To many consumers – and indeed, many in the food industry – two of the three key ways of developing sustainable protein products might still feel remote.
These are cultivated meat, in which the beef, pork and chicken we enjoy today is grown from cells in a process similar to growing plants in a greenhouse, and fermentation-made protein, in which companies use a method similar to beer or yoghurt production to grow large quantities of mycoproteins, which come from fungi.
This is how Alex Mayers, managing director of GFI Europe, describes these technologies. Despite the challenges, he does not allow them to dim his clear enthusiasm for these new ways of making meat, or for the better-established plant-based options.
Massive opportunities across the supply chain
There are massive opportunities here right across the supply chain, and a real chance to make significant sustainability improvements, he argues.
“Perhaps the biggest of the challenges facing us is climate change,” he says. “As things currently stand, animal agriculture accounts for some 20% of the world’s greenhouse gas (GHG) climate emissions. That’s roughly equivalent to the footprint of all the different forms of transport globally: ships and planes as well as road transport.”
Both cultivated and fermentation-made meat can create the same quality of protein, he says, including the same nutritional and organoleptic properties as meat, but simply without having an animal at the start of the process.
“In fact, it’s remarkable what kind of impact this can have,” Mayers explains. “A move to cultivated meat, for example, can bring with it a massive 92% cut in climate emissions. We’re really excited about this ability to give consumers exactly what they want, but by creating it outside the animal, rather than inside it.”
Similar impacts are possible in the area of precision fermentation – which can also be used to produce real egg or dairy proteins to deliver the flavour and texture of foods like cheese and milk. “The dairy sector accounts for some of the heaviest climate change impacts,” he says. “But with precision fermentation, yeast rather than cows can be used to create whey protein, for example, leading to a 97% cut in GHG emissions.”
Mayers talks about the different types of approach – cultivated, fermented, and plant-based – as the three ‘pillars’ of the alternative protein market.
“Each of these pillars has their own challenges,” he admits. “Cultivated meat, for instance, uses a technology that has never been scaled up before now. Here, ingredients companies can have a huge influence, and there are some major R&D opportunities, too.”
‘These products are on their way’
It is now 10 years since the first burger made from cultivated meat was presented to the US public. The price tag was a hefty $250,000, Mayers recalls. Today, in Singapore (where regulation has made commercialisation relatively easy) a skewer of cultivated chicken is priced at a more modest $16-20.
“These types of cultivated products are on their way,” he says. “They’re already on sale in the US. There’s now a clear path to market.” Pilot-scale operations are starting to move to a commercial level of production.
The opening of regulatory doors in the US and progress in other jurisdictions will be a prime focus for Mayers’ keynote presentation at the Future of Nutrition Summit. “In Europe, there have been applications for a process to regulate the sector in Switzerland and the UK,” he reports. “The same process is likely to start inside the EU.”
Plant-based is now ‘relatively established’
With the plant-based ‘pillar’, the challenges are different since this is a relatively established industry. In fact, he quotes Nielsen IQ figures across 13 European countries which show sales of plant-based meat products surging ahead, while meat itself falls away. Plant-based meat unit sales grew to €2 billion in 2022, compared with 2020 – a 21% increase. Over the same period, demand for conventional meat products fell by 8%.
This trend has been helped by important quality improvements, Mayers says. The use of technologies such as extrusion has produced plant-based steaks, for example, with the fibrous mouthfeel, the juiciness, and the marbling – as well as convincing flavour – of traditional red meat.
Mayers has a clear vision of where the meat alternative sector needs to be heading. “We want these alternative products to be as tasty or better, as affordable or more affordable than traditional meat,” he explains. “We want to shift the default, so consumers are buying these products because they’re affordable and convenient."