What happened in 2016 to shape the future of protein?
Investors, regulators and innovators are rapidly changing the future of protein. Here are the major milestones of the last year.
At the start of 2016, in the shadow of the COP 21 agreement, the Protein Challenge 2040 — a cross-sector coalition convened by Forum for the Future — identified the main opportunities to create a more sustainable protein system, summarised in a report. We weren’t alone in recognising the urgency to change the way we eat, and the way we produce food — and we’re witnessing that change now. What’s happened in the last year to bring a sustainable protein system closer?
In September 2016, Farm Animal Investment Risk and Return (FAIRR) brought together investors representing funds worth $1.1 trillion to knock on the door of some of our largest food and retail companies — asking them to acknowledge the risks of animal agriculture and invest in developing plant-based protein sources, too. Producers and retailers targeted included Tyson, General Mills, Tesco, Heinz, Nestle, Kraft, Walmart and Unilever. The assets managed by FAIRR’s supporters has since grown to $2 trillion.
Plants can provide us with the protein we need, but can they match the flavour, texture and desirability of animal proteins? It’s a marketing challenge, more than a nutritional one. In 2016, we saw new products change the face of the market. Impossible Foods launched a plant-based burger ‘for people who love meat’, backed by investors such as Bill Gates. Then Beyond Meat placed its vegetable burger alongside the fresh cuts in Whole Foods’ meat counter. Plant-based milks proliferated, including one made from pea protein from Ripple which matches both the protein content and the texture of milk. Plant proteins were recognised as an opportunity by major animal protein players: for instance, Tyson foods invested in Beyond Meat, as part of a new fund to scale next generation plant proteins.
Governments are critical for sustaining the pace of change. We have seen influential governments make changes to their dietary guidelines, encouraging people to reduce animal protein. In China, government bodies announced the goal to cut today’s meat consumption by 50% by 2030, and the Netherlands revised their guidelines to increase consumption of plant-based proteins, and limiting the consumption of meat.
Hybrids: a new generation
Some signals emerged in 2016 suggesting a growth spurt in hybrid plant-animal protein products. These have been around for a long time: for instance, Lurpak’s blended spread — a hybrid butter made from cow’s milk and plant oils. For the second year, the James Beard Foundation partnered with the Mushroom Council in the US on the Blended Burger Project, challenging chefs to come up with burgers made of 25% mushroom content. Food service company Sodexo is rolling it out through school meals in the U.S. We are witnessing many food service companies looking at how to reduce the animal protein in dishes without impacting taste, nutrition or desirability.
A growing movement aims to keep flesh on our plates, without the impacts of livestock farming. Cellular agriculture grows flesh from animal cells in labs, to give ‘animal-free meat’. The first global Cellular Agriculture Conference was held in San Francisco this year, gathering innovators. The race is on. The start-up Memphis Meat launched its first meatball this year. Mosa Meat, founded out of pioneer Mark Post’s lab in Maastricht, says it is just 3–4 years away from commercial production. It’s not just going for the beef market, but shrimps and chicken too.
In 2016, we also saw new alliances founded to influence business and government. In February, the US-based non-profit, Good Food Institute launched, with the objective to support the development and promotion of alternatives to animal based protein. The World Research Institute (WRI) published a report in April, ‘Shifting Diets for a Sustainable Future’, highlighting the environmental impacts of animal based diets, and giving tools on how guide people to shifting to more sustainable diets. In Holland, the Green Protein Alliance was formed with the aim of increasing the consumption of plant protein focused in retail stores. The Plant Based Food Association started in the US, aiming to influence government, policy makers and consumers.
Change at scale won’t come from any single player, but from powerful and unusual collaborations with the ambition to tackle complex problems. This December, we held our inaugural Protein Challenge summit. This was the first international gathering on sustainable protein convening committed organisations and individuals, from increasing plant based protein, to new solutions for feeding animals. More business and organisations need to start shaping a sustainable future. Is 2017 the year it snowballs?
— By Marianne Fekene
This article was first published on the Futures Centre on 20 Dec 2016.