Home » “We’re trying to change mindsets”: Tolga Soytekin on Accelerating the Plant-Based Food Revolution 

“We’re trying to change mindsets”: Tolga Soytekin on Accelerating the Plant-Based Food Revolution 

by Madaline Dunn

While half the world’s habitable land is used for agriculture, livestock accounts for around 80 per cent of this and carries a hefty environmental price tag. Although estimates vary, animal agriculture is said to be responsible for as much as 20 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions while also driving deforestation, water pollution, land degradation and biodiversity loss. Yet, research indicates that it makes up around just 18 per cent of calories and 37 per cent of protein. 

Ultimately, the way in which the world produces food is inefficient, unsustainable and a major contributor to climate change – and it needs to change. In fact, a recent report from Harvard University outlined that globally, diets must become more plant-based to limit the worst effects of climate change. Indeed, one 2023 study found that plant-based diets can result in 75 per cent less climate-heating emissions, as well as significantly less water pollution and land use than meat-heavy diets.

However, reducing meat consumption was omitted in the FAO’s recent 1.5 food systems roadmap, published at COP28. 

Despite this oversight, and while food systems transformation has yet to work its way up to the top of the policy agenda, the number of people ditching meat and dairy is on the rise. Some research even suggests that nearly half of consumers worldwide believe plant-based food will largely replace meat by 2032.

Bare Foods Global, a plant-based food business in Dubai, is one of the companies leading the charge regionally and advocating for a plant-based revolution. 

ESG Mena met with founder and chef Tolga Soytekin to hear more about the company’s mission, Bare Foods Global’s launch of the Meatless Mondays initiative in the UAE, and the regional drivers behind the adoption of plant-based diets.

“Fresh Ingredients and Clean Food”

Soytekin grew up around fresh ingredients and home cooking, inheriting his passion for food from his grandmother in Cyprus, with whom he cooked as a child. It was this childhood experience that inspired the approach and style he has nurtured in his own kitchens over the years. 

“I found I had this wealth of knowledge of how to make food like it’s been made for hundreds of years in the Mediterranean. So, it was important to me in the restaurant to use fresh ingredients and clean food. My ethos is: ‘I would never feed you food that I would never feed my own child,'” said Soytekin. 

Image courtesy of Bare Foods Global

Moreover, Soytekin explained that while the company’s ingredients might have changed as operations have scaled, he never uses synthetic flavours or preservatives. And the data shows that this ‘clean label’ approach to plant-based is increasingly important to consumers.

Indeed, in recent years, some faux meat and dairy brands have been branded “ultra-processed,” unhealthy and artificial, including by big meat and dairy – and this is feeding into consumer perception. 

In fact, in Europe, research from EIT Food suggested that over half of consumers now reportedly avoid plant-based meat due to viewing it as “ultra-processed food” (UPF). Meanwhile, research from Mintel previously found that consumers would eat more plant-based meat if it was less processed. And this has resulted in some big plant-based meat brands shifting gears and simplifying ingredient lists.

For context, in places like the UK and the US, UPF makes up over 50 per cent of overall calorie intake, while in the Middle East, the average is around just below 40 per cent. It is also worth noting, as outlined by the Good Food Institute (GFI), that UPF, while a term that is “widely used,” is not well understood “either by experts or the general public.”

The GFI also highlighted that, as with conventional meat products, there is a high degree of variation in the level of processing different plant-based meat options undergo.

Moreover, one recent study published in The Lancet found that the type of UPF is important when considering health implications. For example, although processed animal-based products were associated with negative health outcomes, processed plant-based products were “not associated with risk of multimorbidity.”

But while fear of UPF can dissuade some from pursuing plant-based, for others, plant-based diets’ health benefits are the draw. Indeed, a recent 20-year review found that plant-based diets are “significantly associated” with long-term health benefits and a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Shifting Eating Habits 

However, when it comes to consumers’ switching to plant-based, Soytekin noted that motivations vary depending on demographics. Regionally, he said the COVID-19 pandemic was a big eye-opener for many people and encouraged consumers to reassess both the origin of their food and their relationship with it. Soytekin also noted that the documentary The Game Changers had a big impact on the way people think about food.

Image courtesy of Bare Foods Global

From the environmental perspective, Soytekin said that, regionally, COP 28 helped to catalyse a shift and noted that for some, the awareness of the lower environmental impact of plant-based food is more likely to change behaviour.

While there is often a disconnect between how animals are farmed and the meat or dairy products that are served up on a plate, Soytekin said the environmental impacts of animal agriculture are far more visible. 

“Look at the temperature, the rains, the flash floods, the wildfires, all [of] this as an environmental impact of global warming,” said Soytekin, noting that framing plant-based diets from this perspective is more likely to elicit action. [People] are always concerned about what they’re leaving behind for their kids and their grandkids.”

Youth Key in Driving Plant-Based Food Adoption 

Indeed, the youth has a key role to play in driving forward action, which is why Bare Foods Global recently launched Meatless Mondays across 20 schools in the UAE. 

Meatless Mondays is an initiative that was founded back in 2003, aimed at increasing plant-based dining options in schools, hospitals, and other institutions. Over the two decades since its launch, it has grown into a global movement and is now present in over forty countries. 

“The kids are the ones who are, to a certain degree, dictating what’s being added to the house,” said Soytekin. “If the education of our children can help push the agenda of Meatless Mondays in the home, then it can have a [serious impact].”

Soytekin’s hope is that this will spark a chain reaction. 

“If it takes us ten years, it takes us ten years. But the point is that we should start to make a change now.”

However, despite the mounting evidence that plant-based diets are more environmentally friendly, healthier, and less harmful to animals, as well as the growing number of initiatives aimed at sparking change, for those in the industry, it can sometimes feel like an uphill battle. 

Navigating Headwinds, Riding Tailwinds 

In recent years, the industry has faced a crackdown on plant-based labelling, largely concentrated in Europe and across states in the US, where using terminology such as “steak,” “sausages” and “mozzarella” on plant-based products has been banned. 

“It’s a push from the meat industry to try and create barriers and hurdles for the plant-based industry,” said Soytekin. 

Indeed, another popular narrative pushed by various parties as of late is that the “vegan bubble has burst.” However, while it is true that plant-based meat sales are down in some regions, 2024 actually saw record levels of participation in Veganuary, an annual event by the non-profit of the same name, which encourages people to go vegan for the month of January. 

Further, while consumers might be buying fewer plant-based products, that doesn’t mean that they’re returning to meat.

Indeed, with the global cost of living crisis hitting food prices – including that of meat and dairy – some consumer data indicates that people are switching to cheaper alternative proteins and choosing to cook from scratch. 

Soytekin said that here, the most important thing is that people are swapping out meat for alternatives, whether that’s using chickpeas, vegetables or plant-based meat.

“Ultimately, we’re trying to change their mindset,” said Soytekin, noting that while plant-based burgers and meatballs can be the catalyst, there’s “always going to be evolution.”

“Like any industry, in any market, you have dips and ebbs and flows from time to time; that’s normal,” said Soytekin, adding that consumers also want “something new.” 

“There are parts of the industry that have so much potential for development,” said Soytekin. “If we want to be able to make an impact, we have to be patient for research to catch up with production.”

However, progress is being made on the research front, both in terms of ingredient development and scaling processes. 

The recent Good Food Institute (GFI) industry report, for example, highlighted the development of new animal-free fats and emulsifiers and novel aquatic, leguminous, and upcycled protein sources, alongside advances in plant-protein texturisation scalability. 

And innovation is only growing. This year, we’ve seen the emergence of whole cuts of plant-based meat made without binding agents, progress on AI-powered plant-based food, and the launch of fermented plant-based steak, to name a few. 

Centring Food at the Heart of Climate Action

But beyond innovation and behavioural nudges delivered through industry initiatives, like Meatless Mondays, Soytekin said that the government also has a big role to play in encouraging dietary changes. 

“We need more government involvement in pushing the Meatless Mondays agenda and adoption by a lot more sectors,” said Soytekin, noting that there needs to be a particular emphasis on healthcare and hospitality, the latter of which the team is now focusing their efforts on.

Soytekin said that this should come in the form of both policy and incentives. 

“There should be more emphasis put onto those markets by the government for them to adopt more environmentally sustainable ways of providing food.”

Indeed, here, Soytekin highlighted the staggering level of food waste in the UAE, where almost 40 per cent of prepared food goes in the bin. 

“I think a coupling of food waste and plant-based food as an alternative should be more on the agenda [for] those industries by the government.”

Looking ahead, while the industry might be facing headwinds amid a challenging economic backdrop, consumer interest is growing, as is consumer climate awareness and action, with a greater understanding of the link between what we eat and how it affects the planet’s health in public discourse.

While food systems transformation didn’t get the attention it deserved at COP28, it was on the menu for the first time, and placing it higher on the agenda is having ripple effects in the region and beyond.

If we are to peak livestock emissions this decade, as the research says we must, food must be at the heart of climate action. Initiatives like the one Soytekin is spearheading in the UAE demonstrate that this can be simple, affordable and delicious. 

By Madaline Dunn, Lead Journalist, ESG Mena.

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