Alternative proteins are often more expensive and less appealing in terms of taste and texture than meat. We share the three key drivers that have the potential to make them cheaper and tastier for consumers
While some recent figures show a decline in meat consumption – notably in the UK and US – the reasons behind people’s choices are often more to do with the cost of meat than ethical judgements around animal welfare or the impact on climate. However, population growth, food security, and the climate are key concerns for governments globally, and are fuelling continued development of protein alternatives. In Singapore, it has been a key government policy to foster innovation and investment in this area to bolster domestic food security and reduce reliance on imports.
We compared notes with Jack Ellis, a Senior Associate specialising in agriculture and food at Cleantech Group, to identify the key drivers accelerating the development of meat alternatives.
Artificial Intelligence (AI), gene editing, 3D printing… New technologies are opening up exciting possibilities for growth in the alternative protein space, and innovative startups are pioneering their use.
“It feels like there is momentum building around AI, and startups are putting it to different uses,” says Jack. US startup Climax Foods utilises AI to design non-dairy cheese that mimics the texture and taste of several varieties, including brie, blue, and feta. NotCo, a Chilean startup that we first spotted in 2016 – which has since become a unicorn company – uses AI to analyse the smell, texture, and taste of dairy and meat at the molecular level, and then replicate it.
Gene editing can raise protein yields from raw ingredients by ‘tweaking’ the DNA of an organism to make it behave differently. It is generally different to creating a genetically modified organism (GMO), which typically refers to taking genetic material from one species and putting it into another one – a process that has been banned in the EU since 2001. In 2018, gene editing fell under the same law, but in July this year, the EU announced that this was under review. “Startups in Europe have been vocal in pushing for more regulatory clarity on this,” says Jack. “And if that clarity does come to be and progress, then there will be an uptick, at least in innovative activity and partnering.”
2. Cell cultivation
To date, cell-cultivated meat has two key obstacles: it’s expensive to produce (and so would be prohibitively expensive for consumers) and it needs regulatory clearance as a biological product. The latter first happened in 2020, when Singapore became the first country to grant approval, with the US following suit this year. Despite these blockers, startups are innovating to reduce the costs involved in cell cultivation. For example, Czech-based firm Mewery uses a technique based on microalgae to decrease the cost of cultivation by up to 70 per cent. Its range of meat-free pork should be available in 2025, pending regulatory clearance.
Food production accounts for a quarter of global greenhouse emissions, with cows and other farm animals contributing around 14 per cent. Agriculture is water intensive and uses half of all habitable land on Earth. A growing trend in making food production more resource-efficient is the use of fermentation to produce alternative proteins. Amsterdam-based agritech firm Farmless only requires one five-hundredth of the amount of land needed for animal protein production. Farmless’ process creates food packed with amino-acid complete proteins, fibre, essential vitamins, carbohydrates, and unsaturated fats. It does this by turning existing supply chains of liquid feedstock into the basis for its fermentation system. The company uses a naturally occurring single-cell organism that ferments at a rapid rate, and then, through careful selection of different microbes for different results, produces proteins and foods that can be customised to include almost any combination of macronutrients.
According to Springwise Commissioning Editor Matthew Hempstead, “With alternative proteins, there are several avenues of innovation and multiple uncertainties. But more and more businesses like Farmless are developing industrial manufacturing capabilities and are set to play an increasingly central role in transforming the agriculture industry in time to meet 2050 climate goals.”
Written By: Angela Everitt
Our November edition of Future Now shares our full list of the top ten innovations pushing the boundaries of food production, leveraging AI for greater efficiency while harnessing other technologies to create alternatives to meat. It is free for members of our Innovation Database. For more information click here.
8th November 2023