How government-funded research on alternative proteins can grow the bioeconomy

To see our transformative vision of the food system become reality, government investment into researching alternative proteins is mission-critical.
White house

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy recently requested stakeholder and expert input on the bioeconomy. We at GFI had some ideas. To see our transformative vision of the food system become reality, government investment into researching alternative proteins is mission-critical.

Why is public investment needed?

We commonly hear (and read) people ask why we need public investment into alternative proteins when private industry seems up to the task. The answer is that public and private investments serve different functions.

Public investments are able to fund long-term basic research that may have limited immediate economic return but stands to benefit all of society in the long run. The kind of research investments that governments make often lead to unanticipated advances on decades-long time scales. Private funding, on the other hand, tends to focus on applied science and commercialization, seeking a short timeline for a return on investment for a small group of shareholders.

As an example of the differences between these two sources of research funding, take a look at your smartphone. (It’s 2019, I’m going to assume if you’re reading this you have a smartphone.) You might think that most of its technology was built by the likes of Apple, Google, or Samsung, but in fact, they only bundled government-developed technologies into a single package. The underlying technology that makes your smartphone smart was developed with government funding, including the internet, GPS, hard drives, touchscreens, and voice-activated virtual assistants (hey Siri, remind me to thank the government for developing my pocket computer). Only after all of these technologies had been developed was private industry able to package them into the supercomputers in our pockets that we now can’t do without. 

This is how public funding for alternative protein research will shape the future of the food market: by underwriting the fundamental technologies enabling companies to produce plant-based and cultivated meat that will create the sustainable, healthy, and just food system we envision.

However, the benefits don’t stop there. By funding research into alternative proteins, the government will be training the workforce that this industry needs. The students that work in government-funded alternative protein research labs will go on to join the industry, or go on to start research labs of their own and continue the cycle of training!

What about intellectual property?

Government-funded research elevates the baseline from which everyone is starting. Intellectual property resulting from government-funded research is often licensed very cheaply, providing many companies with access to the technologies they develop. This results in the widespread dissemination of knowledge and increases the odds that innovations will make it to market. From the new baseline of knowledge, companies can creatively diversify their products in order to develop something unique, increasing the variety of products available to consumers.

By directing research and development investment to alternative proteins, the United States can accelerate the plant-based and cultivated meat markets, position itself as a world leader in this space, and train the future workforce required to sustain the industry. As we indicated in our comment to the Office of Science and Technology Policy, other countries (such as Japan) see the value of alternative proteins and are already beginning to invest. It’s time for the United States to do so as well.