Alternative Sources of Protein, Part 2: The Solutions

Climate change plays a central role in diminishing resources and agricultural outputs. In parallel, the demand for animal-based foods is undeniably on the rise (see Part I). The question, therefore, is how do we increase the limited supplies of animal-based proteins or their equivalents?

The Age of Alternative Proteins Has Begun

There are various approaches to making Alternative Proteins, but most fall into one of three categories: 

  1. Optimizing non-traditional protein sources
  2. Replacing animal-based with plant-based proteins 
  3. Reinventing protein factories. 

Below, we consider each approach and share our thoughts regarding the most promising opportunities:

Optimizing Non-traditional Protein Sources

Industrial animal agriculture requires a large amount of land, feed, and water. Despite the demanding resource requisite, only about 40-55% of a given livestock is considered edible. 

This is where many turn to insects as sources for Alternative Protein. Typically, eighty percent of insect bodies are edible. Insects require far less land, feed and water, making them seem like an effective high-yield solution. 

The challenge for large-scale market adoption comes from end consumers’ perceptions. Will people ever take pleasure from eating insects? Perhaps, but at least as of today, it seems rather niche. While insects hold great promise in terms of resource and yield efficiency, we see their highest value as feedstock ingredients, potentially in the aquaculture sector. 

Replacing Animal-based with Plant-based Proteins

Plant-based foods have been at the forefront of alternative-protein efforts. The idea is straightforward: instead of consuming animals, which need to be fed with feedstock (plants), we could jump straight to a plant-based diet. This reduces nitrogen and nutrient transfer loss, thereby addressing the wasteful nature of animal agriculture.

Plant-based diets have been around for quite some time. Only in the past five to seven years has interest grown beyond vegan and vegetarian consumers. Tofu burgers are nothing new, but this and other first-gen products were not intended to remind people of animal-based foods. 

By contrast, the current generation of plant-based products are intended to taste, and smell like their meat counterparts and to provide comparable nutrition. This approach opens up a broader market to “meat” eaters, who almost always prioritize the flavor, texture profile, and cost of meat, rather than be concerned about whether their proteins come from live animals.

Mimicking animal-based products takes more than developing a one-off recipe from a combination of well-known, high-protein plants. While there are already key players (and likely more to come) in the B2C plant-based products space, we believe there are still substantial opportunities in  B2B plant-based sectors. Examples are solutions involving biodiversity to maximize values from distinct plant sources; synthetic biology to produce unique molecules for flavor and/or texture enhancement; and scaffold and material sciences to replicate the mouthfeel of the animal-based meats.

Reinventing Protein Factories

As a society, we evolved from a hunter-gatherer into the industrial animal agriculture of today. The use of feedlot to mass-produce animal-based proteins certainly involves system intervention. So, why don’t we make another leap? Instead of growing animals to produce animal-based products, what if we scale down the production to a cellular level?

This approach has stirred up lots of excitement. It promises to eliminate energy and resources required to maintain non-edible parts of animals. Producing high-end exclusive products with no breed and environment restrictions would  revolutionize the animal agriculture industry.

Of course, there are caveats. The concept of producing meat from cells relies on fundamental knowledge of stem cells, regenerative medicine, and bioprocess technology. Only that the specifics of making large-scale, food-grade, structurally-relevant and cost-effective “meat” is several steps away from today’s technological progress. Advances in (1) scale-up of mammalian cell production, (2) creation of tissue/organ-level 3D structures, and (3) decrease in manufacturing costs are key areas crucial to the feasibility of cell-based protein approach.

The Takeaway

As we make clear in our post titled Invest in “Product-Ready” Technologies, Not Moonshots, Creative Ventures is not in the business of predicting the future – when or whether certain breakthroughs in technology will occur. When it comes to alternative proteins, we’re excited to partner with companies addressing B2B opportunities in making the plant-based proteins unique using proprietary ingredients, processes, formulas, and enabling technologies within existing markets.

Our climate is changing, and many of us will witness the drastic impacts within our lifetimes. When it comes to something as crucial to our survival as food production, we must take action and adapt. Emerging technologies will play a key part in carrying us through.

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