Why the U.S. should prioritize alternative protein research

Alternative proteins can enhance food security. But, to integrate them into our food supply, we need public investment in alternative protein research and development.
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As Covid-19 has wreaked havoc on the U.S. economy and global health, it has also exposed critical weaknesses in our protein supply chain. Alternative proteins can help meet demand for protein and build a more diverse, resilient food system. But there is a huge amount of research that still needs to be done if we want to see plant-based and cultivated meat become an integral part of the global food supply. To get there, we need public investment in alternative protein research and development.

Privately funded research is valuable, but not enough.

A surge in private investment has brought the alternative protein industry forward to date. But for alternative proteins to match—or beat—the taste and price of conventional meat, we need public investment in open access research.

“Private funding tends to focus on applied science and commercialization, seeking a short timeline for a return on investment for a small group of shareholders,” GFI research funding coordinator James Dale said. “Public investments, on the other hand, are able to fund long-term basic research, and often lead to unanticipated advances on decades-long time scales.”

Whereas private funding pools resources into individual companies and proprietary innovations that promise a short-term profit, public investments can help address industry-wide needs. Less beholden to short-term profitability, publicly funded research would help fill critical technological gaps across the alternative protein industry by ensuring that any innovations arising from this R&D are available to all players in the space.

Publicly funded research would thus have a much broader, industry-wide impact on the alternative protein industry’s growth and development than private funding alone. GFI executive director Bruce Friedrich said, “For the same reason that governments give tens of billions of dollars annually to renewable energy R&D, and more than a hundred billion dollars annually to global health research, governments should be funding open access research and development into better ways of producing the protein people want.”

Now is the time to prioritize alternative proteins.

We’ve seen just how quickly a crisis can disrupt the food supply chain. Public investment in alternative protein research is crucial to protect us from food chain volatility.

A single disease outbreak—like African swine fever or the avian flu—can result in massive damages to the food supply. Publicly funded research in alternative protein will spur the innovation needed to create a more resilient, robust protein supply chain.

New methods of making meat can bolster global protein supplies. Because plant-based and cultivated meat can be made from a wide variety of different, high-value crops, a shift to these methods of protein production will allow the country to diversify the crops it grows, making us more resilient to extreme weather, crop diseases, and pests. Having a greater variety of plants grown in American fields will provide an insurance policy against circumstances that would devastate just one.

A new alternative protein infrastructure could also lend itself to smaller, more widely distributed facilities and supply networks. A distributed system would create an overlapping network of food protein production to protect against supply chain issues such as drought or batch loss. These changes would result in greater food security for Americans.

Alternative proteins present a real opportunity to build a stronger, more diverse and resilient food system. But to integrate alternative proteins into our food supply, we need public investment in research and development. We urge U.S. policymakers to prioritize public investment in alternative protein research to foster long-term food security.

Learn more about how public investment in alternative proteins could help strengthen the U.S. economy, and check out our resources for policymakers.