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  • Sustainability
    • General Sustainability

The rise of alternative protein

  • Article

Companies at the frontline of food tech are finding innovative solutions to the world’s protein problem.

By the end of the century, the UN predicts global population numbers will have exceeded ten billion. While world hunger remains a momentous and unresolved problem for humanity, determining how we will feed a growing population in the years to come is now an urgent concern. Particularly when contemplating the drastic impact the climate crisis is set to have on arable land, global temperatures and energy resources.

Faced with an increasingly barren planet and the need to shrink carbon emissions, we must continue to adjust our diets accordingly. The livestock industry is no longer viable: we are facing a protein revolution.

What makes a protein alternative?

Sonalie Figueiras is a serial eco entrepreneur, and founder of Green Queen; a leading Hong-Kong-based media platform, aimed at advocating social and environmental change. Speaking at HSBC’s Drive 2022 event, Figueiras discussed the rise of the alternative protein industry.

“Alternative proteins are essentially a term that only really gained ground in the last three or four years. It's part of a broader explosion of what we could call ‘food tech’. It is based upon the idea that the way that we grow food today is broken; it has massive environmental, ethical, and health issues,” says Figueiras.

An umbrella term that encapsulates plant-based meat, seafood, and dairy, alternative proteins depend on processes like advanced fermentation, biomass and cellular agriculture. They often involve cutting-edge technologies, such as cultivating meat through stem cell lab processes.

With over 1,000 companies in this space, industry leaders such as TiNDLE Chicken and Impossible Foods are raising billions of dollars worth of funding.

The time is now

Why have we seen such an explosion of alternative protein companies in the last few years? The answer appears to be multi-faceted: the growing climate emergency, and increasing consumer awareness, has led to a fundamental shift in behaviour.

“The connection between industrial animal agriculture, in terms of our global carbon spend, is unignorable,” says Figueiras. “If we don’t reduce the carbon footprint of our diet, which means severely reducing beef and dairy, we are not going to meet the Paris Agreement Goals.”

As the population continues to grow, it is also becoming generally wealthier overall. Rising income correlates to an increase in protein demand. According to Figueiras, this is a direct result of the nutritional value of meat and explains why quality meat is given such prize status in many societies.

Other logistical factors have contributed to the industry boom; crucially, the ability to generate mainstream appeal, through the use of restaurant menus and easily optionable alternatives. Figueiras cites this as a game changer when it comes to mainstream consumption.

“Companies like Impossible Foods really pioneered the restaurant-first approach. It meant that the first time a consumer would connect with their product, would be from the hands of one of the world’s best chefs. Once there was an awareness, then we started seeing it on supermarket shelves,” says Figueiras.

Making food local

When it comes to creating sustainable, successful alternative protein solutions, it appears the thinking needs to remain local or regional. Geography is inescapably linked to protein consumption in general, alongside preferred taste palates and access to ingredients. The amount of animal protein consumed per capita is vastly different between continents.

“If every mainland Chinese citizen started to eat as much beef as the average American citizen eats, we would need six to seven planets,” says Figuieras. “If we're going to help consumers change their habits, we're going to need to localise the offerings, and really make sure that we're creating products and solutions that are geared to how people cook or eat in that particular country.”

Zooming in on Asia specifically, the region faces some of the most extreme climate threats in the very near future, something which is fuelling the growth of the alternative protein sector on the continent. Concerns around crop resilience and extreme weather are placing key crops, such as rice production, at risk.

“We need to be thinking about this holistically,” explains Figueiras. “One of the big issues with our global agricultural system is we depend on just five or six main crops for the majority of our food, when there are hundreds or thousands of localised plant species that we could be exploring.”

Investment landscape

Despite the big company proposition that is offered by the food industry, it seems for the most part, SMEs and grassroot start-ups are leading the way when it comes to alternative protein. How are these SMEs successfully generating investment and maintaining consistent high growth?

Venture capitalists are investing heavily into the alternative protein sector, driven in-part by the ESG mission of the industry. While alternative protein offerings are still at the very start of their journey, investment keeps flooding in; the potential for scale clearly recognised by many.

Food is never going to go out of style or trend. We will always need to feed people. Alternative protein follows a similar thesis to software – the founders are able harness a new technology and build IP around it, which could then make it extremely valuable, with a possible IPO or big acquisition down the road.

Sonalie Figueiras | Founder of Green Queen

Future thinking

Despite the prevalence of alternative protein companies and the popularity of plant-based eating, the industry (and the planet) still faces a number of challenges in the near future.

Supply chain issues have become a dominant difficulty, particularly since the COVID-19 pandemic. Considering the comparatively small size of a number of alternative protein brands, factory-sharing is rife, and manufacturing and supply blockages are already proving problematic.

Plus, more needs to be done in terms of government regulation and consumer education, according to Figueiras.

“Currently, global health and the environment seem to be quite separated out. I think we're going to see a conflation there of people realising that actually, their personal health, and environmental health is linked. And that's going to spur action and behaviour change and regulation change.”

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