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The Next Economy
Latin Americans Are Embracing Plant-Based Foods — a Growing Opportunity for Investment

Food investors and entrepreneurs would do well to mark the major focus on plant-based protein innovation happening for our neighbors to the South.

Just like all disruptive industries, the ever-growing plant-based food industry has been through quite a rollercoaster ride over the last several years.

But why are plant-based alternatives to animal-based foods such a big deal in the first place?

Well, ethical concerns aside, global meat and dairy production produces roughly 18 percent of all human-induced greenhouse gas emissions — that’s more than the entire transportation industry across the globe. Farming animals for food also takes up lots of land — making it a major driver of Amazon rainforest deforestation and species extinction.

But regardless of the environmental impacts, consumers have not stopped frequenting the meat aisle at grocery stores around the world. In fact, global meat consumption increased by nearly 60 percent over the last two decades — and shows no signs of slowing, according to an OECD-FAO analysis.

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But environmentally friendlier protein alternatives — whether derived from plants, animal cells or so-called “novel proteins” — have continued to captivate sustainability-conscious foodies in recent years, presenting a growing opportunity for eco-entrepreneurs in the food space.

While much of the focus on plant-based food innovation has been on Europe and North America, other parts of the world are also embracing the change — a shift that investors and businesses unafraid of expanding their horizons should heed.

Latin America: A deliciously diverse panorama

From Mexico to Argentina, Latin America has also experienced a respectable increase in demand for plant-based meat substitutes; but supply is still lagging — which presents an excellent opportunity in the region.

“Mexico has undergone a formidable transformation with regards to vegan entrepreneurship,” Emmanuel Marquez, grants program coordinator for food-awareness organization ProVeg International, told Sustainable Brands®. “New brands have popped up in the country, increasing competition — which has resulted in higher-quality products and greater awareness among those consumers who seek healthier food options that are also better for the planet.”

Marquez added that, for plant-based brands to be successful in Latin America’s diverse marketplace, “it’s crucial to understand the importance of adapting products to the preferences of [each country’s] consumers” as “food here is intimately related to local traditions and celebrations.”

He highlighted NotCo — a Chile-based unicorn foodtech startup on a mission to remove animals from the food system — which launched its products in Mexico with a marketing campaign that was perfectly in tune with local values: “They made their own slogan based on the cry of Mexican independence. This came with information showing how their products can be used with traditional Mexican dishes, allowing them to adhere to local traditions to their benefit.”

Lyda Durango, director of marketing and communications for Fundación Veg — a South American nonprofit that works to promote plant-based lifestyles — chimed in from Colombia with advice for international entrepreneurs seeking to enter the Colombian plant-based food market, which is projected to exceed US$521 million by 2028.

“The best move is to form an alliance with local vegan brands while also taking part in local plant-based events,” she told SB. “It’s important to be a part of the local vegan ecosystem to get past any barriers to these national and regional markets.”

Durango also highlighted the importance of keeping prices low in a part of the world where most inhabitants do not have a high income. The same logic can also be applied to countries farther south of the equator.

According to Mauricio Serrano Palma, senior director for Veganuary — a campaign that encourages people around the world to go vegan for the month of January — “the plant-based market has grown substantially in the last five years in Chile and Argentina.”

Chile, however, has witnessed greater growth in the number of vegan products compared to those in Argentina.

“Veganuary hired Mintel Consulting to do a study in 2021; and the results showed that 12 percent of all new products sold in Chile had the vegan label, while in Argentina it was 6 percent. Both countries have witnessed exponential growth in products labeled vegan in recent years.”

Serramo Palma added that a study carried out by Veganuary and Happy Cow — an app used to find vegan restaurants and establishments with vegan options — showed that vegan options in restaurants grew 43 percent in Chile and 26 percent in Argentina from 2022 to 2023.

When asked what advice he would like to give entrepreneurs interested in entering the space in South America, he also highlighted the importance of seeking expertise from local entrepreneurs or consultants with industry experience.

“We’ve witnessed the emergence of many new vegan products and stores focused on plant-based products; but we’ve also seen many go out of business — which may have been avoided if they had gotten the right consulting from a local,” he pointed out.

Serrano said the International Plant-Based Foods Working Group, which brings together different associations to help plant-based companies and startups around the globe, is beginning to work with organizations in Argentina and Chile to help local plant-based food companies grow and succeed.

“Judging by the results of different market analyses in the region, I can see that the vegan market will continue to expand and put itself in a position to compete with more traditional food brands while providing a more attractive alternative for consumers who care about animal welfare, the planet, and their health,” he concluded.