“Today we are present in more than 15 countries, we employ more than 500 people around the world, and we ship more than 12 million tons of product. We have become a significant player in the food supply chain,” says Vishal Vijay, head of business development at Agrocorp International, a Singapore-headquartered, USD 3 billion, commodities and trading company.
In an interview with Connected to India, Vijay discusses the proliferation of the plant-based food industry during a time when consumers are especially concerned about sustainable lifestyle and ethical consumption.
Agrocorp International was started by his father 30 years ago to connect markets that produce ingredients like pulses, wheat, and sugar, all staple ingredients within the Asia Pacific region, to markets that consume these products like India, Pakistan, Turkey and China.
Vijay’s family and Agrocorp noticed a major difference between the Western food markets and the Indian market. They found that in regards to plant-based alternatives, western food markets in the US and the UK have a high level of access to dairy and meat alternatives, which is not as prevalent in India and their other core importing markets.
Motivated to bridge this gap between the Western and Asian Pacific markets, Agrocorp launched their new plant-based food brand HerbYvore that recently released its first product - the pea paneer. Vijay reflects that their Indian roots play a strong role in the conceptualisation of their brand and their products, hence the launch of a paneer alternative, a popular Indian product.
The pea paneer, while named as a substitute for a dairy paneer, can be extended beyond the Indian cuisine, feels Vijay. He noted that the pea paneer is a versatile product which can be used as a substitute for feta, halloumi, and ricotta, depending on how the consumer prepares it.
The pea paneer also holds the only commercially available SKU for Agrocorp.
New approach to widen accessibility to plant-based products
A widely held criticism of the plant-based food industry is the presence of common allergens within plant-based products. A majority of the plant-based products in the global market are made up of nuts and grains, such as soy, peanuts, oats, rice, etc. These nuts and grains are the most common allergens for consumers, reducing the accessibility to alternative foods.
Agrocorp’s plant-based alternatives distinguish themselves from others because their core ingredients are staple Indian ingredients such as chickpeas, lentils, and peas. These ingredients are not common allergens and enable Agrocorp to increase the variety of plant-based products in the market.
Increased accessibility and a variety of plant-based foods inspire consumers to experiment with their versatility and ability to substitute other common dairy products.
Environmental impact of plant-based food production
Although the plant-based food industry is highly encouraged as a step towards a sustainable and environmentally conscious lifestyle, the production of these products are often criticised for their water consumption and greenhouse gas emission.
However, Vijay makes it clear that Agrocorp is highly aware of the impact food production has on global warming and climate change, and ensures that they give particular attention to sustainable production.
“The pea paneer, environmentally speaking, consumes 90% less water, it consumes 90% less land, and emits 90% less greenhouse gases, which is very substantial at least from the sustainability side,” says Vijay.
Aside from HerbYvore, Agrocorp International recently signed onto a USD 50 million, committed sustainable borrowing base facility with Dutch banks FMO and Rabobank. They are also working with environmental and social consulting firm Earth Systems to enable a more sustainable food supply chain in emerging countries.
Consumers are not only concerned about their plant-based products being cruelty free and sustainable, but also about the entirety of the manufacturing process, feels Vijay. He says that Agrocorp is proud of their unique production process for the pea paneer which is entirely “farm-to-fork”. The peas are sourced directly from Canadian farms, processed in Agrocorp’s facilities in Canada, and shipped to Singapore to produce the paneer product.
To ensure minimal damage to the environment, Vijay states that the extraction process of the pea protein in the Canadian facility is a completely dry process that uses no water or chemicals.
Nutritional impact of plant-based alternatives
Sometimes, at the cost of taste, production costs, and minimal damages to the environment, plant-based products end up consisting of high doses of artificial ingredients that can be damaging nutritionally for the consumer.
Agrocorp is aware of this issue, says Vijay, and ensures that all their ingredients are naturally occurring and no artificial flavours are used in their products.
“We also understand the importance of products that are more clean label, that have minimal processing and use minimal ingredients. So our paneer has only five ingredients on its label, all of which are quite well known and well understood,” explains Vijay.
He adds that “nutritionally it also has much less fat and much more calcium as opposed to dairy without letting you compromise too much on the protein content” because typically non-dairy cheese has less protein.
Singapore’s growing consumer base and pioneering technology
Agrocorp is headquartered in Singapore, which was named as the second most vegan friendly city in Asia by PETA Asia. When asked about how Agrocorp and HerbYvore can use this to their advantage, Vijay states that there is a good understanding and access to plant-based products in Singapore, which makes the island nation a great starting point for businesses like theirs.
Additionally, because of the understanding and access, he notes that consumers in Singapore, vegan and non-vegan alike, actively seek out healthier and more environmentally conscious products in grocery stores and eateries.
Singapore was also the first place in the world to approve “clean meat” or lab grown chicken meat. Vijay says that cell-based meat products require a lot of R&D which Agrocorp has not been able to conduct yet due to the high cost parity between cell-based meat and real meat.
However, he says they are currently working on several other plant-based alternatives for ice cream, egg, milk, and conducting R&D on plant-based meat alternatives.
Impact of COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic has devastatingly impacted virtually all industries in the world. Vijay notes that epidemics like Bird Flu, Swine Flu, SARS, and now COVID, all originated from the animal supply chain. While the pandemic has caused roadblocks in R&D and production, it has also increased general awareness of health and nutrition across the globe with a particular attention towards ethical and sustainable eating.
“Some of the ways that we are sourcing protein from animals is ultimately harmful for ourselves and the way of life that we're used to. As a result of Covid, There's been a wider adoption or more pressing adoption for a more plant-based lifestyle and flexitarian diets that can only help brands like ours” Vijay concludes.