hard to get by this gives at least an indication of cross-country differences.
  • One out of four European consumers expects to reduce meat consumption in the near future. But only to a certain extent. It is more common to reduce than to leave out entirely.
  • We see the same drivers throughout Europe among consumers who want to reduce meat consumption. Negative effects on health are named as the primary reason, followed by animal welfare, prices and environmental effects.
  • To become more attractive plant-based products can still improve on five factors; health aspects, price, convenience, quality aspects (like taste and texture) and conscience. Conscience is mainly about communicating with consumers what makes these products better in terms of environmental effects.
  • To get a sense of which products consumers couldn’t do without we asked them which product would be hardest to miss. According to our survey out of all animal products, cheese would be the hardest to miss followed by chicken and milk.

Is the vegan/plant-based market and the target group of interest for you and your bank? (why/why not?).
The food sector in general is interesting for ING and plant-based is a growth market within the predominantly mature European food space. The plant-based market sees a lot of start-up activity, investment and innovation. Besides that it’s also interesting due to the link to our goal of contributing to a low-carbon society.

What are according to your insights the most important „shifting“ factors?
In the end it all comes down to supply and demand. On both sides we see things shifting.

Off course there is already ample supply of unprocessed plant-based products. Due to increased investment and improved technology the supply of processed plant-based products is both growing and improving. For example new generations of meat-replacement products outperform their predecessors and investment in the growth of processing capacity for plant-based dairy has improved availability.

Consumer preferences are changing, animal-products are still at the centre of the European plate, but in many Western European countries demand is under pressure and this leaves room for other products to step in.

What are – according to your research – the most important success factors for a protein shift towards more plant-based proteins? 
Besides consumer preferences and innovation the third important factor is public policy. We do note that guidelines for a healthy balanced diet (like the Eatwell Guide in the UK and ‘Schijf van vijf’ in the Netherlands) are increasingly emphasizing the positive aspects of plant-based products. But in general policy makers are hesitant to get involved with the food that’s on our plate or are struggling to find the right instruments to influence producers and consumers.

What does ING do with the survey’s results to keep on track with the plant-based/vegan developments?
As the attention for the sustainability aspects of people’s diet remains high on the agenda, we will continue to make use of the results in our meetings with business clients. We give presentations at events (like Food Valley Future Protein Summit). And possibly we will do a follow up report in 2019.