Why the United States must lead the world in supporting the future of meat
The United States is at a protein-policy crossroads. In recent years, plant-based meats, eggs and dairy have grabbed media attention and market share. Now comes a potential game-changer in the form of “cellular agriculture,” a suite of biotechnologies that can replicate actual animal products without the animals. The benefits are potentially enormous: economic growth and stronger national competitiveness in global markets, new tools to meet climate and biodiversity targets, mitigation of pandemic and antibiotic-resistance risks, and prevention of food insecurity.
Alternative proteins are quickly becoming the food of the future
The protein sector is being remade not just by technology, but by consumer trends. The world’s population is growing in numbers and affluence, and this means greater demand for protein-rich foods. At the same time, consumers’ concerns about personal health and environmental sustainability are driving openness to animal-free options, especially among rising middle-aged and younger market segments that will dominate future demand. These factors have led to an explosion of investor interest in the alternative protein space, with 2021 seeing record deals and growing production capacity. Governments around the world have taken note and are increasing public support for these new ways of making meat.
America is well positioned to benefit from the protein transition
What does all this mean for the United States? In the short- to- medium-term, alternative and conventional proteins can both grow in an expanding market. But alternative proteins are growing faster and, over time, are likely to capture more and more market share. As investment follows consumer spending, effects will ripple up and down the value chain, generating real impacts for local communities around the country. This means both opportunity and risk. On the one hand, traditional American strengths in agriculture, food processing and biomedical technology, together with world-renowned research and development capabilities, give the United States a natural advantage in what promises to be a global innovation race. On the other hand, if we fail to act the initiative will pass to other nations (as we have seen with wind and solar energy), and Americans could face not only lost opportunity, but the social and economic dislocations that tend to accompany value-chain realignments.
America is falling behind in public investment
The US private sector is doing its part, but government support currently lags behind. Huge promise always comes with formidable challenges, and the alternative protein industry is no exception. Government must step in to bridge key gaps when it comes to scientific research, regulation, commercial scale-up, and workforce development. Europe, Canada, Israel, and Singapore have already dedicated significant funds and are planning more, while Japan and China show signs of accelerating involvement. These interventions will reshape the alternative protein space. As former Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue pointed out, “We’re going to see these technologies go to places around the world that are more conducive to their development, and frankly China may be one of those.” Indeed, China’s latest five-year agricultural plan explicitly spotlights cellular agriculture and other “future foods” as part of its national blueprint to prevent food insecurity. Additionally, following the national plan’s release, President Xi Jinping personally signaled support for protein diversification at a high-profile public meeting of political advisors.
A policy platform for the future
How the federal government decides to act on alternative protein policy may well dictate the role that the United States can play in the future of protein production. An expansive and ambitious policy platform that can nurture a domestic alternative protein industry will foster economic development and job growth in the face of international competition while aligning with the longer-term aim of promoting climate-smart agricultural production.
The overarching goal of US alternative protein policy should be a level playing field. This means making it easy for US companies to innovate, grow, and continue to do business here in America. The same system that has afforded the conventional animal agriculture industries with billions of dollars in R&D investment and subsidies each year must be extended to alternative proteins in order to ensure that the United States remains a global leader in this emerging space. What specifically needs to happen? The policy platform for alternative proteins consists of three planks: (1) publicly-supported open-access research; (2) assistance in commercial scale-up, including infrastructure and manufacturing facility investments; and (3) capacity building through workforce development.
Now is the crucial moment
Countries that support their alternative protein industries will enjoy first-mover advantages. With excellent prospects for developing a new industry of global significance—one that promises clean manufacturing with good-paying jobs, diversified domestic demand for farmers’ crops, and new sources of valuable IP—the United States must lead the world in supporting the future of meat.
- This comment was made on Sept. 22, 2020 at a virtual fireside chat hosted by BIO when discussing regulation of cultivated meat. A clip of the relevant portion is available here.
- Eric Ng, “How China plans to lead the world in sustainable food with latest five-year agricultural development plan,” South China Morning Post, February 6, 2022.
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