By Gene Lin
As the world approaches its full capacity for agricultural meat production, protein substitutes are slowly gaining traction as the food industry searches for a way to feed the world in a sustainable way.
Juggling between major issues such as climate change, land overuse, food security, and animal welfare, the protein substitute industry is attracting numerous startups to invent their way out of the world’s protein crisis.
After the initial success of Impossible Burger, many entrepreneurs subsequently jumped on the bandwagon. Yet, it remains to be seen whether any company is able to produce a protein-substitute that is both scalable and affordable.
What will the future of food look like when alternative protein becomes mainstream? We speak to five experts in the field to find out:
Carrie Chan, CEO of Avant Meats
“When it comes to meat [industry today], we raise the animals and slaughter them at a certain age. However, a lot of energy and natural resources are lost in that process since animals need to keep themselves warm and run about. It is highly inefficient and, with the expansion of the global population, [this model] is unsustainable given the planet’s natural resources.
Our position is very clear: We are focused on the China market and customer preferences here. In Asia, we see that [customer interest in cultivated meat] comes from a combination of anti-animal cruelty, food safety and food security concerns. There had been so many food scandals in the past decade, especially in China. In the case of fish, we don’t know where the fish had been living, we don’t know whether they are clean or not, let alone whether the meats are real or fake. There is a big motivation in China to look for an alternative option that can offer peace of mind.
2020 is definitely the year for plant-based [meat]. In the case of cell-cultivated meat, we cannot go to market yet because we don’t have the legislation to regulate this new method of making meat. When we talk about alternative protein, it is mainly plant-based meat or insect protein right now. Since COVID-19, people are having a stronger awareness of animals in crowded condition or wet market, which has wide implication for public health. So I think the market’s direction is trending towards alternative protein.
Today, fish need to be caught from the sea or raised in a fish farm, kept in cold storage, and shipped around the world. I can imagine, in the future, places that are not close to the sea can still enjoy fish and seafood as long as they have electricity and our technology. We do not have to centralise all the production, each of our household can have a machine that produces fish meat. I don’t know how feasible that is in terms of space for Hong Kong or other regions, but it will be decentralised.”
Dr Tanja Sobko, Professor at School of Biological Sciences, The University of Hong Kong
“The driving force behind [protein substitute sector] is the increasing health consciousness among consumers. That is across the globe, not just in a particular part of the world.
We can talk for hours about meat’s impact on the environment: the growth, the water, the supply-chain, all of them have a dramatic negative impact. But consumers are still not changing in terms of their behaviour. I’ve seen so many people talk about how bad it is at conferences and then they will all go have a nice steak together for dinner. But when we offer them an equally good alternative in terms of taste and texture, that is the game-changer.
It is difficult to create protein substitutes from a scientific standpoint. If it wasn’t difficult, it would have been developed a long time ago. The issue lies in the taste and texture. There had been meat substitutes such as soybean and tofu, but that never really changed anything. People want the texture and that is a little more difficult. The texture should breath like the Impossible Burger, and it should have that particular smell when you fry it, etc.
For example, fibre tissues such as myosin – which exists in muscles – produces the chewy texture that is very difficult to find in non-meat protein, because it has a long thread-like structure that behaves in a special way when you cook them. But again, it’s a matter of technology which is becoming better. Think of it like pixel, when it becomes more detailed, the quality will be better. I believe it is just a matter of time before it will be resolved.
[Traditional] meat will still be there, it will be very expensive because of the supply chain and how it’s handled. So it will still be there but normal people will not be able to afford it. We will not be able to feed the world with [traditional] meat and we will need to feed it with meat substitutes. I think [alternative meat] will become much more mainstream and accepted.”
Leo Wein, CEO of Protenga
“Industry players are working hard to meet the high demand for insect protein. The animal feed industry has recognised the need for their feed to be sustainable since evidence has shown that insect protein is nutritionally beneficial for livestock and aquaculture.
Our beneficiaries are animals or livestock and not human. In that sense, we are more focused on making [traditional] meat socially and economically sound by raising its quality while simultaneously reducing its supply. Society must be conscious of the food that their pets and livestock consume, as it contributes to the global environmental footprint. It is important to scrutinise the sustainability of the whole supply chain: a diet based off protein substitutes that consist primarily of highly-processed corn, soy and pea proteins should raise questions in itself.
For the insect industry, the main challenges are in regulatory and biological know-how. As it is a novel animal protein, countries are defining policies surrounding the new feed, and researchers are still finding out how to increase the production of the insects.
Meat alternatives will be a common sight in supermarkets and more restaurants will be offering meat substitutes as more consumers demand the choice, including edible insect products as well as traditional meat products that are more sustainably and healthily produced, for example, using environmentally sustainable feed from insects and better animal husbandry practices.”
Dr Jetty Lee, Professor at School of Biological Sciences, The University of Hong Kong
“The economics [of meat substitutes] is obvious. Plant-based meat substitute is cheaper than red meat and produces less food waste. In general, we eat too much meat. Our daily requirement is a small amount, where a modest amount of fish, meat and dairy foods with a plant-based diet is sufficient.
This means we need to consume more fruits, vegetables, legumes, and nuts, and reduce red meat intake by roughly half of the current amount. To achieve this, it is necessary for the society to have healthy foods more available, accessible and affordable in place of unhealthier alternatives.
In my opinion, meat substitutes are not difficult to create. The biggest challenges are to produce the texture, flavour and taste close to the real meat with limited use of chemical additives. Plant-based ingredients are generally high in fibre and complex matrices that make them more difficult to form into meat texture, which is soft, juicy and rich in flavour because of the fat.
I do not think [protein substitute] would become mainstream, despite that there will be less meat consumption. From a nutritional point of view, meat is still the best source of essential protein. In terms of food culture, we might see more restaurants and suppliers include meat substitute dishes, or at least create more plant-based dishes.”
“With [COVID-19] wreaking havoc and fully exposing the inhumane, inefficient and unsustainable aspects of the livestock industry, the world is finally realising the importance of meat substitutes. With the outbreaks of African swine fever, avian flu and shrimp virus happening simultaneously around the world, it is apparent that 2020 is a mega tipping point year for the plant-based industry.
Today, we are seeing the price of meat substitutes coming down compared to previous years. As with all sectors, the economy of scale plays a big role in making any product scalable and affordable.
Change is not an option, but a must. With the world population quickly approaching almost 10 billion, with climate change situation fully deteriorating, with pandemics and viruses causing disruptions, we are seeing massive global awakening. Millennials and Gen Z are already turning plant-based in a big way, and I see no reason why alternative protein won’t be 10 to 20 per cent of the meat industry in the foreseeable future, just like the level of adoption that alternative dairy has already reached.
[Protein substitute] would look greener, healthier, more humane but equally tasty and satisfying. It should be a win-win-win among people, animals and planet.”
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