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Scaling protein diversification: the tenacity of a sector facing challenges

Recent developments in innovation, policy and consumer behaviour are shaping the future of protein diversification. Here we review the ongoing challenges faced by the sector and explore the solutions that are being scaled for success.

22 Feb 2024
6 min reading time

Food production and consumption are ever evolving. From growing health consciousness, sustainability concerns, and technological developments, there are countless influencing factors that are re-shaping the way we produce and consume food. And one of the most impacted areas in our food system is protein.

Across Europe and the world, protein consumption continues to be at the forefront of food systems debate. Whether it be the need to reduce meat consumption, a push to increase the consumption of locally grown food, or the evolving politicisation of food security and production, protein diversification is a trend that is here to stay. Consumers are increasingly seeking out affordable options that not only provide essential nutrients but also align with their values regarding health and environment. But what are the challenges that agrifood stakeholders working in this space are faced with?

Policy and regulatory approval

Investing in protein diversification offers the highest greenhouse gas emission reduction per euro invested compared with any other industry, as outlined in the 2023 EIT Food Protein Diversification Think Tank Policy Brief (1), based on a Boston Consulting Group report (2). The Policy Brief also highlights that solutions such as cultivated meat - meat grown from animal cells - could reduce land use by more than 90% compared with conventional beef production (3). But cultivated meat, alongside other food solutions, is considered a novel food in Europe and must go through rigorous approval processes before making it to market, meaning progress has been slow.

However, with huge impact potential, food-tech startups across the world are racing to launch approved cultivated meat products to market to start gauging acceptance and profitability. In February 2024 for example UK-based startup Multus announced the opening of a world first media manufacturing facility to help cultivated meat companies cut costs and accelerate from lab to market, with capabilities of producing 500 tonnes of cultivated meat per year.

Aleph Farms also announced in January 2024 that it received regulatory approval in Israel to sell cultivated steak products for the first time. "This regulatory milestone, the first of its kind worldwide, reflects a comprehensive assessment of crucial factors, from toxicology and allergens to nutritional composition, microbiological safety, and chemical safety throughout the entire production process," said Ziva Hamama, Food Risk Management Department Director at the Health Ministry. This achievement for Aleph Farms has put them on the road to mass production, and they have announced plans to optimise their production and launch other alternatives to market including collagen-based food products.

Consumer acceptance

Consumer acceptance of ‘new’ food products is also a key challenge for the scaling of protein diversification. With concerns over taste, appearance, texture and cost, consumers can sometimes be hesitant to add something different to their shopping list.

Plant-based protein diversification, for example, has been gaining significant traction in recent years with EU leaders identifying that increasing EU production of plant-based proteins is key to improving the EU's food security and reducing food prices (4). It’s no secret that products such as plant-based burgers, sausages, and dairy substitutes have become more popular, but while plant-based options continue to gain acceptance, there remains a segment of the population hesitant to introduce these products into their diets. In fact, a recent study from the EIT Food Consumer Observatory found that over half (54%) of European consumers do not eat plant-based substitutes because they want to avoid ultra-processed foods (5) due to their perceived health and environmental concerns.

Education and communication are the key to this challenge. Resources for consumers such as the FutureLearn course 'Food and nutrition: the truth behind the headlines’ provide consumers with credible information to help them make more informed decisions about their food. This course for example seeks to equip consumers so that they can explore the hierarchy of scientific evidence around food and nutrition, understand bias, and discuss where to obtain information they can trust.

This also extends to the industry itself, with the ongoing development of underpinning skills crucial for food systems transformation. Optimising skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving and adaptability means we can create an industry that can create solutions using holistic thinking and shared learning. Courses for early-stage industry professionals are key to this development, such as the Master in Food Systems. Organised by leading academic institutions and industrial partners from across the EIT Food Partner network, this programme encourages students to drive a future transformation of the food system and increase the competitiveness of the companies they choose to work for. Hear more about what happens after graduation from programme participants such as Ilaria Abbà and Martina Celli.

Funding and investment

Funding and investment are also crucial when it comes to scaling diverse protein innovation. An idea is simply an idea without the necessary funds or support, and joining networks and coalitions means startups can meet with likeminded peers and stakeholders and, crucially, investors to help scale and develop their solutions.

At the EIT Food Venture Summit 2023, for example, 12 startups pitched in front of 300 agrifood professionals and investors for the EIT Food Mission Startup Award, each shortlisted for their positive impact on people and planet. From this shortlist, two startups working to diversify protein won a €5,000 prize, alongside an invitation to pitch on stage at the EVPA Impact Week and meet with impact investors. The two startups were:

  • Bosque Foods: creating the next generation of meat alternatives, starting with whole-cut products grown naturally from fungus-derived mycelium.
  • Pacifico Biolabs: developing seafood alternatives that are significantly healthier and lower cost than any other, whilst providing realistic taste and texture through a unique biomass fermentation process.

Startups developing innovative technologies are clearly becoming more attractive to investors, including UK-based cultivated meat startup Uncommon which received $30 million in Series A funding in 2023. But tailored support and guidance are required in order to help scale solutions. The EIT Food Impact Funding Framework seeks to do exactly that for alliances and collaborative programmes designed to:

  • Improve the impact of diet on obesity and non-communicable disease
  • Reduce food-system-related environmental harms
  • Deal with the threats posed by food integrity and complex supply chains.

But funding is just the beginning. Encouraging collaboration among investors and stakeholders must also be a piece of the puzzle. Nasekomo, for example, an insect biotechnology scale-up in Eastern Europe, recently commenced operations at their Insect Center of Excellence (NICE). Designed on the principles of vertical farms, this data-driven and automated platform seeks to scale the production of insect protein as a key protein alternative for petfood, animal feed and soil fertilisers.

Nasekomo has stated it hopes to introduce a “a new era in the bioconversion industry” and has opened the facility as a demonstration base for entrepreneurs, potential investors and partners to discover ways to collaborate on advancing the circular food economy together.

Embracing protein diversification

The recent developments in protein diversification reflect a growing awareness of the interconnectedness of our food choices with health, sustainability, and social equity. As we continue to innovate and explore new possibilities in this space, it's essential to consider the diverse needs and values of all agrifood stakeholders, including consumers and farmers, while striving for a more resilient and inclusive food system. Stakeholders such as farmers have a pivotal role to play in driving protein diversification. They will remain essential in providing the key ingredients for alternative proteins, serving as suppliers of raw materials for plant-based sources and feedstock for insect, fermentation, and cultivated proteins.

Beyond being part of dialogues and transition planning, all stakeholders should be awarded substantial support by governments in research, development, and de-risking investments. By embracing protein diversification fairly, we can pave the way for a healthier, more sustainable (and tastier!) future for generations to come.


References

  1. EIT Food Protein Diversification Think Tank: Accelerating Protein Diversification for Europe
  2. Boston Consulting Group: The Untapped Climate Opportunity in Alternative Proteins
  3. Tuomisto, H.L. (2022). Challenges of assessing the environmental sustainability of cellular agriculture. Nat Food 3, 801–803.
  4. European Parliament: EU Protein Strategy
  5. EIT Food Consumer Observatory: Consumers fear health risks of ultra-processed foods – but lack guidance needed to make healthy choices
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