Plant proteins are dominating conversations about meat alternatives, but there is much more to the story when it comes to the future of meat. Plant proteins themselves are highly complex – we sub-divide them into first, second, and third generation sources for added clarity – and included in the protein mix are insects, single-cell proteins, algae, and cellular agriculture-derived products. As recently as 2015, our Agrifood and Health team generated its first projections about alternative proteins in the human food system, recognizing a nascent but ready-to-accelerate innovation space. We’re still confident that alternative proteins will make up approximately one third of the total protein industry within the coming three decades, and the intervening years have given us additional data to refine and deepen our analysis. Alternative protein investment, innovation momentum, and product sales all remain on the rise, but it’s still a tricky space to navigate, and there are plentiful pitfalls to trip up companies attempting to maneuver in alternative proteins without a thoughtful approach.
Our analysis of the cellular agriculture space more specifically (see figure) makes clear that a truly animal-free solid meat product is likely nearly a decade away, but it also reveals some very legitimate, very large, near-term opportunities. Dairy and egg replacement products and sweet proteins for sugar reduction efforts are massive opportunities that companies should consider addressing in the near term through large-scale production and distribution partnerships with existing small-scale developers like Clara Foods and others. Beyond Meat (and similar meat replacement developers like competitor Impossible Foods) are both taking a plant-based approach to alternative proteins, though either can and should be working in the direction of hybrid plant-and-cell-based burger products, as well as laying the groundwork for a fully cell-based burger product to follow within the coming decade.
You should not read into this post that it’s time to simply jump into alternative proteins with wild abandon – there are challenges to trip companies up along the way. Just Company, formerly Hampton Creek, is a particularly loud example of the risks of alternative protein misadventures, but our team has also chronicled the challenging processes of companies like Perfect Day, needing to pivot from a B2C model to a B2B model to find profitability, and Modern Meadow’s difficult journey from cellular to acellular product developer. Further, commercializing clean meat at cost parity will require an interplay of multiple industries. This will create multiple opportunities – for instance, innovation related to edible biodegradable scaffolding materials targeting more structured meat, custom-made large-scale bioreactors for scale-up, or serum-free media development.
So where are things headed? Going forward the meat and alternatives space will only diversify further. In fact, it is time to recognize that alternative proteins are rapidly moving toward dropping the “alternative” moniker and simply becoming a massive piece of the diversified protein future. The future of meat is a diverse mix of proteins from plants, microbes, cellular agriculture, and animal sources, and companies who embrace technology to achieve consumers’ complex, nuanced demands for their protein sources will reign supreme.
- More Agrifood Research: Emerging Ecosystems in Agrifood and Health
- Report: Ready to Steak Your Claim? The Landscape of "Clean Meat" and Cellular Agriculture Developers (For Lux Members Only)
- Company Profile: Beyond Meat (For Lux Members Only)
- Blog: Emerging Opportunities in the Alternative Protein Space