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  • Writer's pictureCharlie Nave

From Petri Dish to Plate

The Companies Leading a Food Revolution

Last year saw considerable growth in the clean meat and alternative protein market and 2020 is positioned to be another milestone year as we see even greater adoption of meat and dairy alternatives by fast food and supermarket giants globally.

As well as continued growth in the roll-out of plant-based meat, we will also see significant advancements in the “lab-grown” or “cell-based” sector which grow animal proteins in the lab without killing the animal.

This growth is being led by a growing consumer market with a much greater understanding of the impacts of existing diets on the environment, their health and on the welfare of animals.

So, why are people making this shift and which companies will be leading the charge in 2020 and beyond?

Why People are Shifting to Plant-Based Diets

From 1990–2014, global meat production increased by 77% (double the 37% growth rate of the world’s population).

In a previous article, I highlighted the global data around the agricultural industry, highlighting, in particular, the impact of red meat on the environment. Some countries and farmers have significantly better practices than others, however, there is no doubt that the global impact of red meat and dairy on water, land and greenhouse gas emissions is significant and unsustainable.

As Oxford University highlighted in a recent paper, “with current diets and production practices, feeding 7.6 billion people is degrading terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, depleting water resources, and driving climate change”.

In fact, according to the same report, cutting meat and dairy from our diet would reduce the greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) of the food systems by 49 per cent. This is supported by a Jan 2020 study by New Scientist which found a 53 per cent reduction in GHG where individuals ate a plant-based diet compared to their normal diets. The reduction is equivalent to 20kg CO2 per week per person (the equivalent of 85kms in an average petrol car).

Furthermore, as well as environmental concerns there is also considerable evidence that high intakes of red and processed meat are detrimental to our health.

It is for these reasons, as well as animal cruelty, that we are seeing a greater shift towards reduced meat (or completely meatless) diets; particularly among younger generations.

The Market

The market for clean/alternative meats and protein can be broadly broken down into plant-based and cell-based.

What we see in the market today is almost entirely plant-based, however, as you can see below, the number of startups and in the R&D and early development phase of cell-based alternatives is growing considerably and as costs come down, it will soon be economic to produce on a mass scale.

At local supermarkets, particularly in the UK, USA, Australia and Canada, alternative proteins backed by some of the world’s largest food and agribusinesses. Here’s a very brief snapshot of where they are and what they’re investing in:

Plant-Based Protein

Plant-based meat has been around for many many years (or decades), however, it has only been in the last few years where developments from the likes of Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have led a new wave of alternative protein startups (and ‘agrifood’ majors) that aim to mimic the look, taste and flavour of meat, dairy and egg.

To do this they use various ingredients which, in the case of Beyond Meat includes proteins (pea, mung bean, fava bean, brown rice, sunflower), combined with fats (cocoa butter, coconut oil), minerals (calcium, iron, salt) and colours/flavours (beet juice, apple extract).

The company’s primary product, the Beyond Burger, is available extensively across the US (Denny’s, Carl’s Jnr, Target, Wholefoods, Dunkin’, TGI Fridays), the UK (Tesco), Singapore (NTUC) and Australia (Grill’d, Lord of the Fries, Coles, IGA).

McDonald’s recently announced an expansion of preliminary Beyond Meat trials (the “P.L.T”), rolling out further to 52 of their restaurants in southern Ontario in Canada.

Impossible Foods is also found extensively throughout the US at over 17,000 restaurants (including Burger King) and this year will be accelerating sales through grocery chains.

Just like the Beyond Burger, the Impossible Burger uses a protein base (in their case soy and potato) as well as coconut and sunflower oils for the fat, however, unlike Beyond — and all other competitors — Impossible Meat’s clear differentiator is their use of heme — a protein found in the myoglobin in blood which carries oxygen and iron around the body and makes the blood red.

Impossible discovered that to make alternative meat taste like real meat they needed to find a way of isolating this protein and growing it at scale. What they discovered was the heme protein was present in the root of soy plants and to extract this they engineered yeast to grow the protein on a commercial scale.

But whilst plant-based burgers are gaining the more prominent position at present, what other developments are there in the plant-based segment?

Here are a few plant-based companies to keep an eye on:

  • JUST Inc has developed a plant-based scrambled egg substitute made from mung means, tumeric and other non-GMO plant-based substitutes (n.b. JUST Inc have also developed a cell-based chicken nugget and are currently working on cell-based wagyu beef — for initial use in ground meat such as burgers)

  • Hong-Kong’s OmniPork, and very recently Impossible Meat, are developing plant-based pork; a huge market, particularly in China where per capita pork consumption is around 38kg (vs 27kgs in the USA). The need for alternatives was also highlighted further this year when African Swine Fever (ASF) tore through the country, eliminating 40% of China’s pigs and seeing prices increase ~70% (as of Sep-19)

  • Good Catch produces plant-based tuna, fish and crab cakes from pea, soy and lentil protein, sunflower oil, seaweed powder and algae oil and distributes through Whole Foods and Fairway in the United States.

  • Australia’s Fable Food Co recently launched with the support of one of the leading chef’s in the world Heston Blumenthal. The fable ‘meat’, as opposed to many competitors, is minimally processed, with shiitake mushrooms comprising 65% of the ingredients

  • Ikea’s Space 10 innovation lab, along with developing innovative design projects, has also been making alternative food products — of most intrigue is the “neatless” meatballs and bug burger; made from vegetable substitutes and mealworms! Ynsect and Protix are already producing animal feed from insects — will this decade see an expansion to human consumption?

Source: Just Inc, OmniPork, Impossible Foods

Cell-Based Protein

Cell-based protein aims to completely replicate the meat/dairy/egg/seafood etc in the lab without the animal.

The first cell-based burger was introduced six years ago for $280,000, however, this cost is likely to reach parity with traditional burgers very soon (i.e. 2–3 years) after rapid funding and R&D in the sector led by the likes of Aleph Farms, Mosa Meats, Meatable, Memphis Meats, Future Meat, Super Meat and JUST Inc.

Furthermore, cell-based protein is also rapidly developing in the seafood market with BlueNalu, Shiok Meats and Finless Foods as well as in the dairy market with TurtleTree Labs.

But how do you get cell-based meat?

The process, according to Mosa Meat (and adopted by most competitors) involves cell extraction and proliferation and looks somewhat like this:

  1. Extract myosatellite cells from the animal via a small biopsy

  2. Cells are placed in a medium containing nutrients and naturally-occurring growth factors and allowed to proliferate just as they would inside an animal

  3. In a bioreactor, the cells proliferate until there are trillions of cells from a small sample

  4. Growth factors cease and muscle cells naturally merge to create myotubes

  5. Myotubes are placed in a gel (99% water) to help form the shape of muscle fibres and strands of muscle tissue

Source: Future Meat Technologies

From that one-sample, Mosa Meats claim to be able to create 800 million strands of muscle tissue — enough for 80,000 quarter pounders (~9,000 kgs of red meat). This is roughly equivalent to 30–40 head of cattle.

As can be seen in the alternative protein landscape above, the number of startups is growing — using various technologies and across multiple areas.

Here are some of the more interesting companies to keep an eye on:

  • Future Meat is an Israel-based company backed by Tyson Foods with patented bioreactors (above) that reportedly produce meat at a considerably faster rate than their peers

  • Bond Pet Food is doing the same as Future Meat and Aleph Farms — using proprietary methods of cellular agriculture (fish, beef, chicken) but applied to pet food. They raised just $1.2m in seed funding last year and hope to have their first consumer product in market this year

  • Australia’s VOW Food is currently focussed on cultivating kangaroo meat, although have ambitions to create a library of animal cells to enable the ethical consumption of all animal species (Zebra? Cheetah? Sloth?)

  • Aleph Farms, backed by agri major Cargill, announced last year that they had grown meat on the International Space Station (ISS). Aleph is bypassing the processed meat and looking to develop more complex 3D structures, and ultimately various cuts of beef. An image of their first ‘steak’ is below

  • Finless Foods are one of the leaders in cell-based seafood, having successfully produced fish cakes over one year ago. They are joined by fast mover, BlueNalu (their yellowfin sashimi below), and Singapore-based Shiok Meats (focussed on shrimp, crab and lobster meat)

  • One of the more unique startups, the Bill Gates, Danone and ADM backed Sustainable Bioproducts have partnered with NASA and others to develop proteins from ‘extremophiles’ — fungal strains that can survive harsh environments such as volcanic springs. The company plans to launch a product in 2020 (although they are fairly quiet on what this product will be)

  • Turtle Tree Labs is creating lab-grown milk and, although the company website puts dairy front and centre, reports highlight that the first product to be launched may be human milk

Source: Aleph Farms, BlueNalu, Memphis Meats

With all of the development’s from the emerging companies and conglomerates, the decade ahead is shaping to be a significant and exciting one — for consumers and the environment.

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