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Overview of the Alternative Protein Industry Development

The rapidly evolving alternative protein industry has made significant strides with sustained support from scientific, sustainability, and public and private sectors. As global consumer interest in plant-based proteins rises, retailers and manufacturers are actively launching new products, developing strategic partnerships, and establishing new production facilities to accelerate industrialization processes. Public sector involvement is also increasing, with governments worldwide increasingly investing in plant protein research and commercialization as a priority. On April 11, 2023, the Good Food Institute (GFI) released three reports on the alternative protein industry: the 2022 State of the Industry report for plant-based meat, seafood, eggs, and dairy; the 2022 State of the Industry report for cultivated meat and seafood; and the 2022 State of the Industry report for Fermentation Meat, Seafood, Eggs, and Dairy. The reports indicate that Europe leads in investments in plant-based proteins, with countries like Canada, Singapore, and others also making strides in technological layout in this field. There is also a call for governments worldwide to invest $1 billion annually in research and commercialization of alternative proteins to harness the full benefits of protein diversification.

Compared to traditional meat, cultivated meat is a more efficient form of meat production, reducing land use and decreasing air and water pollution. An article published in Nature in 2022 stated that by 2050, replacing 20% of the global per capita consumption of ruminant meat with protein derived from fermentation could offset the growth of global pastureland, reduce annual deforestation and associated CO2 emissions by about half, while also reducing methane emissions, and is more conducive to human health, economic and social development, and the sustainable development of the planet. These reasons are prompting more and more companies to enter the alternative protein field.

Investment Growth Promoting the Development of the Alternative Protein Industry
According to Euromonitor data, from 2017 to 2022, the global plant-based meat and seafood market grew from $2.8 billion to $6.1 billion, an increase of 118%, while the total value of plant-based milk, cheese, and yogurt in the global market reached $21.6 billion, a 7% increase from 2021. According to data from the Good Food Institute (GFI), several large food and meat companies, including Nestlé, Kraft Heinz, and Cargill, have been active investors, partners, and acquirers of alternative protein companies.

Companies in the alternative protein industry include cultivated meat companies, biomass fermentation companies, those extracting animal analogues from fungi, and companies using precision fermentation to produce animal-free proteins similar to those in dairy and eggs. Currently, the infrastructure for producing fermented alternative proteins is continuously expanding production scale, attracting widespread attention to this segment.

At the same time, the world’s largest food companies are leaning towards the alternative protein sector, with large traditional food companies beginning to make inroads in this field through investments, acquisitions, partnerships, or developing and producing products themselves, demonstrating the traditional food industry’s interest and confidence in alternative proteins. Meanwhile, new industry associations focused on alternative proteins began to form.

In 2022, hybrid solutions penetrated the alternative protein field. Hybrid products are combinations of cultivated meat and fat, plant-based, and/or fermentation-derived components, providing a faster route to market for new technologies. Hybrid products can increase the use of new ingredients while improving consumer taste and sensory experience. Adding plant-based proteins to cultivated meat can not only lower costs compared to full cultivated meat but also provide additional nutritional value such as fiber. Food producers are committed to producing hybrid plant-based, fermented, and cultivated meats to pursue products with taste and prices comparable to traditional meats.

Research Innovation and Infrastructure Driving Alternative Protein Development
The ecosystem of the alternative protein field continues to mature, with researchers publishing many articles on the production processes of alternative proteins, involving projects focused on cell lines, serum-free cell culture media development, and protein scaffold research.

Multiple studies indicate that plant-based meats are healthier than animal-based meats. Compared to animal-based meat products, plant-based meat products on the market typically have lower calorie and saturated fat content per pound, contain no cholesterol, and almost all contain fiber. For example, compared to organic animal meat consumption, plant-based meat can significantly lower body weight and LDL cholesterol, both major drivers of diet-related diseases. A randomized controlled trial found that replacing traditional meat with plant-based meat about five times a week increased participants’ average weekly fiber intake by approximately 19 grams and increased fiber metabolism pathways in the gut microbiota, which is considered crucial for regulating blood pressure, blood sugar, and metabolism, and unlike processed meats, alternative proteins do not use nitrites and nitrates as preservatives. Research on the health effects of plant-based meat replacing traditional meat products also demonstrates that athletes can maintain their standard athletic performance on plant-based and omnivorous diets.

Scientific research validates the benefits of alternative proteins, and alternative protein companies worldwide are actively establishing and expanding infrastructure, indicating a shift towards more sustainable and innovative protein sources. For example, in the cultivated meat field, GOOD Meat has built a new cultured meat facility in Singapore capable of producing up to 50 tons of cultivated meat per year; Believer Meats (formerly Future Meat Technologies) is constructing a 200,000-square-foot facility in North Carolina capable of producing at least 10,000 tons of cultivated meat per year. In the plant-based meat field, Siggi’s yogurt company is converting its dairy facility in Ontario into a dedicated plant-based production facility to meet demand for the company’s plant-based yogurt and milk.

Unprecedented Government Support for the Alternative Protein Industry
Governments worldwide increasingly recognize the importance and urgent need for developing alternative proteins, prioritizing the development of tastier, cheaper, and more easily scalable plant-based protein products, which provide solutions to the growing food security issues in various countries by utilizing existing resources to produce more protein-rich foods while diversifying food sources, reducing pollution and emissions, and creating higher-value markets for local farmers. Therefore, many countries have provided unprecedented investments in research and infrastructure support for alternative proteins, making them a priority for research and commercialization.

In 2022, the European Union supported two major research projects to develop plant-based products, including the €11.9 million (USD 12.3 million) investment in the LIKE-A-PRO project, which plans to develop 16 new alternative protein products from seven local protein sources to mainstream alternative proteins and promote sustainable and healthy diets; and the €13.1 million (USD 14.3 million) HealthFerm project, which will study the nutritional benefits of plant-based fermented foods.

The United States has also begun to show interest in the alternative protein industry, with the federal government conducting and funding research on plant-based proteins through the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Additionally, the Bold Goals released by the White House in March 2023 to strengthen the food system using biotechnology also proposed to focus on the development of the alternative protein industry. Protein Industries Canada is a supercluster composed of non-profit organizations, schools, and companies, continuously funding plant-based protein research and development projects in Canada, including investments in regulatory centers to promote evidence-based plant-based food regulatory policies.

Asian countries have also increased their support for plant innovation. Singapore has invested over SGD 114 million (USD 85.8 million) in alternative proteins over the years, providing long-term support for alternative protein research and industry. Several countries, including Israel and China, have made these new food choices a core of their food policies.

Finally, although the alternative protein industry is relatively new, industry forecasts follow a trend of rapid growth, with estimates of the total market size by 2040 ranging from $90 billion to $1.1 trillion. Almost every forecast indicates that improving product characteristics, taste, and price parity with traditional meats will drive adoption of alternative proteins. In the future, to compete with traditional meats, alternative proteins must reach taste and price parity with traditional meats and cover all traditional meat products for consumer choice and be easily accessible for purchase.

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