It isn’t easy being green
In the words of an olive-hued Muppet, it isn’t easy being green. For the alternative proteins sector, that well-worn quote has a double meaning. It’s hard to be nascent while also addressing major planetary challenges. In recent months, those challenges became even more apparent than they were just a few years ago. Some of the headwinds emerged from the volatile macroeconomic environment, some from the media, and some arrived as a natural progression of maturation – once alternative protein technologies are piloted, new hurdles emerge related to scaling.
Are these challenges threats or are they opportunities? We can turn to the progression of the electric vehicle (EV) sector for an insightful analogy. Although this comparison is not a perfect one, it is useful in setting expectations for what’s to come.
At a basic level, cars and meat share increasing demand. The number of cars on the road will soar to approximately two billion by 2040. Global meat consumption is projected to at least double by 2050, corresponding to a ballooning population. Yet both internal combustion engines (ICEs) and conventional meat production are known to be massive climate offenders. Additionally, conventional meat production poses major threats to food security, biodiversity loss, deforestation, human health, and animal welfare. We’ve found ourselves heavily dependent on two antiquated technologies that no longer serve the best interests of the planet or its inhabitants.
A little more than a decade ago, CNET projected that 2011 would be the year of the electric car. The Mitsubishi i-MiEV debuted at US$33,000 and the Tesla S came out at US$57,000. At the time, CNET’s exuberance was unfounded, primarily because the infrastructure for EVs was in its infancy, and drivers were afraid of getting stranded. The median electric vehicle in 2011 had a range of 73 miles. And while Tesla had a far greater range, it was too expensive for most consumers.
Over the years, the predicted outcome for EVs endured multiple attacks. In 2012, the New York Times declared the death of the electric car. In 2018, Politico was still suggesting that EVs were actually worse for the planet than ICEs. Attacks like these are inevitable for a burgeoning industry. With novelty comes skepticism. With success comes criticism.
There are no silver bullets or shortcuts to move us from where we are today to where we need to be by 2050, but opportunities to advance the sector are plentiful
In 2023, we are experiencing a tipping point for EVs. Why? Because R&D has worked, and the products are better. EVs are steadily increasing and 50% of new car sales in 2035 are now projected to be electric. In some countries, such as Norway, EVs are already the dominant vehicle, accounting for approximately 80% of new car sales. In countries where ICEs are transitioning to EVs quickly, governments have prioritized infrastructure, including widely available charging stations.
Like EVs, alternative proteins will face criticism as well as mounting pressure because of infrastructure constraints. We need massive funding from governments around the world to meet the CapEx requirements of precision fermentation and cultivated meat facilities. We need to make products that appeal to consumers. That means we need products that taste as good or better and cost the same or less than conventional meat. And we must make those products widely available and easy to adopt.
Fortunately, alternative proteins are undergoing their initial tipping point. We have experienced recent regulatory wins for cultivated meat and labeling wins for plant-based milk. Alternative proteins are finally recognized on the global stage as a critical part of solving the climate crisis. Large philanthropists like the Bezos Earth Fund are championing alternative proteins.
There are no silver bullets or shortcuts to move us from where we are today to where we need to be by 2050, but opportunities to advance the sector are plentiful. We need to lean into public interest, positive media coverage, government investment, and R&D breakthroughs. These opportunities will not be linear. We must remain consistently vigilant, patient, and determined. Two days before I wrote this article, 3 July 2023, marked the hottest global temperature ever recorded, with a prediction of similar record-breaking days ahead. We must address these growing climate risks and do so in a way that will ensure a transition to a sustainable, secure, and just food future for people and the planet. Alternative proteins are to agriculture as renewables are to energy – the future!
Laine Clark is the Innovation & Entrepreneurship Manager at The Good Food Institute, the international nonprofit working to shift the global food system to options that are better for the planet, people, and animals. This article was republished from the July/August 2023 edition of Protein Production Technology International, the industry's leading resource for alternative proteins. To subscribe to read future editions hot off the digital press, please click here
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