A new report from the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems criticizes the growing trend of alternative proteins. Promising a more sustainable and humane food system, this “alternative protein” sector, which includes mass-marketed plant-based foods, cell-cultured meats and precision fermentation products, has been inundated with dollars of investment and hype. And while such well-capitalized merchandising warrants serious consumer attention on store shelves, researchers continue to question its merits.
Protein politics argues that the evidence for the positive impacts of alternative proteins is limited and even speculative, mostly funded by the companies themselves. The report also comprehensively addresses the major claims of the alternative protein industry, who benefits from these claims and who is excluded from the discussions. The study’s lead author, Phil Howard, is an IPES fellow, professor at Michigan State University, and a longtime scholar of food systems ownership and governance.
According to Professor Howard, “This report addresses claims that are frequently made and often over-amplified/simplified in relation to high-protein foods, such as meat, dairy products and their plant-based alternatives. One of our recommendations is to take the debate back to the mainstream meat and dairy processors, and have broader conversations that involve communities that have little voice in policy discussions today.
The alternative protein market is expected to reach $28 billion by 2025, with entrepreneurs marketing analogues of dairy, eggs, chicken, beef and more. Plant-based meat analogues, for example, hit sales of $1.4 billion in 2021, up 74% over the past 3 years. This hyperbolic growth has drawn in tons of cash from investors, despite a recent slowdown and concerns about market saturation.
Alternative proteins received more than $4.8 billion in investment in 2021, led by big names such as Impossible Foods, which closed a $500 million round, and precision fermented dairy leader Perfect. Day, which has raised over $700 million to date. Other staggering capital raises include Just Eggs at $465 million, Future Meat at $387 million, Every (egg white analogues) at $239 million and Upside Foods at $206 million.
Big 4 Meat processors have joined the alternative protein feeding frenzy, despite their business models based on slaughtering billions of animals each year. JBS, Tyson, WH Group and Cargill have all made significant investments in the space, including brand/product acquisitions and product development pipelines. This also applies to CPG oligopolies such as Nestlé and Unilever, which already own vast swathes of grocery store shelf space, making the alternative protein sector ripe for turnkey consolidation of ownership. David Welch, co-founder of Synthesis Capital, a food technology venture capital fund, is one of the proponents of this concentration of ownership, telling AgFunder News: “Overall, I think it’s a positive trend as they have the scale, supply chain and access to the end consumer, which will accelerate the transition to a more sustainable protein supply.
But why all the hype about protein? Meat and dairy production takes up almost 80% of the world’s agricultural land and accounts for up to 30% of greenhouse gas emissions. The meat and dairy sectors are major sources of pathogen outbreaks and are associated with worker abuse and exploitation, including an incredible number of Covid-19 worker illnesses and deaths in the United States. Annual global meat and poultry sales exceeded $867 billion in 2021, dairy over $827 billion, and seafood over $221 billion. The race is on for entrepreneurs, funders and patent holders of alternative proteins to carve out and own a piece of this lucrative market.
But the global protein economy is not the same. Global North meat comes mostly from factory farms with a smaller organic and regenerative sector for more affluent consumers. On the other hand, livestock production in the Global South/majority contributes to the livelihoods of over 1.7 billion smallholder farmers and acts as an important buffer against the shocks of the food crisis. Livestock represents 40 to 50% of global agricultural GDP. Fisheries and aquaculture also provide livelihoods for 60 million people worldwide and more than 3 billion people worldwide depend on fish as their main source of protein.
In terms of sustainability benchmarks, alternative proteins deserve a closer look. Many use energy/resource-intensive ultra-processing, as well as sub-ingredients or raw materials that are produced by environmentally destructive and chemical-dependent monocultures that are already found in 75% or more of processed foods. This includes GMO corn and soy engineered to withstand high doses of glyphosate or grown with Bt pesticides in their genes, or palm oil that is driving deforestation, rural displacement and destruction of critical habitats. The high energy requirements of cell-grown meats mean that any longer-term potential for reducing greenhouse gas emissions depends on the decarbonization of fossil fuel-based energy grids, an unlikely scenario without major socio-political upheaval in the North. . According to Chuck Templeton of the S2G Investor Group, another trillion dollars of infrastructure would be needed to scale alternative proteins to projected demand. And a rapid scale-up of alternative proteins could disrupt and displace the livelihoods of millions of people around the world who work in food and agriculture. There is little appetite or funding for a just transition for food workers in the venture capital-driven world of protein alternatives.
And while the race to disrupt animal protein globally is usually positioned as an environmental or animal rights concern, it’s also about market share and intellectual property. For example, Impossible Burger filed 14 patents for its formulations, including “Methods for Extraction and Purification of Undenatured Proteins” and “Expression Constructs and Genetic Engineering Methods of Methylotrophic Yeast”, making it essentially the first-ever software burger. Impossible even sued a competitor for patent infringement.
And because of these intellectual property protections and patents, risk disclosures of alternative proteins are rarely made public. Public SEC filings for Ginkgo BioWorks indicate serious considerations to human health and the environment, that the company “cannot eliminate the risk of (a) accidental or intentional injury or (b) release or contamination from such materials or wastes”. While major investors may be aware of this information, the alternative protein hype rarely communicates the risks to consumers and the general public.
Nor does alternative protein necessarily herald a transition to more diverse diets and less ultra-processed foods. Gargantuan investments in alternative proteins divert resources from the desperately needed regionalization of food production and processing and eclipse diverse agroecological and indigenous food systems. Even the IPCC recently recognized the potential of agroecology to mitigate climate change.
Capital’s focus on alternative proteins emphasizes magical disruption or competing priorities of transparency and secrecy to drive innovation and capture market share. This underpins what Vandana Shiva calls “mind monocultures,” silver bullets and breakthrough technologies that privilege the loudest, most brash, and richest voices in the food system. According to the authors of the IPES report, what is needed is a systemic transition, not just a protein transition, and they outline 3 significant reform pathways to achieve this. They believe the food system needs an influx of democracy and participation, not high-risk venture capital.
Neither the smallholders of the Majority World/Global South, nor the food distribution, processing and agricultural workers of the Global North are at the alt-protein table. That should be a red flag. Likewise, not all of the major vegan and plant-based food advocates buy into the alternative protein hype. And there are distinct perspectives and business models in the plant-based food industry beyond the “alt-protein” label. Beyond Meat has built huge non-GMO crop rotation supply chains, while the Impossible Burger founder defends GMO ingredients but refers to crop protein as “vaporware.” And many scrappy, independent plant-based food brands, including Miyoko’s Creamery, Cool Beans, and Upton’s Naturals, are moving beyond isolated protein to sustainably sourced whole food ingredients.
“We hope this report broadens the conversations around protein-rich foods and steers discussions away from an overemphasis on protein,” Phil Howard told AFN. “Many of these claims are made in a way that favors technological solutions. These approaches will only reinforce current problems, without addressing the political and economic factors that created them in the first place.
What if instead of investing $4.8 billion a year in questionable ultra-processed protein technofixes, there was a concerted political effort to ensure that healthy, diverse and sustainable diets are accessible to all, while attacking the wealth and power concentrated in the food industry? That would indeed be a larger conversation.