Growth in the fringe
By Lilian Schaer for Livestock Research Innovation Corporation
For a long time, alternative protein options have been fringe players in the food world. That’s no longer the case as their popularity has started to grow rapidly, particularly with younger consumers.
That’s partially due to market positioning as being “cleaner and healthier” than conventional animal-based products, but they’re also increasingly being promoted as a way to fight climate change.
Rightly or wrongly, with the sheer number of climate-related disasters making global headlines this year from floods and wildfires to prolonged drought and temperature extremes, that trend is likely to continue - and also likely to resonate with concerned consumers hoping to make a difference.
According to David Coletto, CEO of Abacus Data, Canadian consumers but particularly Millennials and Generation Z, will be making more climate-friendly food choices. Why does that matter to the livestock industry? Coletto’s research shows “climate-friendly” food choices include eating less meat, which 58% of consumers do for health reasons, 43% because of animal welfare concerns, and 37% to lower their carbon footprint.
“One out of five Canadians thinks about climate change all the time and as this concern grows, so, too, will carbon neutral diets, which creates an impetus on producers to answer how they are reducing their carbon footprint,” he said during a presentation to the Farm & Food Care Ontario annual conference earlier this year.
The category of alternative proteins includes lab-grown/cultured meat (also known as cellular agriculture), precision fermentation that creates animal-based proteins without animals, as well as the more traditional plant-based meat, egg, and dairy alternatives. Changing technologies and ingredients are making these types of products tastier, cheaper, and more versatile than in the past, which is rapidly broadening their appeal as more sustainable alternatives.
Nature’s Fynd is a Chicago-based company that relies on naturally occurring fungi that is high in protein which it grows rapidly and efficiently in large quantities using biomass fermentation. By growing the microbes with simple sugars and foods in a controlled environment, the process only takes a few days to harvest.
“It’s a 24/7, 365-day growing season for us whereas animals take years and plants take a growing season, so we can grow large amounts of new protein rapidly,” explained Chief Marketing Officer Karuna Rawal while speaking at the recent Future Food-Tech Alternative Protein Summit. “We have great textures for meat but can convert into a texture for dairy too; the versatility is significant.”
California start-up Eat Just became the first company in the world last year to sell cultured chicken, launching it in Singapore. Cells are extracted from a living animal and fed with lipids, water, nutrients, and amino acids to produce meat without needing the live animal itself.
“We only grow the meat you eat, not the whole animal or bird and as we scale, the promise of this technology is to find a more sustainable way to eat meat,” said head of marketing Tom Rossmeissl.
The “slaughter-free” aspect of cultivated meat resonates with consumers, he added, as do the antibiotic- and growth hormone-free labels.
Speaking at the same conference, the general managing partner of global venture capital firm that supports tech start-ups predicted that animal-based agriculture will ultimately become a luxury item accounting for approximately 10% of the market. The rest will be made up by plant, cellular and precision fermentation-based products.
Comments like that, along with environmental advocates who lay the blame for climate change solely at the feet of agriculture and specifically livestock agriculture, raise the ire of Livestock Research Innovation Corporation CEO Mike McMorris.
Frustrated by the lack of credible and balanced information on topics like climate change and alternate proteins, LRIC launched its Horizon Series of white papers and webinars earlier this year to tackle key issues facing the livestock industry in collaboration with noted experts in the field.
The goal is to offer balanced and science-based information for consumers and policymakers, but also for farmers who need information to make production decisions or are looking for some points they can use when talking to people about raising livestock.
“It’s very important for the livestock industry to be aware about what is being said about our production practices and our products so that we know what we are up against and where we can continue to make improvements,” McMorris says. “We know that the livestock industry has made big strides in reducing its environmental footprint and that we are an important part of climate change mitigation, but the challenge lies in getting those messages in front of the public.”
This article was first published in the October/November 2021 edition of Ontario Hog Farmer.