The Protein Problem: How Scaling Alternative Proteins Can Help People and Planet
Issues at Steak: Why We Must Act
Globally, we consume around 350 million tonnes of meat a year. To put that in context, there are now around three chickens for every human on the planet, and livestock outweighs wild mammals and birds by a factor of ten.
These figures are expected to grow as incomes rise and urbanisation increases; meat and seafood consumption is expected to rise by 78per cent by 2050 in Asia alone.
If meat consumption does continue to increase at this rate, then even with efficiency improvements we may run out of land on which to produce it. But land use is not the only problem created by our appetite for meat – its production also contributes to global emissions, deforestation, the loss of biodiversity, antibiotic resistance and food insecurity, while increasing the likelihood of zoonotic diseases and pandemics.
There are, in fact, few other human activities that present such a risk to our planet and the future of humanity itself. Leaders can no longer afford to ignore our global meat problem.
We could simply eat less meat; reducing the amount of meat produced and consumed would address many of these health and environmental concerns and has been suggested in numerous policy reports. Unfortunately, the reality is not so straightforward. First, who should reduce their consumption and how would such a policy be implemented? In low-income countries, the amount of meat and dairy consumed is lower, but as these countries tend to have greater food insecurity, is reducing access to any sources of nutrients a reasonable ask? Is it fair to tell these countries that they shouldn’t strive to have the same standard of living as countries that have long enjoyed unbridled consumption? And what would the economic impact be on developing markets where meat exports are responsible for a significant percentage of the job market and GDP? Even within developed markets, the same questions around fairness apply – food insecurity is also an issue among lower-income families. There’s also the political reality: outside voluntary personal measures, the idea of regulating meat consumption is overwhelmingly viewed unfavourably in both high-and low-income markets.
Another option could be to improve the way we currently produce animal products, including management of livestock diet and manure. A number of technical improvements have already been developed: changes in animal feed and selective breeding have shown potential for improvements in both productivity and emissions reductions; improvements in technology allow for better control of health monitoring (with downstream effects for human health); and anaerobic digestors allow manure to be converted into bio-gas, an energy source that can be used to create fuel and electricity or power farm machinery. While these all sound promising, the reality is, again, challenging.
Many of these improvements will only be significant if scaled. The cost of implementation varies widely, and some of these innovations may be difficult or undesirable to implement among smallholder farmers in Africa and Southeast Asia, where livestock often serve multiple purposes outside of providing food, such as storing wealth, and whose contribution is roughly a third of total global livestock emissions. Even if the cost can be brought down, there may be little incentive to change – why should meat producers take on the risk of investing in new tools and techniques? And even if these improvements can be scaled, research suggests the emissions reductions from implementing all these technical innovations will still not be enough to keep us on a 1.5 degree pathway.
Eating less meat is a good idea for many reasons, and softer policies designed to encourage this behaviour can and should be implemented. Similarly, any way to improve the production of animal products and meat, and the lives of those producing it should be investigated, at the very least. However, while they may work as short- or medium-term solutions, neither are going to address all the issues at stake or drive enough of the change needed in the long term. So where does this leave us?
Making Alternative Proteins a Political Priority
Innovations in alternative proteins have sky rocketed in the past few years, and present an exciting opportunity to “have our steak and eat it, too”. While non-meat protein sources such as tofu have always been a staple in some cultures, new discoveries in creating, harvesting and processing plant-based, cellular-based and microorganism-derived alternatives have created products that increasingly resemble traditional meat in all aspects. But these alternative proteins have more to offer than just resembling or replacing meat; they have the potential to address all the issues at stake, which is why focusing on scaling alternative proteins must be a political priority for countries, rather than something just the private sector explores.
From a sustainability point of view, a report from the Good Food Institute (GFI) and policy and research group Climate Advisers finds that production of alternative proteins uses less water and less land, reducing deforestation and freeing up space for regenerative agriculture and biodiversity protection. The report also notes that reducing livestock numbers naturally reduces emissions of the greenhouse gases, methane and nitrous oxide released directly from cows. While there are uncertainties around how energy-intensive scaling up the production of alternative proteins will be, these questions are already being addressed in the overall conversation around renewables.
In terms of health, because there is far less, if any, contact with live animals, the production and consumption of alternative proteins would largely reduce overall zoonotic and antibiotic-resistance risks. As with sustainability, there are still many questions we need to answer about the health impact of alternative proteins, but we can’t know what risks there are – or even if any exist – without more research.
Finally, there is an argument for employment and economic stability. Technology has upended many industries and jobs in the past few decades, and alternative proteins are likely to disrupt the current agricultural industry through labour displacement and loss of revenue from traditional sources. But shifts in demographics, geopolitics and climate change are already pushing us in this direction: agriculture currently represents a huge proportion of the workforce – employing around 1 billion people globally – but thanks to increasing urbanisation, far fewer people work on the land today than ever before. In 1900, around 41 percent of America’s labour force worked on a farm; now the proportion is below 2per cent.
Meanwhile, in Britain, Brexit is making it difficult for farms to access labour from Europe, strengthening the case for increased automation and higher-tech farming methods. It’s also increasingly likely that traditional farming will become less sustainable as farmers find it harder to make a profit in the face of severe weather, climate change and declining soil fertility.
Similarly, the impact of climate change on traditional farming poses a threat to food security. Alternative proteins provide a means to ensure access to key nutrients even if a country’s natural resources traditionally have not been able to support domestic-food production, for example small, densely-packed urban nations or countries where the environmental conditions make it difficult to grow crops or rear livestock.
Given all these factors, policymakers will have to address the future of the farming industry at some point, and alternative proteins present an opportunity. The high level of investment – $3.1 billion dollars in 2020 – and explosion of companies is a signal from the private sector that this is a fast-growing industry with potential to create new jobs that are both green and secure. Countries that invest in the research and development (R&D), training and infrastructure to scale the fastest will capture the biggest slice of the market and will reap the most economic rewards.
Rate of Advancement: How Fast Can We Scale?
Winston Churchill was perhaps overly optimistic when he imagined the world 50 years on from the 1930sand wrote: “We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.” Still, the rate of development of alternative protein products has advanced rapidly. Plant- and microorganism-based proteins have benefited from a steep rise in funding alongside a decrease in the cost of production. Products from plant-based companies such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are already in supermarkets and restaurants, and increasingly popular, with sales growth double that of overall food sales in the past year.
Even the most technically challenging product, cultivated meat, has developed quickly: the first cultured burger was created and eaten in 2013, and seven years later, Singapore became the first country to give regulatory approval for lab-grown meat to be sold commercially.
Other cultivated meat products like chicken and seafood, more complex cuts of meat such as steak, and even dairy products have also been developed in roughly the same timeframe, aided by the falling costs of production and increased levels of funding. The cost for producing the first cultivated hamburger was around $1.2 million per pound, whereas in late 2020 it was hovering close to $50 per pound, less than .005 per cent of the initial cost. Investment has increased significantly as well, from $6 million in 2016 to $366 million in 2020 – or an increase of over 6,000 per cent.
The rapidly increasing pace of innovation is not unique to alternative proteins; similar observations have been made in other tech sectors, most famously captured by Gordon Moore’s eponymous law on the number of transistors and decreasing cost of microchips. Playing on this concept, Agronomics’ Jim Mellon titled his recent book Moo’s Law; he estimates that within the next ten years, 50 per cent of all meat consumed will either be cultivated or plant-based. We are similarly optimistic – aside from increased funding and decreased cost of production, predictions often underestimate change (for a case in point, look at renewable energy) – but this is dependent on overcoming a few obstacles.
Barrier to Scaling: Reaching “Griddle Parity”
Cost is the biggest factor affecting our ability to scale alternative proteins and the rate at which we can do so. To lower costs, the efficiency of sourcing, processing and production will need to improve, which will require major investments across the value chain. For cultivated meat, sourcing is a major bottleneck: access to cell lines and the medium in which animal cells need to grow are hard to come by and expensive. Cells need a special cocktail of nutrients, hormones and growth factors, which can come from a variety of sources. Most producers of cultivated meat use foetal bovine serum(FBS) as their source of micronutrients, which can cost up to $2,000 a litre. Additionally, the overhead costs of the facilities required to produce cultivated meat at scale are significant: much of the equipment is custom-created and requires precautions to ensure that the environment is sterile. To have enough supply to reach 10 per cent global market share by2030, estimates based on one techno-economic assessment indicate that 4,000 facilities, housing 130 bioreactors, at a cost of $1.8 trillion are needed. While there are many economic challenges, the high levels of interest and investment in the alternative-protein space are already starting to drive costs down. Led by Professor William Chen, director of Nanyang Technological University (NTU)’s Food Science and Technology programme, a team of Singaporean researchers have shown that FBS can be replaced by fermented okara, aby-product generated from the creation of tofu and soy milk. This is not only more sustainable than FBS but, at $2 a litre, also significantly cheaper.
There are similar efficiencies that can bring the cost down for plant and microorganism-based proteins, though overall they are much less costly and closer to price parity. A survey of experts from Boston Consulting Group (BCG) found that for plant-based products, cost reduction is likely to result from improved crops, formulation and texturising, and for microorganism-based proteins from improvements in sourcing and growth conditions. According to Moo’s Law, “griddle parity” (a spin on grid parity –the point at which the cost of renewables is the same as or less than conventional energy from the grid) is expected to be reached in five to ten years, starting with plant-based options. Most other predictions are in agreement: BCG estimates cost parity for all alternative proteins by 2032.
Barrier to Scaling: Regulatory Headwinds and the “Ick” Factor
Globally, regulatory processes around alternative proteins are often opaque and slow, hindering a clear path to commercialisation. Food regulatory bodies’ emphasis on evaluating individual health risks means that broader societal and environmental benefits are often not taken into account. Cultivated-meat approval is particularly daunting: Singapore remains the only country in the world to have approved its sale.
In many countries, labels have become a drawn-out legal battle. The US and EU have been divided over the use of terms such as “sausage” and “steak” for plant-based proteins. While the EU recently voted to allow use of the term for plant-based meat alternatives, a ban on using traditional dairy terms for plant-based dairy alternatives was passed, and additional proposals with different restrictions have been submitted. Texas passed a bill earlier this year prohibiting producers of plant-, insect- or cell-based proteins that do not contain meat from slaughtered animals, from using terms like “meat”, “beef” or “poultry product”. Labels are important because research shows that framing is extremely important for consumer acceptance. Food neophobia – the fear of new things – is a key predictor of cultivated-meat rejection across the Americas, Europe and Asia, so familiar names and products that are prepared and served in a familiar way – hamburgers, for instance – are much more likely to convince more hesitant swathes of the population. Similarly, various studies have found that consumer perceptions are impacted by the names given to cultivated meat: references to “synthetic”, “lab-grown” or “cell-based” meat have been found to be less appealing than labels such “cultivated” or “clean”. In general, more technical descriptions tend to evoke associations with unnaturalness and safety, the top concerns around alternative proteins.
Taste and texture will also be key factors in the sustained consumption of alternative proteins. Many products are getting close – this is the primary area of focus for many start-ups – but replicating the real thing often requires significant amounts of processing and additives, which raises questions around the impact of alternative proteins on health. The large sums of money invested (or the prospect of investment) can create an added pressure for start-ups to withhold the exact details about how they create their products: in typical tech funding, proprietary techniques, models or innovations are used to justify high amounts, and the details are fiercely guarded. To similarly justify the high levels of funding, food-tech companies may also be hesitant to share their exact processes and ingredients. While it is fair for investors and entrepreneurs who have placed a lot of resources into food research to reap the commercial rewards – this is a major driver of innovation, after all – transparency in food is a public-health and safety concern. There must be some level of involvement from the government to protect consumers.
Where Are We Now? The Global Race for Alternative Proteins
To date, the boom in alternative proteins has mostly been driven by the private sector. Some governments around the world now recognise the importance of supporting the alternative-protein industry. However, few countries have comprehensive strategies to scale alternative proteins, and globally there has been a lack of policy put forward to support the industry, despite its potential benefits to the environment, economies and human health.
Investment and policy support are particularly underwhelming when compared to those enjoyed by other strategic sectors that are essential for net zero. For example, the UK government has announced it will invest at least £265 million in offshore wind per year – a sharp contrast to the £90million Research and Innovation programme put forward to transform food production, of which alternative-protein projects merely form a part.
As countries including China win some crucial battles by throwing their weight behind many key tech sectors, and Singapore and Israelshoot ahead in developing their alternative-protein sectors, other countries, like the US and UK, risk falling behind.
Short Term: Support Early-Stage R&D and Increase Access to Information
The GFI grant tracker shows that of $112 million in alternative-protein grants globally, roughly $75 million comes from governments, and only 39 per cent of those grant dollars have been awarded to research that produces publicly accessible results. Split by selected regions, we can see a huge variety in grants, with a higher number of government-funded grants in Singapore, non-profit-led grants leading in the US, and the private sector dominating in Germany. Government grants complement private-sector contributions to provide funding for basic R&D that may not lead to a near-term commercial product, but is nonetheless essential to the industry’s progress, to providing objective research to ensure that any concerns that surface are addressed and to ensuring that results are accessible to a wider audience.
Medium Term: Scale Up Production
Support training: The development and production of alternative proteins will require new skills, but courses are few and far between. Government support for training will speed up talent development to attract and scale companies – as well as help traditional workers, like livestock farmers, to transition. Partnering with private or public organisations like the GFI, which has created a publicly accessible curriculum to support faculty and instructors, governments can set up training institutes or subsidise courses. For example, Singapore’s SG United Skills programme is designed to help Singaporeans acquire in-demand skills in emerging sectors, including food tech. Under this programme, jobseekers receive subsidised training through courses designed in partnership with the industry and delivered by special training centres, a monthly stipend, and placement support if needed, while firms are offered a hiring incentive to take on workers who have participated in a training scheme.
A New Generation of Food Science: Talent Development
Professor William Chen is the Michael Fam Chair Professor in Food Science & Technology at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and Director of the Food Science & Technology Programme, an integrated Education–Research–Innovation platform. In partnership with GFI, he is coordinating a new course for science and engineering students with a major in Food Science and Technology at NTU, one of the top schools in Asia.
“Talent development is important for the sustainability of the novel food system. The new elective course jointly offered by GFI APAC and NTUon Future Foods – Introduction to Advanced Meat Alternatives – plays an important role in preparing talent for the novel food system. Unlike other classroom courses, this alternative-protein course is designed to develop problem-solving skills in our young university students. Following learning the fundamental aspects of alternative proteins, students are divided in smaller groups to work on problem statements from current industry stakeholders in the alternative protein space, and propose solutions, very much like an Open Innovation Challenge. We are hopeful that creativity for innovations can be unlocked from our students through this new course, which in turn would contribute and sustain the development of the alternative-protein industry.”
Invest in infrastructure: Producing alternative proteins at scale is costly, as it usually requires hard-to-source ingredients as well as expensive specialised facilities and tools. For example, bioreactors are needed to grow cultivated meat, but those currently available were developed to produce high-price-per-unit pharmaceuticals. To make cultivated meat more cost-effective, more commercially viable high-volume bioreactors need to be developed. Supporting infrastructure either through subsidies or the creation of central facilities could lower costs until demand grows large enough. Singapore has created Food Innovate, a multiagency initiative to help build capabilities, provide resources and enable partnerships in the food-production space through innovation. Through this type of initiative, companies can access facilities, experts and partners more easily. In addition to assisting with physical infrastructure, policymakers can help vendors scale by facilitating cooperation and standards-setting, as with the semiconductor and wireless industries. Standards-setting can also help with other public-policy goals, such as enabling more companies to compete, and thus influencing the pace of innovation and cost.
Update regulation to scale innovation and build trust: While start-ups face a lagging regulatory environment, consumers may be concerned about the safety and sustainability of alternative proteins. Updates to regulation can help on both fronts: streamlining the path towards approval and thus commercialisation would send an encouraging signal to companies and investors, while consistent standards and objective government evaluation would encourage consumer acceptance. Singapore is, again, a leader in this space: to accelerate food-safety research, support food-science capabilities and enable regulatory responsiveness to speed up the commercialisation of novel foods, Singapore has created a tripartite initiative, FRESH. In addition to a more streamlined and transparent process, we also recommend policymakers rethink their overall approach to how alternative proteins are evaluated, ensuring both health and environmental risks and benefits are taken into account.
Long Term: Nurture a Sustainable Ecosystem
Set a clear vision: To scale alternative proteins, policymakers will need to define their long-term vision and set a series of targets. But taking a holistic view is important: while investments and training schemes will address the specific challenges of alternative proteins, these policies must be developed and implemented alongside progress in parallel areas such as renewable energy and waste management. For both Singapore and the Netherlands, the scaling of alternative proteins is one element of an overarching plan for sustainability. Policymakers need to be wary of conflicting policy goals: trying to scale alternative proteins while simultaneously giving the livestock industry large subsidies sends mixed messages and makes it difficult for alternative proteins to achieve price parity.
Work with stakeholders: The cooperation of stakeholders is crucial to the success of any of these policies. Asking for and receiving feedback from multiple levels – from grassroots-community leaders to industry organisations – will help ensure these policies are relevant and appropriate. It will also help to address concerns related to job and industry viability, which have been flashpoints in the US and the EU. This can be done through consultation with community leaders or industry groups, or even by engaging the general public. The US Department of Agriculture, for example, is currently seeking comments on what to name and how to label cell-based meat in the US.
Leveraging the UK’s existing advantages
For the UK, setting out the regulatory and commercial pathways for cultivated meat approval is crucial. To maintain competitive advantage post-Brexit and fulfil its goal of being at the forefront of global innovation, the UK must facilitate an environment for researchers and start-ups to capitalise on their pioneering innovations.
In a great first step, the UK recently relaxed the requirements for field research on gene-edited crops. However, the change did not specify a path to market. This is hugely disincentvising for many researchers, and even those who do continue to develop ground-breaking innovations in the UK could see those techniques commercialised in other nations who have responded more swiftly, resulting in these UK-based innovators losing out on jobs (the National Food Strategy suggests that 10,000 factory roles and 6,500 farming jobs can be created through expansion of the alternative-protein industry),benefits and profits.
By clearing a pathway, the UK can leverage its existing advantages – universities that are already leaders in alternative-protein research, its strength in the petrochemical and pharmaceutical industries, which utilises similar techniques to alternative-protein production, and the scale of its domestic market – to become a leader in this industry and an attractive location for commercial investors.
From an environmental, health-focused and economic point of view, meeting the rising demand for meat in our current manner of production comes at too high a cost and the solutions won’t come from turning back the clock. Fortunately, we don’t have to: new advances in alternative proteins can help us do better for the environment, our health and our society if we have the courage to seize the opportunity.
Countries who invest in and devise policies to advance alternative proteins will find themselves ahead of the curve, becoming world leaders in reducing emissions from agriculture, increasing food security, protecting human health and promoting biodiversity. The countries who move quickly will also have most to gain from an export market of alternative proteins as global demand increases.
We would like to thank all those who helped inform this paper, and particularly acknowledge Prof. William Chen, Director of NanyangTechnological University’s Food Science and Technology Programme, who reviewed drafts.
Source: Multiple authors, 17NOV2021, https://institute.global/policy/protein-problem-how-scaling-alternative-proteins-can-help-people-and-planet
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