Imagine the scenario. A young man goes for a job and at the interview he is asked to make a prediction about the future. He claims that in 2050 the developed worldwould not be eating meat. He gets the job….and his prediction may not be that far from reality.
CIO, Coller Capital, Founder & Chair; Coller Foundation and FAIRR.org
The mounting environmental and social concerns weighing down on the animal protein sector are causing a seismic shift. The nightmare scenario which the young man could have laid out in his interview is that by 2050, if we allow business as usual in the animal agriculture sector, we will have a world where antibiotics are no longer effective. Where zoonotic pandemics are a regular occurrence. And where several degrees of global warming have flooded coastlines, exacerbated water scarcity and led to food shortages and malnutrition.
That is why the world’s biggest meat producers are investing heavily in more sustainable ways to meet global protein demand.
According to research from the Coller FAIRR Index one in three of the world’s 60 biggest meat, fish and dairy companies now have dedicated resource for plant-based replacements for meat products. Canadian firm Maple Leaf now calls itself a ‘protein company’ instead of a ‘meat company’ and has set a target to achieve $3 billion in plant protein sales by 2029 – more than its current animal protein sales. Even Tyson Foods has rebranded as a protein producer from a meat producer, actively championing the importance of sustainability.
The fourth agriculture revolution is underway in the world of protein production.
So what are the alternatives?
Silicon Valley start-ups are no longer obsessed with building digital apps, electric cars and fintech solutions. Today it is food that is flavour of the month, as for the first time since the green revolution 60 years ago - which created factory farming - ambitious entrepreneurs set about disrupting our agricultural system in the same way they’ve shaken up industries such as cars and consumer goods.
We are seeing the rise of alternative proteins in fourareas: Plant-based, ‘recombinant’ companies, ‘cultured’ and ‘single cell’ meat.
Plant-based meat replacements are the most visible part of this revolution with the likes of Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods well-known for offering plant-based burgers that taste like meat. This year, McDonalds will roll out its new McPlant menu across the world.
But plant-based innovation does not stop at burgers. From sausages to seafood, milk to mayonnaise, the plant-based market is expected to enjoy explosive growth and capture around 10% of the meat market within 15 years, according to the likes of Barclays and J.P. Morgan.
I also look at recombinant companies who are bio-fermenting protein, in similar ways that yeast might be processed in beer making. Why would you still brew milk in the breast of a cow when you can brew exactly the same milk in a brewery. Companies like Perfect Day are creating ice cream without using a cow and without using oat or almond milk; this company produces actual real milk in a brewery – no cows involved!
One of my favourite companies is Geltor. Not everyone is aware, but lipstick has pig’s gelatin in it. We all know the expression to put lipstick on a pig. When in fact, we have forever been putting pigs on our lips. No more. Geltor use cutting edge synthetic biology to bio-ferment collagen and are changing the market.
The third aspect of alternative proteins is ‘clean’ or ‘cultivated’ meat i.e. actual animal meat but which is produced by in vitro cell culture of animal cells in a laboratory, instead of from slaughtered animals. Memphis Meats is one of the leading companies in this space, growing actual cuts of meat without the animal.
And the final aspect of this area that I look at is ‘Single Cell’ which typically involves taking a small sample of usually non-animal cells such as mushrooms or algae and copying nature’s structures to create ingredients or whole products through biomimicry. A prime example of which would be 3FBio produces mycoprotein, best known as the key ingredient in Quorn, at a very competitive price in a zero-waste fermentation process.
And finally, there are enabling technologies that can be applied across all or some of these four pillars. Companies such as Redefine Meat who create 3D printed meat or Matrix Meats who create scaffolds on which cultured meat can grow more easily are two examples of companies helping drive real advancement in this space.
THE DEMAND SIDE
However, if we are to build a more sustainable global food system that acts within planetary environmental boundaries and protects public health then it cannot be achieved only on the supply side.
We also need policy-makers and civil society to play their part on the demand side – including encouraging a switch to more plant-based diets.
This is a view shared by the Inter Government Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN’s climate change body.The IPCC’s Special Report on Climate Change and Land in 2019 highlighted how a change in diet, from meat-heavy western diets towards more plant-based foods, could be the single biggest contribution the world could make to mitigating climate change (see Figure). The finding was shared by the Rise Foundation which said that Europe’s meat and dairy production needs to be cut in half by 2050 to meet global climate targets.
And governments have many policy tools at their disposal – from public procurement to education, industrial strategy, conditional giving and taxation – all to encourage such behaviour change.
In the run up to COP26 the UK, which is hosting the landmark climate summit, has said that it will consider carbon taxes that might increase the price of meat and cheese as part of its plans to fight emissions and hit net-zero carbon target.
The UK is not the first to consider a ‘meat tax’, with politicians in Denmark, Sweden and Germany also discussing it. This was an idea explored in detail by FAIRR’s Livestock Levy White Paper who viewed it not as a question of morality nor the environment but rather the investment risk and consequences to the corporates if a meat tax became a reality.
In recent years we have seen how megatrends such as climate and digitalisation have transformed the energy we use, the cars we drive and the shops we buy from. Now it looks like these mega trends are starting to radically change the way we consume protein.
An agricultural revolution is underway, whether we like it or not, history is on our side.
Maybe that young man’s prediction was not far off after all…