Is Alternative Protein Losing Its Sizzle?
By Varun Deshpande 20 July, 2022
Some market watchers say appetite for alt-protein has peaked. How can this be? Deshpande, Founder of Good Food Institute, talks with us about its future
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As the founder and managing director of Good Food Institute (GFI), Varun Deshpande aims to build the smart protein sector from the ground up across science, business, and policy. He believes that nourishing 10 billion people by 2050, requires to stave off climate change, food insecurity, and public health risks like pandemics…and plant-based, cultivated, and fermentation-derived meat, egg, and dairy products that taste the same or better and cost the same or less than their animal-sources counterparts was the best way to do so.
In response to Varun’s insightful talk on “The Future of Food: Seeking Sustainable Solutions” , we sat down with him to find out more about how his organization aims to revolutionize our food systems by modernizing meat production.
CWR: Firstly, thank you for the insightful talk on the panel discussion of “The Future of Food: Seeking Sustainable Solutions” on April 13th about revolutionizing our food systems. It is an innovative and exciting field to be a part of, why and how did you first get involved?
Varun Deshpande (VH): Food systems, and particularly our protein supply, intersect with so many of the challenges that impact our lives and our future on this planet – climate change, biodiversity and species loss, food security, antimicrobial resistance, pandemic risk from zoonotic disease – the list goes on and on. I spent my early career in the healthcare, technology, and international development world, particularly interested in thinking through how we could solve the most pressing problems facing humanity and the planet.
Food systems – esp protein supply, intersect with many challenges that impact our lives & future of this planet
Naturally, beyond global health and global poverty, climate change was a major concern – as it is for so many today. I learned about the alternative protein sector while investigating these questions, seeing the work that the Good Food Institute US and companies like Beyond Meat and Omnipork were pioneering back in 2016.
With the mission to modernize and upgrade meat production intersecting with so many of these major challenges, it was a no-brainer to join the GFI global network, first in establishing a GFI India organization.
CWR: As the managing director of Good Food Institute (GFI), can you tell us a little about GFI and its aims to modernize meat production?
VH: Having served as founder and Managing Director at the Good Food Institute India for nearly 5 years, I’ve seen the power of a theory of change that offers alternatives to consumers, producers, and governments to invest in a more secure, sustainable, and just protein supply. Experts have identified for decades that industrial animal agriculture represents major challenges to human and planetary health stewardship, and is susceptible to huge economic risks brought about by issues such as zoonotic disease.
We across the Good Food Institute network and in the broader alt protein sector realize that asking people to make a switch from eating pork to peas simply has not worked. Our focus is instead to advance science, industry, and governmental support so that foods made from plant-based, fermentation-derived, and cultivated (cell-cultured) sources can offer the same delicious, crave-able meat, egg, and dairy experience, without a sacrifice.
Advancing science, industry & gov support will produce the same crave-able but climate friendly meat experience…
And of course, these foods have only a tiny fraction of the land, water, greenhouse gas, and effluents impacts, and virtually eliminate the risk of antimicrobial resistance and zoonotic pandemics. The GFI network works in partnership with a wide spectrum of stakeholders to make this possible, including startups, investors, and large food/agri/biotech corporations, universities and scientific leaders, and government agencies.
Our collaborative approach has helped build the alt protein industry from the ground up, and we still have a long way to go.
CWR: Alternative proteins have been grabbing headlines but now some market watchers are beginning to say that the appetite for plant-based meat has already peaked and investors are no longer interested. Is this the case? Why do you think the sector is losing its steam even though its products are becoming more innovative to meet consumer demands and is vital to our future climate?
VH: Ultimately, consumers will make a switch based on three simple factors – taste, price, and convenience/accessibility. Other factors like health, sustainability, and animal welfare also come into consideration, but the ability to make a sustained switch from the meat, egg, and dairy foods that people know and love rests almost entirely on making products that taste the same or better and cost the same or less.
…but there’s still some way to go…
…a sustained switch rests on making products that taste the same or better & cost the same or less
While the initial launches of plant-based meats generated a lot of excitement and hype, with several companies’ having portfolios of products that come much closer to the sensory and cultural resonance of animal meat than the traditional mock meats, there is still some way to go. Further development of the sector will involve fundamental investments in R&D, value chain development and agricultural integration, regulatory path to market, talent development, and other areas that are critical to building an entirely new sector with majorly positive impacts for our planet.
CWR: Does the different type of alternative protein make a difference when it comes to growth potential – out of plant-based meat, cultivated meat and fermented?
VH: We believe a portfolio approach to technology and market development is warranted in alt proteins, just as it is in similar industries such as renewable energy. Each of these categories has major growth potential, though the timeline for each may be different. As an example, plant-based meats could be made vastly more tasty through the involvement of crop research, creating next-generation ingredients that lead to juicier, tastier, and cleaner-label products.
Potential lies in all alt protein – conscious consumption & a new pillar to our global green economy
Cultivated meat and fermentation-derived proteins are currently more expensive to produce and still require research on scale-up, cost reduction, and regulatory paths to market. But a thriving market offering choices that enable conscious consumption and build a new pillar of our global green economy will likely require the development of all categories of alt protein.
CWR: In the webinar you briefly discussed the potential of merging the alternative protein and regenerative agriculture sectors to shift our food system towards more sustainable production methods. How will this revolutionize our food industry? What needs to happen for this merging?
VH: Re-imaging protein is one of the most transformative movements within the global agri-food landscape, and sits alongside other important developments including the advancement of regenerative, nature-positive agriculture. There are complementary approaches that could blend these approaches for the benefit of people and planet – the most important of which is that alternative protein, by virtue of being vastly more efficient, will free up huge amounts of agriculture and pasture land.
Merging both sectors could free up huge amounts of agriculture & pasture
Without the pressures of using nearly 80% of all agricultural land for livestock, we could kickstart regenerative farming, reforestation or afforestation, carbon capture, or any number of other positive interventions that aid in planetary stewardship.
Additionally, several of the crops or inputs needed for plant-based meat or fermentation-derived proteins lend themselves well to a blended agricultural approach – a circular system of utilizing agri waste or sugars as feed for (fermentation-derived) fungi/mycoprotein production, for instance, or rotation cropping to grow mung beans for use in plant-based meat and eggs.
CWR: Going forward how do you think we can better commercialize or redevelop alternative protein to regain its hype from investors and consumers?
VH: I firmly believe that the best days of alternative protein are overwhelmingly ahead of us.
Opportunities lie in parity of industries to build a socially just & more resilient planet
What we have now is a very promising proof of concept that consumers are demanding to have their meat without sacrificing taste, and their planet too – but to truly make this a reality and achieve parity with industries such as renewable energy and electric vehicles, we need industry, science, and policy to come together in a coordination mission for a smarter protein supply. The opportunity to create millions of jobs, bolster farmer welfare, target malnutrition, and build a safer, more resilient planet is truly immense.
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