The first quarter of the year has already set up 2022 as another ground-breaking year for food tech and the alternative protein sector.
We think the rest of the year ahead will be defined by 5 important trends, all fuelled by a combination of technological advancements, commercial maturation, and macro tailwinds.
1. Cultivated meat approaches an important inflexion point
Focused on producing real meat by growing animal cells in carefully optimised conditions, cultivated meat start-ups have come a long way since the world’s first ~140g cultivated beef burger was unveiled in 2013 for a staggering $330k.1 Technological breakthroughs at every stage of the cultivated meat value chain have helped bring down costs significantly, with species like chicken now costing less than $22/kg2. Several companies have successfully scaled production to pilot-stage facilities, capable of producing thousands of kilos of cultivated products a year.
Founded in 2015 as one of the first cultivated meat companies, UPSIDE Foods launched its “EPIC” (Engineering, Product & Innovation Centre) facility in November last year. The first-of-its-kind in scale, the facility has the ability to produce almost 25 metric tonnes of product a year.3 Others such as Aleph Farms and SuperMeat have also launched pilot production in anticipation of broader geographically-dispersed regulatory progress.
As companies continue to ride down the cost curve and scale their manufacturing capacity, the onus is shifting to regulators to provide commercial clarity. So far, Singapore remains the only country to have green-lit the commercial sale of animal-free meat, which happened in December 2020. The focus is now firmly on the USDA and FDA in the US, with approval expected to come through in the second half of this year. Across the Atlantic in the UK Parliament, the launch of the Alternative Protein Association took place earlier this month, an industry association which has already become the largest of its kind in Europe, and which will represent the alternative protein industry in supporting policy and regulatory change approval. With companies waiting on the side-line ready to launch, official endorsement by the world’s biggest economies could make 2022 a monumental turning point for cultivated meat.
Image Credit: UPSIDE Foods
2. Precision fermentation to make more consumer debuts
Humans have used fermentation to process foods for centuries; whether to improve their shelf life or bring out unique flavours and textures. Traditional fermentation is used to create many everyday food items such as yoghurt, bread and tempeh. As part of the fermentation process, microbes (e.g, yeast or bacteria) break down sugar to produce complex molecules such as proteins, enzymes or fats. Precision
fermentation, a newer and more advanced technique that leverages genetic engineering, programs microbes to produce specific
types of molecules. The technology has been around since the 1980s (when a strain of E. Coli was
first used to produce insulin for diabetes treatment) but has only recently been applied to food. It has the potential to revolutionise how we produce high-value food ingredients.
There are currently a growing cohort of start-ups using precision fermentation to produce molecules, otherwise derived from animal farming. Following several years of R&D, the most advanced companies have already begun commercial-scale production to support the launch of their ingredients in consumer products. One such example is Perfect Day. The California-based start-up uses precision fermentation to produce the same whey protein found in cow’s milk. The company launched its animal-free whey in a range of products last year including ice cream and cake mix. This year, Perfect Day is teaming up with food giant General Mills to bring animal-free cream cheese to consumers across the country. Moreover, fellow food tech peers Impossible Foods and Motif FoodWorks - both producing the beef-like heme-binding proteins responsible for flavour - are also expanding their footprint, either through new market launches or new product launches. Precision fermentation-derived ingredients in food products will be far more widely available for consumers in 2022.
Image Credit: Perfect Day
3. Next gen consumer products focus increasingly on whole-cut analogues
Take a stroll through most supermarkets today and you will find a section packed with a plethora of alt-meat products. There is certainly no shortage of companies selling their version of plant-based “chicken,” with little in the way of differentiation other than their branding. The vast majority of these alt-meat products are produced using a processing technology called extrusion, where a combination of heat, pressure and moisture, alters the texture of plant proteins to mimic that of meat. The method has been widely used for decades in a variety of applications (including pet food) and has therefore been the go-to for the so-called “first generation” of alt-meat substitutes.
While extruded plant proteins display textures that are somewhat comparable to minced or “unstructured” meat (i.e. burgers and sausages), they miss the mark when it comes to mimicking the complex fibrous texture of whole cuts of meat (i.e. a chicken breast or a steak). The next generation of consumer products that hit supermarket shelves and restaurants alike will focus more on the “holy grail” of whole cuts. Roughly half of all animal-derived meat consumed today is from structured meat, showing its popularity.
Start-ups are looking beyond the extruder to solve the whole-cut problem. Founded in Israel in 2018, Redefine Meat uses a proprietary 3D-printer to print cuts of beef with unparalleled texture and functional properties. In just two short years the company has been able to launch multiple products through hundreds of foodservice outlets across Israel and Europe. Redefine Meat is part of a growing wave of new companies building solutions to solve the whole-cut problem. Juicy Marbles and Meati have also both recently launched their versions of whole-cut products directly to customers. We anticipate more whole-cut debuts in the coming months.
Image Credit: Redefine Meat
4. The intersection of synthetic and computational-biology will breed innovation upstream
We are in the early stages of a bio-manufacturing revolution with seemingly limitless potential. Much of the growth can be attributed to the field of synthetic biology (synbio). Simply put, synbio applies engineering principles to biology. Cells perform specific functions based on their genetic code. The DNA contained within cells is not unlike the code that sits behind software. Altering this code, or even writing it from scratch, allows us to reprogram cells in ways that create desirable outputs. One of the earliest methods to alter this code was through selective breeding (of crops or livestock), often used to optimise for factors such as yield.
Nowadays, advances in DNA technology mean we can alter or even write code from scratch much quicker. Regardless, the R&D process (particularly for newer applications such as food production), requires a lot of experimentation which yields extraordinary amounts of data. This is where the “computational” branch of biology can help. Several start-ups are combining both synthetic biology and computational models, powered by machine learning algorithms, to help optimise their products and bioprocesses.
Israel-based Equinom has built a platform that can match desired traits in food ingredients to the genetic make-up of seed varieties. Its machine learning algorithms can zero in on ideal seed varieties much quicker. Elsewhere, Hoxton Farms has applied its proprietary computational models to optimise the production process of its cultivated animal-fat products. Kingdom Supercultures, who raised a $25M Series A last year, are another example of a start-up using big data analytics to change the selection process of microbial strains (of which there are billions) for use in biomanufacturing.
5. Macro tailwinds to underpin alt-protein sector’s growth and prominence
Animal agriculture accounts for approximately15% of global greenhouse gas emissions.4 It’s also a remarkably inefficient protein production platform, using extraordinary amounts of land and water. More governments, institutions and organisations are beginning to understand that today’s food system requires immediate change to mitigate the inefficiency and make protein production cleaner.
Among them is the governing authority of the world’s most populous country. The Chinese government recently published the 14th installation of its “Five Year Plan of China”, a paper that represents the highest level of policy making in the country. For the first time, alternative protein solutions, like cultivated meat, egg analogues and recombinant proteins, were explicitly cited as focus areas going forward. This is an important validation for the alt-protein sector, by the world’s largest consumer of eggs and meat, and will help unlock more funding for research in the space for years to come.
Last year the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) made its first ever investment into cell-based meat, by awarding $10M to Tufts University, to establish a National Institute for Cellular Agriculture. Furthermore, the Alternative Proteins Association (APA) in the UK – fresh from its launch in parliament earlier this year – is working hard to promote the value of the alt-protein sector and support its growth.
Tragic macroeconomic events such as the global pandemic and the war in Ukraine, have led to large supply-side shocks and demonstrated the fragility of our food security and supply chains. Countries are beginning to think more deliberately about ensuring the security of food for their populations, and much like China, the US and UK, are changing tack accordingly.
- 1. https://newatlas.com/cultured-beef/28584/
- 2. https://singularityhub.com/2021/12/30/the-cost-of-cultured-chicken-dropped-by-more-than-half-this-year/
- 3. https://vegconomist.com/company-news/upside-foods-unveils-epic-a-50m-cultivated-meat-engineering-production-innovation-center/
- 4. https://www.fao.org/3/i3437e/i3437e.pdf