With the recent evolution of plant-based and cell-based meats, a new debate comes into play about the long-run market presence of these proteins. The countless options and protein variations are quickly spreading, and being that the technology to create them is ever-evolving, will they be able to have a similar long-term impact on the market as animal-based meats?
Meat production and consumption is still at the center of large debates. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, global meat production would probably reach 361 million tons in 2022, with 1.4% increase since the previous year, even if it is difficult and potentially misleading to make comparisons with 2020 and 2021 due to the effects of the Covid pandemic, which cannot be fully isolated. This year’s expansion is driven mainly by China, Brazil, Australia, and Vietnam, and only partly offset by largely anticipated declines in Europe, Canada and US, Iran, and Argentina.
Looking at the global meat trade, we can clearly highlight a significant decrease, as the 42 million tons for 2022 will represent the slowest growth in the last seven years. This decline could be interpreted as a significant shift towards more local production and consumption, with farm-to-fork strategies and consumer choices.
Considering both meat and fish, consumption is relatively stagnant in higher-income countries (such as the UK, US and countries in the EU), quite dynamic in middle-income countries (ex. China), and fairly constant in lower-income ones (ex. India). These patterns confirm the theory of the “inverted U-shaped” trend between meat consumption and income levels, meaning that past a certain income level meat consumption slows.
As our populations keep growing and some countries increase the demand, global meat consumption could potentially increase by 14% by 2030 (compared to the average from 2018 to 2020), even if the trends in some countries might compensate for the opposite ones in other countries. In this context, meat and fish consumption are under scrutiny because methods of large-scale animal husbandry are frequently linked to public health complications, sustainability and environmental issues (greenhouse gas emissions, land and soil degradation, and water use), as well as animal welfare concerns (including also the impact and effects of fertilizers, pesticides and hormones used for feed).
The alternative protein choice
Animal meat is frequently associated with high environmental impacts and sustainability issues. Many researchers strongly support the idea that by removing animals from the manufacturing process, several of the above-mentioned externalities (and especially the environmental issues) may be significantly alleviated. Therefore, many efforts (and money – more than 3 billion USD in 2020) have been invested in finding alternative sources of proteins, which are an essential macronutrient in the human diet (on average, a healthy person needs around 1 gram of protein every day for each kilo of body weight). In 2018, the European Commission presented a “EU Protein Plan”, which encourages the production of alternative proteins for human consumption.
Among many other possible alternatives explored and tested by researchers, four big categories could be interesting for the future of human nutrition. They are at quite advanced stages in research and development, even if they present very different levels of consumption and market presence. In all cases, they have the potential to play a significant role in the food for the future. These four significant categories of sources of proteins alternative to meat are:
- Plant-based meat (PBM)
- Cell-based (CBM) or in-vitro or lab-grown or cultured meat
Both plant-based meat and cell-based meat generate food from non-animal sources. Plant-based meat includes products made from plants (such as grains, legumes, and nuts), fungus (mushrooms), and algae, while cell-based meat is produced from muscle or fat cells cultures, rather than whole animals (such as cows, pigs, or chickens). Most traditional PBM (tofu, seitan, mushrooms, etc.) have existed for many centuries, while some novel products or CBM have been produced and commercialised only quite recently and still present some issues related mainly to taste, costs, and convenience.
The lock, stock, and barrel of alternative proteins?
Typically, PBM is produced by extracting target plant proteins from plants, mixing ingredients and nutrients to develop meat texture and to match the desired nutrient profile, and finally processed through to form a meat-like texture. As the primary sources of traditional plant-based food are grains, legumes, algae, and mushrooms, their cost has been quite low so far. PBM consumer acceptance is quite good, especially among its primary target of vegetarians and vegans, even if these products are frequently perceived as highly processed. Some questions have been raised recently about the existence of a real durable market for these PBM products, supported by the negative performance of big producers, such as Beyond Meat, whose stocks have lost 90% of their value since July 2021, and the failure of McPlant, the first plant-based burger offered by McDonald’s.
On the other hand, CBM technology is primarily based on advances in stem cell biology and tissue engineering, which largely benefit from research originally developed for medical purposes and applications. One of the main obstacles to the commercialisation of CBM is its economic feasibility, as its cost of production could easily reach a few hundred euros per kilo. In addition, the taste and the texture are still improving. Also some regulatory issues about the production, packaging, labeling, and marketing of CBM have not been solved yet (especially when CBM is intertwined with genetically modified (GM) cells). The consumer acceptance for CBM seems to be lower than PBM, even if CBM could be mainly targeted to people who are already eating meat.
The third category of protein-rich food is related to insects. This is another very promising field where many companies in the world are ready to launch mass products in US and EU markets. The two main issues related to the commercialisation of insects are regulatory aspects and the disgust associated with this type of product. Some insects have been authorised only recently for human consumption in the EU. It seems that the consumption of insect powder might mitigate the disgust, but not eliminate it.
Finally, fermentation is the use of microbes, microorganisms, and microbial hosts to produce specific ingredients. It is a relatively new activity, even if in 2021 over $1 billion has been invested in fermentation-powered protein alternatives.
While there is evidence about some benefits of both PBM and CBM compared to animal-based meat, a broader analysis and further research and investigation is needed in order to evaluate more comprehensively (and beyond the “emotional” aspects) all the impacts on both human health and the environment, in a systemic and complete approach.
Next step: understanding the consumer’s mind and the true impact of alternative proteins
Even if the future of all these alternatives to animal-based meat is still uncertain and needs much more investigation, a lot of new business opportunities and a huge space for research are still in front of us. More evidence must be collected about the profound sentiment of consumers and the broad sustainability impacts. Probably, many companies will start offering new hybrid products combining all three technological pillars of the alternative protein revolution (plant-based, cell-based, and fermentation-derived proteins).
As usual, in the end, only the consumer will be the final decision-maker. After the initial enthusiasm for the new technology, the curiosity, and the desire of many people for tasting insects for the first time. Will the results in the long term be associated with better quality, more sustainability, easier access to proteins for poor nations, lower price of end products, and, consequently, further adoptions? Definitely, we live in such interesting times!
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