Alternative Proteins: Breaking Down Our Food to Address Inequities, Hunger, and Climate Change
Throughout human history, plants have been selectively grown to fulfill different uses as effectively as possible
In December 2020, in the middle of a global pandemic, the world population surpassed 7.8 billion people. And it’s projected to grow to 9.9 billion by 2050. Feeding close to eight billion people is no easy task and it's one that we are currently failing at. According to The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2020 report, 690 million people consistently go without food and that is predicted to increase to over 840 million by 2030.
The environmental impact of animal product creation and consumption is also daunting. Food production and distribution are responsible for 26% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Of that 26%, more than a third comes from emissions from manure and pasture management, fuel use from fisheries, and methane from cattle digestion. Agricultural eutrophication which is the pollution of the ocean and freshwater by nutrient-rich pollutants is responsible for 78% of the global pollution. Half of the livable land on Earth is already used for agriculture. Global demand for meat is expected to increase by more than 70% between 2011 and 2050. With our expanding world population and expanding demand for meat, there will not be enough livable land to accommodate both. We are racing towards a dangerous food security crossroad: there is not enough arable land in the world for us to accommodate this increase in demand for meat-based on how we produce it.
Current animal product consumption habits are not working both for animals and humans. Animals are frequently subjected to extreme confinement over the course of their life-which leads to extreme emotional trauma-and inhumane slaughter. Humans are also at risk from these circumstances. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), tens of millions of Americans get sick every year from eating contaminated animal meat, and thousands die. In addition, about 80% of antibiotics produced in the United States are given to farm animals. This steady stream of antibiotics contributes to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that cannot be killed by our readily available, standard antibiotics.
So how do we address a broken meat production cycle, a growing world population, worsening hunger realities, and the environmental impact of the status quo?
By breaking down our food to the molecular level and starting with innovation there. The Good Food Institute (GFI) is an international nonprofit focused on accelerating the world’s food systems toward cultivated meat and plant-based alternatives for meat, dairy, and eggs. GFI’s Science and Technology (SciTech) Department works to provide a rigorous foundation for advancing the fundamental scientific breakthroughs that enable alternative proteins to succeed. They analyze the industry to:
- Identify key knowledge gaps
- Allocate grant funding toward the highest-impact research projects
- Cultivate an engaged community of scientists to forge collaborations and bolster the technical talent pipeline
GFI is charting a roadmap to overcome pre-competitive technical challenges through open-access research and accelerate the rate of progress across the alternative protein industry.
GFI supports a shift in human thinking about the world around us, from the primary question being “what?” to “why?” Instead of focusing on what we are eating, they want to consider why we eat what we eat. Our affinity for meat has evolutionary, historical, and cultural roots. However, when we tap into the why behind the what, we learn that meat contains the nutrients and macromolecules (carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, and nucleic acids) necessary to support the evolutionary development of the human brain. These macromolecules are the why and humans have the ability to change the what through innovations that simultaneously address the flaws in the status quo.
Throughout human history, plants have been selectively grown to fulfill different uses as effectively as possible.
Plants like corn and cotton went through centuries of guided change before they became the crops we recognize today. Plant-based meat is a new kind of food, and it’s therefore a new application for the crops we grow. There is huge potential to optimize the plants we’re familiar with to become excellent ingredients for plant-based meat. Could potatoes be bred to have more protein? Will different growing environments be better for plants intended to be meat than for plants intended to be eaten directly? Have we even identified all the parameters that we could change in a given crop? The possibilities here are endless.
By 2035, the global plant-based meat market is projected to be worth somewhere between $100 billion and $370 billion. It is important to keep in mind that what’s nutritious for an individual can vary but there are a number of rules of thumb by which we deem some foods more nutritious than others. We are constantly discovering more about how to make foods more healthy.
Relatively recently — only about a hundred years ago — we learned how to improve the nutritional profile of staple grains through fortification, thereby vastly decreasing the prevalence of certain micronutrient deficiencies in almost every part of the world.
We have every reason to believe that through the development of alternative proteins, we can make meat healthier, too. Working on crops with this end-use in mind could make plant-based meat products tastier and cheaper — and therefore more widely adopted.
But we don’t have to forego meat for plant-based alternatives. We can still eat meat that comes from animals by simply applying human creativity earlier on in the process. The first cultivated meat prototype debuted in 2013. The foundational raw material in cultivated meat is the stem cell. Cells can be acquired from an animal by means of a painless biopsy, at which point they are isolated and put in an environment where they proliferate through cell division until there are enough of them to start triggering their transition from stem cell to specialized cell (muscle cell, blood cell, etc).
While cultivated meat science has evolved in the past six years, more focus has been on optimizing and scaling up cell proliferation than cell differentiation. The field needs to develop robust, scalable processes for muscle and fat cell differentiation in an animal cell culture production environment. Most cultivated meat products to date have not had a complex structure. Early-stage companies have made ground beef into hamburgers, or unstructured shrimp into dumplings. But the question nearly everyone is grappling with is how to make a complex cut of meat like a T-bone steak or a bluefin tuna fillet. There is also the potential to make cultivated meat more nutritionally advantageous. Much of the work to make plant-based and cultivated meat healthier than conventional meat will be done by food scientists, engineers, and chemists, and they will need to be in consistent communication with nutritionists and dieticians who have cutting-edge knowledge about what makes food truly healthy for most people. Solving nutrition challenges in food production must be an interdisciplinary undertaking if we’re going to be successful.
GFI is working to increase food science literacy and address consumer concerns about new food technology while also promoting the ethical case for plant-based and cultivated meat.
GFI works to support every step of the alternative protein value chain.
- They have an Advancing Solutions for Alternative Proteins database which was built based on interviews with 100+ experts in the field. In this collaboration, GFI identified the most pressing risks and challenges facing the industry as well as high-impact solutions to address those risks and challenges, across plant-based, cultivated, and fermentation-derived production platforms for meat, egg, and dairy products.
- GFI provides detailed resources for entrepreneurs, scientists, and students to increase innovation in the cultivated meat and alternative protein space. They also curate information about research grants on their website to support founders and researchers.
- There is also a fantastic blog post by GFI Senior Scientist Elliot Swartz that discusses the four critical, interconnected technology areas where scientists can make a huge impact and help meet the needs of the cultivated meat industry: cell line development, cell culture medium, bioreactors, and bioprocessing, and scaffolding biomaterials.
- GFI is also working to catalyze the development and commercialization of plant-based and cell-based seafood to increase sustainability and improve the health of our oceans.
Meat isn’t an immutable, optimized food source. Rather it is the confluence of events that results in animal muscle tissue of certain species appealing to our taste buds when prepared in certain ways…The building blocks of biology are universal across all organisms: fatty acids, polysaccharides, amino acids and metabolites. The difference lies in the details: how they are arranged and the minute concentrations of subsets of molecules that serve as relatively unique fingerprints of a certain tissue type or class of organisms. As a result, repositioning meat as simply one structural arrangement and formulation of these components allows us to reimagine the raw materials for making meat from a systems-level biochemical perspective.
— Liz Specht, Director of the Good Food Institute
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