Seizing the moment: The 10-point story of alternative proteins not being told
Digging deeper into alternative proteins shows a highly motivated ecosystem just getting started
Year-over-year sales and investment numbers for the food industry have experienced short-term volatility over the past few years, leading some to characterize alternative proteins as a blip or bubble. Is that the whole story of this extraordinary, made-for-this-moment field?
Not by a long shot.
Our latest State of the Industry Reports look below the surface to reveal the narrative behind the numbers and the real-world, hard-earned progress happening across alternative protein science, policy, and private sector realms. What’s actually taking place in research labs, farm fields, startup spaces, board rooms, manufacturing facilities, government offices, and communities large and small show us a different, more dynamic picture of the alternative protein industry than the sliver we see in snapshot stories and headlines.
In many ways, these reports double as an annual archive of sorts, documenting for future generations what humans actually got done at this critical moment in time when faced with the knowledge that transforming food and agriculture—specifically meat, seafood, eggs, and dairy—is key to solving some of the biggest challenges of our time: climate, biodiversity, food security, and global health.
This year’s reports shine a light on the brilliant, big-thinking, brick-by-brick people and places seizing the moment to scale up solutions, overcome obstacles, and transform our food system for the better.
Let’s dig into the proof points
Here are the top 10 stories not being told, but that are worth sharing far and wide.
1. Real facilities in real places are creating real jobs
The alternative protein industry’s benefits to the economy moved beyond the hypothetical a long time ago. Continued public and private investment in the alternative protein industry can drive the creation of high-quality, safe, and meaningful food and agriculture jobs and careers that power the field forward.
A 2023 report by ClimateWorks Foundation and the Global Methane Hub suggests that the alternative protein industry could generate up to 83 million jobs by 2050 if investment increases to levels that meaningfully impact dietary shifts. A closer look at facility developments in 2022 gives us a glimpse of job growth on the horizon.
- At least seven companies opened new or expanded production facilities, and 11 new plant-based contract manufacturers were added to GFI’s database, bringing the total number of known plant-based contract manufacturers to 127.
- Lactalis Canada, maker of Siggi’s yogurt, is transitioning their Ontario dairy plant to a dedicated plant-based production facility to meet the demand for the company’s plant-based yogurts and milk.
- Improved Nature, a plant-based meat manufacturer based in North Carolina, announced plans to build a new facility in Smithfield, NC, to produce their soy-based meat products. The facility is expected to employ 96 people in full operation.
- To date, there are at least 18 operational facilities worldwide dedicated to producing cultivated meat or seafood.
- Numerous cultivated meat companies broke ground on, opened, or announced facilities in 2022, bringing the total number of planned or operational pilot-scale (or larger) facilities to 27.
- Believer Meats, formerly known as Future Meat Technologies, broke ground on a 200,000-square-foot facility in North Carolina that will have the capacity to produce at least 10,000 metric tons of cultivated meat per year.
2. Governments are leaning in
For the same reason that governments invest billions of dollars annually in renewable energy and global health research, governments should be funding open-access R&D into better, safer, more efficient ways of producing food. In 2022, national and sub-national governments leaned further into alternative proteins as a food and agriculture solution with the potential to slash emissions, enable ecosystem recovery, increase food security, and reduce risks to public health:
- Europe led investments in plant-based protein with commitments from Denmark, Sweden, and Switzerland to invest more than $150 million in R&D. Europe also funneled more than $155 million into cellular agriculture research and commercialization, including microbial fermentation and cultivated foods. The Netherlands, Europe’s leading agricultural exporter, announced a world-record-breaking €60 million ($65.4 million) investment toward building a full cellular agriculture ecosystem, including R&D, commercialization, workforce transition programs, and education—an investment projected to generate billions per year in earning capacity for the Netherlands by 2050. Not long after, the country celebrated the completion of construction for one of the world’s largest protein facilities, built by UK mycoprotein startup ENOUGH with €16.9 million ($17.9 million) in EU funding. Intended to reduce waste and improve food system resilience by creating edible protein from agricultural side streams, the plant will upcycle waste products from a nearby starch plant operated by Cargill.
- Protein Industries Canada, a government-funded supercluster of nonprofits, schools, and companies, continued to fund 45 plant-based protein R&D projects, including $1.6 million into a Regulatory Centre of Excellence to promote evidence-based regulatory policy for plant-based foods.
- China and South Korea increased policy support for cultivated meat development. Singapore’s government launched a number of programs to support alternative protein startups.
- The United Arab Emirates supported the construction of a precision fermentation facility in Abu Dhabi, to be operated by U.S.-based Change Foods. The facility will create casein, the key protein in cheese, using 1/10th of the water and 1/5th of the energy required by conventional dairy production.
- The Israel Innovation Authority issued a NIS 50 million ($14.4MM) request for proposals for precision fermentation infrastructure, designed to enable multiple companies to share R&D facilities.
- In the U.S., support for alternative protein R&D was secured at both the federal and state levels, with Congress allocating nearly $6 million to USDA, including three new projects at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Virginia State University, and Washington State University. California allocated $5 million from its 2023 budget for alternative protein R&D, including plant-based protein research, and $100 million to expand plant-based and sustainable lunches in public schools. The Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Opportunity provided a tax credit to support Perfect Day’s construction of a precision fermentation facility in Salt Lake City. New York City embraced plant-based food in two major initiatives: a new Chefs Council that will develop “delicious, nutritious, culturally relevant” plant-based meals for NYC public schools and a new New York City Health + Hospital policy making plant-based meals the default option for hospital lunches.
- Singapore currently remains the only country where cultivated meat products have been fully approved for sale to consumers. But that may soon change. In November 2022, FDA completed the first-ever premarket evaluation of a cultivated meat product. This historic FDA milestone paves the way for consumer access to these products in U.S. restaurants and retail. Other nations and regions have also made significant strides toward approving these products in recent years.
- Multilateral organizations like the World Health Organization and the Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations expressed increased support for continued protein innovation and are beginning to work on global regulation, through platforms like COP27 and Codex Alimentarius Commission.
- Only five years ago, public funding for alternative protein R&D was close to zero. Today, the total exceeds $300 million from more than a dozen countries, plus additional hundreds of millions of dollars in government investments in and incentives for alternative protein companies. To unlock the full potential of alternative proteins, however, it is estimated that $10 billion per year in global public spending on R&D and commercialization is needed.
3. Large food companies and retailers are leaning in
The world’s biggest meat companies and the largest restaurant chains have identified alternative proteins as opportunities to achieve both near-term and long-term commercial success. Amid intersecting social, environmental, and economic crises, this momentum signals a growing appetite among consumers and companies alike for choices that add value to the bottom line and beyond:
- All of the top five U.S. meat companies, as well as the top five U.S. consumer packaged goods (CPG) food companies (by revenue), are involved with alternative proteins in some capacity.
- As of 2022, the number two ranked CPG food company and the top three meat companies (by revenue) are involved in the cultivated meat industry specifically.
- In 2022, large food companies released plant-based versions of popular branded products, including dairy-free Philadelphia cream cheese, Babybel cheese, Kit Kat bars, and Kellogg’s plant-based chicken waffle Eggo sandwich.
- Burger King launched two new Impossible burgers in the U.S. and trialed its first fully plant-based location and default plant-based location in Europe.
- Starbucks dropped their plant-based milk surcharge in the United Kingdom.
- Nestlé partnered with precision fermentation company Perfect Day to launch Cowabunga, a milk made with animal-free whey, in Safeway stores in California.
- Unilever announced that they are developing a precision fermentation dairy product and may launch animal-free ice cream in 2023.
- Bel Group, the maker of Babybel cheese, announced a partnership with Standing Ovation, a Paris-based precision fermentation company that produces animal-free casein, and with Superbrewed to develop fermentation-enabled cheese.
4. People are realizing collaboration anywhere improves alt proteins everywhere
New and expanding alliances, joint ventures, and manufacturing and distribution partnerships signify the willingness and motivation of cross-sector collaborators across the food value chain to work together toward solutions that advance the entire alternative protein ecosystem. These are humans at their best and brightest, who know how to leverage each other’s strengths and create shared value:
- Companies continued to collaborate to develop new plant-based products and scale production: we tallied 25 new strategic partnerships in the plant-based industry in 2022.
- At least 11 new strategic partnerships were announced between cultivated meat companies and major food companies such as ADM, Ajinomoto, and Tnuva, bringing the total number of major partnerships to at least 35.
- In 2022, companies continued to secure distribution partnerships that will allow them to hit the ground running upon receiving regulatory approval. While cultivated meat is commercially sold in just one country in 2022 (Singapore), a number of companies landed new distribution partnerships that will allow consumers across regions to access cultivated meat products as soon as possible, pending regulatory approval.
- In 2022, the U.S.-based Alliance for Meat, Poultry, and Seafood Innovation, the APAC Society for Cellular Agriculture, and Cellular Agriculture Europe teamed up to launch a new global alliance.
- A group of 12 companies and two nonprofits co-founded the new Fungi Protein Association, a milestone for the industry in advancing fair policies and consumer research.
- In early 2023, nine precision fermentation companies co-founded the Precision Fermentation Alliance, which will focus on regulatory engagement and consumer messaging.
5. Scientists are continuing to prove that with proper R&D investment, they can achieve mind-blowing advancements in food
Public investment in open-access alternative protein R&D can reap massive public benefits, from cleaner air, water, and soil to a more secure and sustainable global food system. History shows us, time and again, the synergistic effects that public and private R&D can have on scientific and social progress, as well as the economy. Here are just a few ways R&D investments were channeled in 2022, along with glimpses into how this rapidly evolving field is attracting more and more researchers and talent:
- New research advanced our understanding of cultivated meat and its impacts, while the research ecosystem grew at universities around the world. Thirteen multi-year research projects, including those focused on cell lines, serum-free cell culture media development, and scaffolding were published, many in open-access journals.
- Hybrid solutions permeated the alternative protein space, as food producers worked to blend plant-based, fermentation, and cultivated meat production in the pursuit of products that reach taste and price parity with conventional meat.
- The DSMZ culture collection published Mediadive, an open-source database to help researchers bioprospect novel strains for use in microbial fermentation.
- Startup Shiru pioneered the use of AI and machine learning to aid the development of animal-free egg proteins.
- GFI’s Alt Protein Project (APP)—an international student movement dedicated to seeding alternative protein education, research, and innovation programs at top research universities—welcomed 20 new student groups in 2022, including groups in Asia, Africa, and Australia. This ecosystem-building program now spans 36 chapters across 17 countries and five continents.
- Collaboration and open-access research are essential to the continued success of the cultivated meat industry. Many original research papers on cultivated meat were published by—or with collaborators from—for-profit cultivated meat companies or input suppliers, including Aleph Farms, BioTech Foods, Mosa Meat, SCiFi Foods, Believer Meats, and Millipore Sigma. Publications from industry leaders are a promising sign that even those with commercial interests recognize that no single company is going to solve the challenge of scaling cultivated meat alone. It is possible—and necessary—to balance the need to protect some intellectual property with the desire to contribute to the rising tide of progress that will lift all boats.
6. Plants and microbes continue to demonstrate new potential for transforming the way we make food
Gone are the days when plant-based burger patties were the singular playmaker in alternative proteins. New advancements in how we harness plants and microbes are filling out a more diverse ingredient landscape for the future of alternative proteins:
- In 2022, companies increased R&D efforts for high-protein chickpeas, fava beans, mung beans, and cowpeas. Diverse plant protein ingredients are gaining traction, with progress being made to increase their production and reduce their costs.
- Plant molecular farming—a method that combines plant agriculture and techniques similar to those used in precision fermentation to enable the production of animal proteins in plants, like dairy or egg proteins—emerged as another potential solution for alternative protein production. This process allows the production of alternative proteins inside a plant using photosynthesis and well-established farming techniques. An example of this is how Miruku produces animal-free dairy proteins for use in cheese, ice cream, and yogurts.
- In addition to their non-heme iron binding protein development, Cargill is also developing a natural thermolabile red pigment that provides a pink/red color to a meat substitute product and transitions to a brown color after cooking. Both ingredients could be formulated with any number of plant-based (e.g., soy, pea) or microbial-based protein sources (e.g., mycoprotein) to improve taste and visual appeal.
- Many around the world are addressing the economic viability of cultivated meat in interesting ways. Proteins commonly used in the cell culture media such as albumin and transferrin are often added in such high quantities that they can account for the majority of media cost. Researchers at Tufts University demonstrated that albumin proteins from plants such as rapeseed can functionally replace recombinant animal albumin at less than a tenth of the cost.
- Researchers at the Austrian Center for Biotechnology showed that food-grade ingredients such as methylcellulose can play a stabilizing role in cell culture media similar to that of albumin, resulting in media formulations that require significantly lower quantities of costly growth factors and albumin proteins.
7. An abundance of plant-based meat, cultivated meat, and hybrid products are on the horizon
- Companies like Nourish Ingredients and Melt&Marble are using fermentation to produce animal fats to enhance the taste and texture of plant-based meat.
- A number of companies used Perfect Day’s whey protein from fermentation to launch a range of new products, from animal-free milk and ice cream to chocolate and protein powder.
- The EVERY Company continued its focus on precision fermentation egg proteins in 2022, partnering with brands to launch macarons and a line of hard juices featuring animal-free egg protein.
- New fermentation-enabled meat products, including breakfast sausage, steak, bacon, and deli meats, launched in 2022.
- Aqua Cultured Foods created a mycoprotein calamari, Bosque Foods showcased mycelium-based pork and chicken filets, and Mycorena developed a mycoprotein-based butter.
- Companies launched new product formats to retail, like plant-based steak, salmon, shrimp dumplings, foie gras, luncheon meat, and schnitzel.
- Starbucks added plant-based meat to menus in several geographies, including an OmniFoods plant-based fish sandwich in Hong Kong, a plant-based sausage croissant roll in collaboration with Imagine Meats in India, a plant-based crab cake brioche sandwich in Thailand, and several menu items using JUST Egg and Daring Chicken in a trial in the United States.
- KFC launched several plant-based chicken options in different regions. KFC UK made the plant-based chicken burger a permanent menu item, KFC U.S. expanded the Beyond Fried Chicken test to every KFC location for a limited time, and KFC Canada partnered with Lightlife to trial a plant-based chicken entree.
8. Governments and corporations aren’t the only ones leaning in – consumers and chefs are joining the party
Consumer research shows that taste, price, and health are the top factors consumers consider when purchasing alternative proteins. A focus on reaching taste and price parity while also highlighting the health benefits of plant-based proteins is critical to ensure the success of this industry. In 2022, the alternative protein field learned even more about consumer needs and knowledge, while chefs and other food service professionals signaled a growing interest in serving these game-changing foods:
- UPSIDE Foods is partnering with chef Dominique Crenn, co-owner and chef of Michelin-starred restaurant Atelier Crenn to develop dishes with their cultivated chicken, and GOOD Meat added chef José Andrés to their Board of Directors.
- In addition, a 2022 survey commissioned by food-tech company SuperMeat and conducted by independent market research consultancy Censuswide found that 86 percent of the 251 chefs/foodservice professionals polled are interested in serving cultivated meat.
- Globally, consumers report increased engagement with plant-based proteins. A recent study conducted by GFI Europe surveyed consumers across four European countries finding that between 27 and 50 percent reported eating plant-based meat at least once a month.
- A survey from GFI Brazil shows that the percentage of respondents who say they are reducing their meat consumption grew from 50 percent in 2020 to 67 percent in 2022.
- When we look at young consumers (ages 16–40) across 10 countries, 66 percent plan to spend more on plant-based meat and dairy alternatives in the future.
9. The environmental and societal case for alternative proteins keeps getting stronger
In 2021, more than 100 world leaders promised to end and reverse deforestation by 2030. Expanding forests, restoring damaged ecosystems, and farming sustainably will be essential for limiting and adapting to climate change—but we can’t make space for nature without changing how we produce meat. Because plant-based, fermentation-enabled, and cultivated meat require far less land, they can reduce pressure on both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, stem biodiversity loss, and enable recovery and restoration. The past year amassed even more scholarship and peer-reviewed data pointing to this potential:
- In early 2023, an LCA that incorporated data from more than 15 companies involved in the supply chain for cultivated meat was updated and published in the International Journal of LCA. The study, which was previously published as a white paper in 2021, found that cultivated meat is nearly three times more efficient at turning crops into meat than chicken—the most efficient form of conventional meat. This efficiency translates to cultivated meat requiring far less land and results in less air pollution, acidification of soils, and marine eutrophication.
- The study also demonstrates that the majority of emissions are Scope 1 and 2, which means that governments could significantly reduce cultivated meat’s carbon footprint by providing incentives to use and source renewable energy at these facilities. If renewable energy is implemented in production, cultivated meat can have a similar or potentially lower carbon footprint compared to highly optimistic future scenarios for any form of conventional meat production.
- A LCA was published by researchers at The Ohio State University using pilot-scale data from cultivated meat producer SciFi Foods. The study was the first to evaluate a hybrid burger product. Producing data that showed similar environmental benefits as plant-based burgers currently on the market, the study found that compared to a conventional beef burger, the hybrid burger could generate 87 percent less greenhouse gas emissions, require 90 percent less land, and require 96 percent less water.
- Six different teams of researchers published findings on using side streams as feedstocks for microbial fermentation, further validating alternative proteins’ role in circular economies. Researchers found that replacing just 20% of per-capita beef consumption with microbial protein from sugar-fed fermentation by 2050 would be sufficient to reduce deforestation and related emissions by 50 percent.
- In 2022, a literature review of 43 studies on the healthfulness and environmental sustainability of plant-based meat alternatives compared to animal products underscored the numerous personal health benefits of plant-based meat.
- One strategy to improve food losses during plant-based food manufacturing is valorizing whole crops and processes for human consumption. Upcycling sidestreams for alternative proteins continued to gain momentum in 2022. EverGrain, backed by Anheuser-Busch InBev, opened their barley protein production facility, which is capable of producing 7,000 tons of protein isolate per year from brewer’s spent grain that AB InBev produces.
10. Business-as-usual won’t cut it – better, more sustainable ways of making meat, seafood, eggs, and dairy are within our grasp
The way the world currently produces meat cannot meet growing global demand and still achieve global climate, food security, public health, and biodiversity goals. New ways of making meat, seafood, eggs, and dairy can satisfy growing demand, reduce pressure on the planet, and increase resilience across the global food system:
- By 2050, the global population will approach 10 billion, and the demand for meat is projected to double. This will coincide with growing food insecurity and biodiversity loss caused by climate change, especially in vulnerable regions. Requiring far less land and water, alternative proteins can feed more people with fewer resources and increase food security by eliminating the inefficiencies of cycling crops through animals to produce protein.
- Today, agriculture accounts for a third of all global emissions. Animal agriculture alone—including the crops and pastures to feed those animals—accounts for 20 percent of all emissions. A study led by Oxford University found that even if fossil fuel emissions were eliminated immediately, the world cannot meet its Paris Agreement targets without shifting away from conventional animal agriculture. Another University of Oxford study found that eliminating animal products is the single biggest way most people can reduce their individual environmental impact. A transition toward plant-based meat can cut emissions by 90 percent, and use 99 percent less land and water than conventional meat. Cultivated meat is anticipated to be nearly three times more efficient at converting feed into meat than chicken production—the most efficient form of conventional meat. This efficiency translates to cultivated meat requiring 64 to 90 percent less land depending on the type of meat (up to 90 percent less compared to beef). When produced with renewable energy, cultivated meat could cut emissions by 92 percent compared to conventional beef.
- Approximately 80 percent of medically important antibiotics sold in the U.S. are fed to farmed animals, contributing to antimicrobial resistance that could spell the end of modern medicine. And according to the UN Environment Programme and the International Livestock Research Institute, increasing demand for meat and today’s unsustainable methods of meat production are two of the seven most likely causes of the next pandemic. Alternative proteins eliminate a key driver of zoonotic diseases and pandemics—using animals for food.
Keep the long view in sight, help get more hands on deck, and believe change is possible
This fascinating, fast-moving field is just getting started. Counting it out because it’s facing challenges and hitting roadblocks is akin to dismissing any other transformative innovation in its early days. Navigating and building the path to scale and adoption will take years. When we peek below the surface, and when we consider the multitude of advantages held by the status quo, the brick-by-brick progress happening is beyond impressive and inspiring. This is what change looks like.
Across sectors and regions, there is a growing understanding of the importance of finding viable alternatives to industrial animal agriculture. A global protein transformation, however, will require strong, system-wide participation and persistence. It will require policymakers, governments, companies, investors, entrepreneurs, scientists, students, nonprofits, philanthropists, consumers, farmers, and other frontline food system workers to see themselves in the world-changing work ahead.
Alongside other advances and innovations, alternative proteins can help write the next chapter for food and agriculture around the world, and usher in a far more sustainable, secure, and just food future. Believe it.
GFI at work
This year’s State of the Industry Reports were produced by a global cohort of GFI colleagues who brought incredibly deep subject matter expertise, regional insights and analysis, a critical lens, and a disciplined sense of responsibility and accountability to this work. Since 2019, this signature series of annual reports have been referenced and cited by government agencies, policymakers, industry executives, investors, researchers, and journalists around the world, helping elevate the entire field of alternative proteins.
All of our work—including this series—is only possible because of our generous donors who join us in relentlessly believing change is possible. While there are more alternative protein products available than ever before, breaking through to compete with conventional products is not guaranteed. By equipping the field with in-depth data and insights, like those found throughout the State of the Industry Reports, as well as by advocating for increased government support for alternative proteins and advancing the science, we are ensuring that the sector can deliver on the promise of implementing improvements in taste and cost. This field still has miles to go to reach its full potential, but thanks to our global family of donors, we’re in this for the long haul, knowing we can solve this together.
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Our State of the Industry reports offer a deep dive into the key technologies, business developments, and scientific advances that are propelling the industries for plant-based, cultivated, and fermentation-derived meat, eggs, and dairy.