Look closer: Plant-based innovators are joining forces

Across the entire supply chain, a diversity of people and partners are working together to deliver tasty, affordable, nutrient-rich, sustainable plant-based foods to more plates.
A taco salad bowl with plant-based meat crumbles and a side of chips and guacamole.  photo credit: cargill.

“Collaboration is key; no single organization can solve complex global challenges alone.” – Paul Polman

Creating sustainable solutions for the food we eat around the world is the challenge and opportunity of a lifetime—impossible to solve alone, yet completely achievable together. The words of former Unilever CEO Paul Polman on collaboration ring loud and true especially as we look closer at the plant-based protein sector today, where partnerships are playing an increasingly essential role in the growth and success of this just-getting-started industry. 

Today, across the supply chain, a growing diversity of companies and organizations are collaborating to propel plant-based meat, seafood, eggs, and dairy into the mainstream. 

Many of the global leaders in consumer packaged goods and meat production, such as Cargill, Nestle, Tyson, Kraft Heinz, and others, have some level of involvement in the plant-based protein industry, including working with specialized companies, start-ups, and other innovators who are tackling the sector’s biggest challenges, notably taste, price, and accessibility. Whether through joint research, investment, production and manufacturing synergies, or marketing and distribution partnerships, these collaborations can and have played an impactful role in supporting the growth of the sector. 

The breadth, depth, and pace of such collaborations, however, are often missing from media headlines and the hot-take stories that merely scratch the surface of what’s really happening across the industry, masking and sometimes underrepresenting how the sector is working together to move the field forward in major ways. Just last week, a new, dedicated center for alternative protein science and innovation launched at North Carolina State University, focused on leveraging public-private partnerships and cross-disciplinary collaboration to diversify the global protein supply chain via meat made from plants, fermentation, and cell cultivation.  

While the first of several Bezos Centers for Sustainable Proteins marks a milestone moment in alternative protein science, it’s just the latest in a growing wave of smart, strategic partnerships that are collectively growing the sector as a whole, specifically in the areas of: 1) research and development; 2) ingredient and end-product innovation; and 3) scaling and distribution.     

Pursuing common research challenges together can unlock plant-based success

Scientific collaboration and sharing foundational knowledge are essential to innovate in ways that grow the entire plant-based sector. Science-driven collaborations, consortia, and hubs can help innovators identify common challenges, problem-solve, minimize duplicative efforts, provide training opportunities, and spur joint research and development. 

Across the plant-based meat value chain, researchers are collaborating to better understand and advance crop development, ingredient production and processing, end-product formulation, and manufacturing. In the past year alone, such sector-wide collaborations focused on new farming techniques that optimize plant protein cultivation, innovative uses of AI, ingredient upcycling from agricultural by-products, and new solutions for matching the sensory attributes of conventional meat, seafood, egg, and dairy products.

A few stand-out collaborations from around the world:

  • The Tropical Food Innovation Lab in Campinas City, Brazil, is a collaborative space created by a consortium of companies, including Cargill, Bühler, Givaudan, Food Tech Hub LATAM, and the Institute of Food Technology. The Lab is dedicated to developing “healthy and delicious, sustainable and accessible solutions,” sourced from Brazil’s diversity of native plants and food crops. 
  • Texas A&M AgriLife Research and AgriVentis Technologies scientists are exploring the cultivation of mung beans in Texas. Mung bean, typically grown in South Asian countries, is a drought-resistant legume with great potential as a scalable source for alternative proteins, especially relevant for water-constrained regions.
  • The Plant Based Seafood Co. entered into a co-development agreement with ICL Group Ltd., focused on sharing and advancing innovative technologies to produce plant-based seafood alternatives and scaling up production. 
  • The European Cooperation in Science and Technology, an organization creating research networks for scientists across Europe and beyond, launched DIVERSICROP Action, a project focused on underutilized crops including peas and chickpeas, and understanding the factors that could ease and incentivize farmer adoption. 
  • The Legume Generation project, a consortium of researchers from across Europe, Australia, and the United States focused on legume breeding, is connecting leading plant research institutions around the world with plant breeders working with soybeans, lupins, peas, lentils, common beans, and clover.
  • Amfora is partnering with AI company McClintock to expedite the readiness of their high-yielding, high-protein soybean varieties, specifically bred for plant-based protein production.
  • The Food Industry Research and Development Institute of Taiwan established a Plant Milk Research and Development Center to boost Taiwan’s protein-rich milk alternative supply chain and innovation. 
  • The Technion-Israel Institute of Technology announced the establishment of the Sustainable Protein Research Center, meant to support innovators across technological readiness levels from research to entrepreneurship and commercialization support.

Sharing expertise can accelerate the development of new ingredients and end-products

In 2023, hundreds of new plant-based meat, seafood, egg, and dairy products hit retail shelves in the U.S. market and around the world, including plant-based steak, sushi, boiled eggs, Wagyu-style beef, ribs, and more. Still, if plant-based meat is to deliver on its promise of serving as a center-of-plate protein for mainstream consumers, the sector needs to meet consumer needs on taste, price, and nutrition. Strategic partnerships focused on ingredients and product development can help accelerate progress on each of those fronts. 

Across the field, we see companies and organizations pursuing such knowledge-sharing and strength-leveraging partnerships with energy and enthusiasm, collaborating to co-benefit from each other’s insights and expertise, infrastructure, and brand equity.

A sampling from around the world: 

  • Cargill and CUBIQ FOODS are working together to accelerate commercialization of innovative fat technologies, such as Go!Drop® fat platform. This specialized “smart fat” technology seeks to replicate animal fat in terms of visual appearance, mouthfeel and bite, for a final product that offers improved sensory and nutritional properties when compared to plant-based alternatives that solely use traditional plant-based fats and oils.
  • Bühler opened their Application and Training Centers in Switzerland, with each center accessible to companies focusing on critical needs for plant-based processing: flavor creation, food creation, protein application, and energy recovery.
  • Cargill opened their new European Protein Innovation Hub with a kitchen and modern pilot plant, allowing industry customers to co-formulate and test recipes.
  • Ready Burger, a UK-based vegan fast food chain offering plant burgers at price parity with conventional McDonald’s options, is teaming up with Givaudan to improve the fat used in its burgers. Among Givaudan’s technologies is a process that locks flavor and moisture into proteins while reducing fat content of plant-based meat alternatives by up to 75 percent.  
  • Plantible and ICL are joining forces to launch ROVITARIS, a methylcellulose alternative with high protein content and functionality through its key ingredient of RuBisCO protein harvested from duckweed. 
  • Foody’s and Coccus are partnering to launch the first large-scale facility for 3D bioprinting plant-based meat, just one of the exciting developments in 3D-printing technology and scale-up space.
  • Plant-based fish startup Oshi and The Better Meat Co. successfully co-raised funds for a collaboration to develop hybrid salmon. 
  • Climax Foods, makers of machine learning-optimized plant-based cheese, teamed up with Bel Group to create a new plant-based version of BabyBel which they plan to launch by the end of 2024. One of Climax Foods’ early investors, At One Ventures, noted that Climax’s foundational work “to unlock the full flavor potential of plants will open countless doorways” to a more sustainable food industry. 
  • NotCo, which uses artificial intelligence to create plant-based products and aims to become a B2B food AI platform, launched mac & cheese and mayonnaise with Kraft Heinz this year and announced a new partnership with Mars Wrigley. 
  • Protein Industries Canada launched a virtual, three-month training program for companies to learn how to use and apply AI. 
  • Food System Innovations announced the launch of GreenProteinAI, an initiative to improve plant protein texturization using AI.

Sustainable partnerships help plant-based proteins reach new markets

Growth of the category is good business for all. When the category scales to meet consumer expectations across retail and foodservice environments, everyone stands to win. In both the short- and long-term, growing scale, building manufacturing capacity, and increasing the marketing and distribution of products are significant barriers to alternative protein market growth. Partnerships in this area can allow companies to develop supply chain infrastructure and reach more markets and consumers, while also enabling collaborators to advance sustainability goals together.

A few examples show just how companies are teaming up to do just that:

  • California-based Planetarians joined forces with brewing giant AB InBev and is now scaling factories alongside brewery locations. Planetarians upcycles spent brewer’s yeast, a circular solution that reduces processing steps and costs while also enhancing the meaty taste of their savory strips. 
  • ADM and Marel are partnering on an alternative protein taste and texture innovation center in the Netherlands, which is expected to open in the second half of 2024. ADM also opened an 800-square-meter plant-based innovation center in the United Kingdom that includes a kitchen, chef’s presentation theater, and flavor development lab.
  • Kraft Heinz grew its partnership with Chile-based NotCo to launch plant-based Oscar Mayer hot dogs and sausages, now available in approximately 4,000 stores across the United States, including retailers such as Albertson’s, Safeway, and Mayer. 
  • Burcon NutraScience Corporation is now offering pilot plant processing and scale-up validation as a service to partners and customers, presenting an opportunity for companies to optimize novel protein sources and processes as they scope their product’s commercial viability.  
  • Fresh Del Monte, a leading global producer of fruits and vegetables, is working with chef-created food company Vertage to scale production and logistics of dairy-free, plant-based cheese products.
  • Modern Meat, a subsidiary of Canadian food company Modern Plant-Based Foods, is co-developing plant-based pizzas with Carbone Restaurant Group, a leading restaurant group and brand incubator. Modern Meat is also working with Carbone to expand plant-based menu offerings and product supply volumes for its growing network of restaurants.
  • DUG, a potato-based milk developed by Sweden’s Veg of Lund, is launching in China, thanks to a partnership with Chinese plant-based meat brand Haofood. Haofood’s successful track record in the Chinese plant-based market bodes well for DUG’s debut in China and other selected markets in the Asia Pacific region.  
  • NotCo partnered with Burger King Peru to provide plant-based cheese products for the chain’s plant-based Whopper, and also launched NotCheese products at JUMBO, one of the largest retailers in Chile.
  • Vgarden, a producer of plant-based dairy, meat, and seafood with production facilities in Israel and Australia,  is collaborating with New Jersey-based MCT Dairies, a major distributor of conventional dairy and related ingredients. The partnership will leverage MCT Dairies distribution channels and bring Vgarden’s full range of high-quality plant-based products to U.S. retail, ingredient, and foodservice markets.
  • PURIS, North America’s leading supplier of pea protein, secured a strategic partnership with distributor Palmer Holland to expand PURIS’ pea ingredient portfolio. The collaboration leverages Palmer Holland’s channels, marketing, and sales capacities to help bring clean-label pea protein to more consumers. 

Doubling down on partnerships that can move plant-based protein into the mainstream

“There’s a breadth of innovation happening in the plant-based category today and the pace of those developments is really exciting. For Cargill, this is an entire value chain at work–from ingredients and formulation to having a global manufacturing footprint. The promise for what’s to come is when we can bring all these pieces together. There is a great deal of opportunity for collaboration. The faster the category can work on scale, it only helps to unlock costs, access to raw ingredients, and more synergies for all.”

– Sarah Frick, Cargill’s commercial director for plant-based meat

The growing number of collaborations across the plant-based protein sector is both impressive and promising, yet more hard work lies ahead. A huge market opportunity exists for alternative proteins. While global sales of plant-based meat, seafood, milk, yogurt, ice cream, and cheese rose to $29 billion in 2023 (a 34 percent increase since 2019), the global market for alternative proteins remains small compared to the trillion-dollar conventional animal product market. Making progress on taste and price parity remains paramount, as does meeting consumer needs and expectations around health, nutrition, and sustainability. 

The industry needs to work together to overcome challenges like distorted nutrition narratives and premium pricing compared to conventional meat, as the table below demonstrates.

This graphic demonstrates that plant-based categories sit at a significant price premium relative to their conventional counterparts.

Brands and companies must continue to improve taste and sensory attributes so that plant-based products can retain and attract more and more consumers, many of whom are signaling enthusiasm for alternative proteins as a solution to food made with fewer resources and less harm to the environment. About a third of consumers say that climate-friendliness impacts their food purchasing choices.

Like any innovative technology, it takes time to lower the cost, improve taste, gain acceptance, and eventually become the new default norm. With even greater collaborations across the field, in which knowledge, infrastructure, and solutions are shared in ways that champion innovation and advance the entire sector, the plant-based protein industry is poised to help the world sustainably satisfy growing global demand for meat while ushering in a far more resilient food future.

Editor’s note: For more information on each of the partnerships, collaborations, and other developments featured in this article, check out our 2023 State of the Industry Report: Plant-based meat, seafood, eggs, and dairy


Abby sewell


Abby serves as GFI’s Corporate Engagement Manager, supporting food manufacturers and other food companies upstream to inspire and accelerate their shift toward alternative protein. Areas of expertise: CPG marketing, consumer insights, brand strategy, strategic partnerships, social impact

Image of emma ignaszewski


Emma Ignaszewski oversees the corporate engagement team’s industry intelligence and initiatives team. We work to catalyze market-side innovation to transform the food system and deliver alternative protein products that compete on the key drivers of consumer choice: taste, price, and convenience. Areas of expertise: alternative protein market landscape, research & analysis, strategy, marketing & communications, alt protein sustainability & climate impacts.

Sheila voss


Sheila Voss oversees GFI’s strategic awareness and action campaigns, data-driven storytelling, and communications-related partnerships. Areas of expertise: plant science and sustainability, agricultural education, biodiversity and climate change messaging.