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Perspective on alternative proteins: why we need to take the long view … but quickly

January 25, 2023

If you are reading this, it’s likely you already have a solid understanding of the alternative proteins sector. You may even be deeply entrenched in its success through vocational and/or financial investment. The industry’s highs elicit celebration and its lows, consternation. Sound familiar? If so, you likely have taken note of some of the less-than-optimistic alternative protein news over the past year. Some prominent companies had challenges that made for sensational headlines. Others shuttered plant-based brands. Stratospheric investment cooled a bit.

Is it time to sound the alarm? On the industry growth front, no. Growth trajectories from other paradigm-shifting innovations can help ground us here. But on the future-of-the-planet front, absolutely, yes. Let’s dig into both…

First, some perspective on the early days of new industries. Quorn introduced the first commercially available vegetarian burger in 1985. Ten years later, Tofurky came to grocers’ shelves. But it wasn’t until 2009, when Beyond Meat was founded and began working on biomimicry of conventional meat, that the alternative proteins sector truly began to take shape.

In the years following, the number of companies solely focused on not only plant-based meat but also fermentation-derived or cultivated proteins ballooned. An industry sprang forth, ushering in a multitude of organizations, investors, and publications to support and grow it. Respected firms such as Bain and McKinsey deemed the sector worthy of in-depth analysis. In short, alternative proteins arrived on the food scene… or it seemed that way to industry insiders.

On the outside, however, a different and yet familiar story has been playing out. What sounds like a deafening roar to those closest to the industry has been more like a side conversation in the minds of consumers, retailers, food-service providers, generalist investors, governments, and mass-media outlets.

This is completely normal for a nascent industry. The alternative proteins sector is still very much in its infancy, with a promising but predictably complex future ahead. Before the industry reaches anything resembling maturation or mass-market adoption, there will be barrier-breaking technological discoveries, new obstacles and opportunities, and unforeseen twists and turns. Some players will recede, and others will take center stage. Promising technologies will be eclipsed by others, keeping science and progress ever evolving. There will be skeptics, naysayers, pontificators, prognosticators, champions, and heroes. In other words: alternative proteins are just getting started!

The alternative proteins sector is still very much in its infancy, with a promising but predictably complex future ahead

Steve Ballmer, former CEO of Microsoft, famously and publicly scoffed at the iPhone, balking at the price and lack of a keyboard. He said it had no appeal for business users and was essentially not a very good email machine. Smartphone technology, ubiquitous now, was also just getting started. There are similar examples throughout history.

What should we be ringing alarm bells for? Nothing less than the future of our planet. Conventional meat production is a contributor to some of the world’s most pressing challenges. If the world is to achieve its climate, global health, food security, and biodiversity goals, making meat differently via alternative proteins will be as essential as the global transition to renewable energy. When compared to conventional meat, alternative proteins dramatically reduce emissions, require far less land, eliminate the need for antibiotics in our food system, and feed more people with fewer resources. Climate impact is particularly notable, with agriculture causing 20% of global GHG emissions, equivalent to all the planes, trucks, cars, trains, and ships on Earth. A shift toward alternative proteins gives humanity a chance to meet the Paris climate agreement, reverse biodiversity loss, and enable a more sustainable, secure, and just food future.  

To be clear, realistically assessing the industry as it grows is important. There is value in taking a measured approach to exuberance and noticing what we can and should do to improve outcomes and expedite progress. Stakeholders must work together to mobilize continued investment and research. Governments across the globe need to fund innovation, create manufacturing incentives, and level the playing field so that alternative proteins can compete and scale. Companies need to reach taste, price, and accessibility parity with conventional protein production. We have a long way to go.

For those of us dedicated to or interested in this burgeoning and critically needed industry, perspective is key. We are introducing the world to innovative solutions that will help sustain the planet and future generations who call it home. Humans have been raising animals for food for thousands of years. In the past 100 years alone, we’ve seen the massive growth of large-scale industrial animal agriculture, which today faces significant limitations. We’re running out of room for food production, which is leading to the clearing of forests and other ecosystems.

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 January/February 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

If you have any questions or would like to get in touch with us, please email info@futureofproteinproduction.com

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