As the main story of a recent edition of Economist argues that avoiding mass hunger caused by the war in Ukraine is everyone’s business. More finished crops in the world must feed people, because the world can no longer afford the inefficiencies and risks of running crops through animals. Today, there are promising emerging technologies that could feed a growing world population while simultaneously tackling climate change, global health and food security: meat without the animal.
Plant-based alternatives to conventional meat, seafood, eggs and dairy, as well as cultured meat, have seen a significant increase in market traction in recent years. Plant-based meat has established itself as small but mighty in the meat aisle, accounting for 1.4% of U.S. retail meat sales in 2021, with sales growth of 74% since 2018. Meat cultured, identical to conventional meat at the cellular level, scaled from bench research to pilot production in just a few years.
Given that the production of food of animal origin is responsible for more than half of agriculture-related greenhouse gas emissions, or almost 20% of total global greenhouse gas emissions from man-made, modernizing meat production by separating it from the animal can help reduce emissions and limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius or less compared to pre-industrial levels. Conventional meat production is also a major pandemic risk factor and uses far more land and water than plant-based meat, further exposing already vulnerable communities to scarce resources.
As consumer interest in alternative proteins grows, driven in part by the global impacts of conventional meat, multinational food companies are investing, partnering, and acquiring startups behind these products. The six largest meat companies in the United States, including JBS, Tyson and Cargill, have all invested in alternative protein companies and/or launched their own product lines. Last year, JBS invested $100 million in acquiring a cultured meat company and establishing a cultured meat research and development center. While some believe that multinational participation can stifle transformation of the food system, my colleagues and I at the Good Food Institute believe that companies of all sizes, including incumbents, will be needed to accelerate the transition to conventional meat.
Investments in place can channel resources to and help develop alternative proteins. There are clear benefits to leveraging the considerable production, sales, marketing and distribution resources of large food companies. Who knows better than meat companies how to market to meat eaters? Today’s alternative proteins are taking a fresh approach by appealing to omnivores with products that mimic the taste, texture and sizzle of conventional meat. A multinational company’s influence on the industry can result in greater availability of products through distribution partnerships given their established relationships with shoppers in stores, making products more accessible and affordable for everyone.
Incumbents across all sectors are constantly evolving in the face of the global climate challenge and changing consumer needs. The shift of major oil and auto companies to renewable energy and electric vehicles has been gradual, and this is part of the criticism from the environmental community – clearly it would be better for climate outcomes to see these sectors shift to lesser practices. harmful with all haste due. Similarly, major food and meat companies should be commended for transitioning their protein portfolios away from conventional meat. This helps them achieve environmental, social and corporate governance goals ranging from protecting vulnerable communities to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Incumbent meat producers have already begun to refer to themselves as “protein companies”, indicating that they will supply protein in the form consumers want, which according to current trends will increasingly more in animal-free forms. These companies are leveraging new alternative protein technologies to position themselves for the future.
Bringing incumbents to the table will help alternative proteins grow rapidly, which is essential if the world is to meet international climate goals. Forecasts by agricultural economists indicate that global meat production and consumption will more than double by 2050. All countries need meat produced in a way that reduces emissions, improves global health, facilitates the recovery of ecosystems and ensuring food security. And so on.
Given the challenges of climate change and global food security, multinationals producing and selling alternative proteins are far better than multinationals using (all) their resources and market power for conventional meat production, which adds risks and vulnerability to an already unstable food system.
Alternative proteins are an important piece – but still a piece – of the food system transformation needed to sustainably and equitably feed 10 billion people by 2050. Other parts of the puzzle include regenerative farming practices, greater diversity cultures, transparent supply chains, fair labor practices and regional approaches to food system solutions and livelihoods, which can also be integrated into the practices and priorities of large food companies. As these companies seek to meet changing consumer demand, realize cost-of-goods savings, and meet their net zero commitments, their resources can be channeled to benefit consumers, workers, public health , animals and the environment, while maintaining their equity. line.
Even in the face of global issues, most people don’t choose to replace beef burgers with kale and chickpeas. But while cultured meat and plant-based alternatives to conventional meat taste the same or better, cost the same or less, and are as accessible as conventional, choosing these options still allows consumers to enjoy the foods that ‘they like. Change takes time, but it can be accelerated by making the sustainable choice the easy choice by default. This is exactly why people need delicious and affordable alternatives. Large food and meat companies, those with the most resources to move markets, can put their diverse assets to work transforming the food system. Let’s celebrate the increased access to alternative proteins, because these solutions will help with the transition.
There is no silver bullet to meet the challenge of building a sustainable, safe and just food system. Real change requires a big-tent approach, where everyone – entrepreneurs, farmers and large food conglomerates – work together to reduce agricultural emissions, improve public health outcomes and increase food system resilience. There is a place for everyone at the table.