McGovern’s PLANT Act would increase research, production in plant-based food industry

By ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Staff Writer

Published: 08-08-2023 5:08 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Saying that now is the time to embrace the “enormous potential that plant-based foods have to strengthen our economy and our food system,” U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern has introduced a bill in Congress that aims to strengthen the American plant-based food industry, including in western Massachusetts.

McGovern believes the PLANT Act, which stands for Peas, Legumes, and Nuts Today, would help keep America competitive internationally by increasing research and production of plant-based foods, which is a multibillion dollar industry that employs some 55,000 people nationwide.

Popular examples of plant-based food include dairy replacements like almond and soy milk, the “impossible” burgers produced by companies such as Beyond Meat, as well as vegan hot dogs made by Lightlife, a company based in Turners Falls.

“The PLANT Act is a way to ensure that the success of the plant-based industry goes hand-in-hand with the success of our farmers, rural food businesses and co-ops, and local communities,” said McGovern in a statement to the Gazette. “Valley farmers are already part of a vibrant local food economy, and many of our farmers are producing world-class fresh produce. The PLANT Act would ensure that they continue to strengthen our local food systems while having opportunities to contribute to emerging food systems as well.”

If passed, the bill, introduced on July 28, would provide loans and rural development grants to both businesses producing foods using plant-based proteins and farmers that supply them. Sections of the bill also allow for research and funding grants “to improve the functionality, flavor, and nutritional value of the use of soybeans, wheat, mushrooms, oats, sorghum, almonds, and other crops for the plant protein industry.’’

David Julian McClements, a professor at UMass Amherst’s Department of Food Science and a supporter of the bill, said more research is needed to fully understand materials extracted from plants, including plant protein, polysaccharides and lipids.

He said the rise in demand for plant-based foods has come not just from ethical concerns of eating meat, but climate and health concerns brought about by pollution from factory farming and diseases found within meat, the most popular theory of COVID-19’s origin.

“The big challenge is making products that people actually want to eat and making products that are healthy,” he said. “The other problem is they’re more expensive than traditional products, sometimes almost twice as much. So we need more science to try and increase the scale and reduce the cost of these products.”

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McClements said one main issue in using materials from plants in place of meat products is that extracting them often causes damage to the plant, making it difficult to obtain the right textures for plant-based foods.

“You’re trying to find plant sources that are economical to grow and it’s easy to extract the functional ingredients from,” he said. “But you also have to be sure that the ingredients you extract have the properties you want. So they have to be able to form a solid matrix, which has a structure and texture similar to meat or eggs, or it has to be a liquid product that looks like milk.”

Currently, the United States is the world’s biggest producer of plant-based foods, employing more than 50,000 people and generating around $4.5 billion in annual revenue. But McClements noted that many countries around the world are beginning to catch up to the U.S., including his home country of the United Kingdom. Since 2020, Canada, France, Denmark, Australia, the European Union, and Sweden have all invested more in this sector than the United States, according to McGovern’s office.

“It’s a huge investment in Europe and China, and other countries trying to transition to this sort of plant-based diet,” he said. “The U.S. has been leading in this area, but if we want to stay competitive, it’s really important we have funding to do the complex research.”

Sponsors for the bill include companies like Beyond Meat and Ben & Jerry’s, as well as advocacy groups like the American Heart Association and the Better Food Foundation.

Alexander MacDougall can be reached at amacdougall@gazettenet.com.

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