Why I'm excited about Alternative Protein

  • By Emily Ward
  • Published on August 13, 2023

Alternative protein is a new, sometimes weird, almost ethereal type of food production. Here are a few reasons I’m excited about it.

-- Emily Ward, Partner, Alt Protein Careers

Climate Impact

Animal proteins as a whole are directly linked to up to 18% of global greenhouse emissions. For perspective, that’s nearly ⅕ of our total global emissions, and just under the amount that transportation, energy, and industry produce. This is largely due to methane production, which cows, sheep, and others produce nearly 231 billion pounds of methane per year, and methane is about 25x more potent than the carbon dioxide that most of our pollutants produce. On top of that, 83% of farmland is used to produce meat, which contributes to deforestation, soil acidification, habitat loss, and a bunch of other bad things. Plus, land is a limited resource that is quickly diminishing.  According to climate researchers, the single biggest contribution an individual person can make to reducing their carbon footprint is to go vegan, but for most of us, that’s a tall (and less than delicious) order. 

That’s where alternative proteins come in. According to Boston Consulting Group, if we replaced all current animal production practices with alternative, non-animal sources of protein, we’d cut emissions by 11% by 2030! And of course, as the food industry gets more efficient, that number will only go up.

Food Sustainability

Hey, it’s me. You and I have probably never met before, and that’s because there are over 8 billion people on this planet of ours. If we have, well it’s a one in 8 billion chance, so that’s pretty cool.

Nonetheless, 8 billion people is a lot of mouths to feed, and a lot of strain to put on a planet. With our current consumption patterns, we cannot feed the 50 billion people projected to be living and eating on our planet in 2050. There simply isn’t enough land and freshwater to grow that much food if we continue producing it as we are today. Literally, the only way to feed ourselves in the future is to change our eating habits to a more sustainable, plant-based, or alternative meat-based diet. That means that alternative meats are not only a good thing, but they’ll also be an absolute necessity to sustain the human population.

The Race to Own the Space

The demand for alternative meats is huge. In 2021, the industry was at around $7 billion, with a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of around 8.2%. We’ve seen things like almond milk, Beyond Burgers and tofu become staples in our lives. The market shows that there’s a clear interest in the health, environmental and animal welfare that goes along with alternative proteins and that demand will only go up. The innovation continues in this area as we expand towards less processed meat, reduce the cost and energy to produce them, and create tastier products. Top minds in the Netherlands, the middle east, and the Bay Area in California are focused on this kind of food innovation such as cultured meat and seafood, precision fermentation, and novel uses for fungi and seaweed.

So we’ve got the demand, but is there other wind at the alternative protein sails? Yes. Big time. The US government recently released a groundbreaking report on the efficacy and necessity of cultured meat, and the UK has invested £12 million in creating cultured meat at scale.  Lastly, the FDA and USDA have officially approved the first cultivated meat for sale in the US, and there are many (including our clients!) who are next in line.

And to those of you curious about cultured meats, the horizon is looking good, but we’re just starting out. According to a UK Survey, about ⅓ of consumers are willing to try cultivated meat. That’s without having the meat on the market yet (well, with the exception of Singapore). The majority of hesitations are around cultivated meat regulation and the safety of the products. If you’re reading this page, then you’re probably deep in the weeds of cell culture and likely know that both of those things (regulation and safety) are up to par, and it’s just a mere amount of time until it’s broadly accepted.

Animal Welfare

This one is more straightforward. It’s the truly horrific animal welfare (or lack thereof) in our food system. Don’t worry, I won’t go into too much detail–but we can all agree that the majority of the meat, dairy, and egg industry is horrible to animals. Factory farming is by far the largest producer of meat in the US, with the practice being “get as much possible meat for the smallest possible price.” That means overuse of antibiotics and growth hormones, animals being crammed in tightly confined spaces, large quantities of low nutrition, cheap animal feed, and immense physical and psychological suffering. While there are those of us ultra-do-gooders who can stave off meat, eggs, and dairy, the majority of us have immense sympathy for those animals and still consume meat products. It’s part of being a human in our society.

There are some great plant-based meat alternatives out there. And cultivated meat is harmless to animals, and just as yummy (in fact, it is biologically identical to animal meat). See an example of the process here (hint: scroll down). 

Health Benefits

Meat is meat. We all know a steak is rich in iron, protein, etc.– and cultivated meat is no different. However, cultivated meat is free of antibiotics, hormones, and feces (you read that right - animal meat routinely contains fecal matter because it’s too expensive to eliminate it completely!) It’s guaranteed to be free of disease. Cultured meat is genetically altered, but otherwise, the exact same meat that we’re all used to. It’s not treated with preservatives, there are no weird coagulants or bonding agents, or processed soy that we often find in plant-based alternatives. It is identical to animal-derived meat in every way, except for the bad stuff. 

With the overwhelming climate benefits, the solution to food sustainability, better treatment of animals, and healthier food options on the horizon, I could not be anything other than thrilled to be helping others discover a career in this industry.