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Today’s Food System Can’t Get Us to Tomorrow — Alternative Protein Innovation and Collaboration Can
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views or position of Startup Genome.
“When you need to innovate, you need collaboration.”—Marissa Mayer
How we feed ourselves — our families and communities — is essentially the story of us. It’s the story of a growing global community living together on a small blue dot of a planet, growing food with finite land, water, and other resources. The story of food and agriculture is also one of complex challenges and the new ideas, innovations, and collaborations that arise to solve them.
Today, with conventional animal agriculture as a major driver of global emissions, pollution, and deforestation, our food system requires a bold new chapter of innovation and collaboration. If we are to meet global climate goals, protect our environment, stem biodiversity loss, and feed 10 billion people by 2050, we must shift away from industrial animal agriculture and towards more sustainable means of protein production. This will also be critical in protecting public health and reducing the risks of pandemics and antibiotic resistance.
The emerging field of alternative proteins — making meat from plants and cultivating it from animal cells — is ushering in that new chapter. Alternative proteins are creating an entirely different food future — one that enables us to sustainably feed each other, improve health and wellbeing, create new livelihoods, preserve biodiversity, and protect our lands and waters. For us to successfully transition to a food system where alternative proteins are no longer alternative, however, innovation and collaboration must happen at a level, scale, and pace never seen before.
Crisis Calls for Collaboration
Climate change, pandemics, global conflicts, social and economic inequities, and the unraveling of ecosystems define our world today. The destabilizing effects of it all can make thoughtful, strategic collaboration that is focused on the long view difficult and elusive. But the difficulty is exactly why collaboration is key. None of us can solve all of these challenges on our own.
Food and agriculture are central to both the challenges and the solutions. Today, industrial animal agriculture is responsible for 20% of global emissions. Transitioning from this system to alternative ways of producing protein holds the most promising opportunity to achieve net-zero emissions in our food system in coming decades. Expansion of cropland and pastures to feed livestock are the leading drivers of deforestation, so a shift to new ways of producing protein would also free up massive amounts of land for restoration and recovery. Conventional animal agriculture today requires significant amounts of water and results in pollutants flowing into our rivers, lakes, wetlands, and oceans. Meat alternatives can preserve precious water resources while either eliminating or significantly reducing those pollutants, keeping them out of our freshwater and marine ecosystems.
While efforts to encourage people in developed economies to eat less meat are important and necessary, the projections for increased consumption are clear: Forecasts by agricultural economists indicate that global meat production and consumption is expected to more than double by 2050. We need meat made differently. We need meat made without animals, decoupled from harm, and paired instead with reduced emissions, improved global health, ecosystem recovery, and food security. And we need it now.
Collaborations Starting to Take Root
What’s extraordinary about this moment is the readiness that’s growing across the food and agricultural sector to step up, collaborate, change course, and collectively invest in new ways of feeding the world.
Specifically, readiness for the globally scalable solution of alternative proteins is showing up in innovative startups and, increasingly, throughout the industry. It’s appearing in the portfolios of investors and in the product lines of the largest food and meat companies in the world. It’s growing in research institutes, universities, government agencies, and philanthropic foundations. Readiness is starting to take root in rural communities as farmers shift from growing crops to feed livestock to crops for alternative protein products, eliminating massive inefficiencies and harmful externalities from the supply chain. From across the public, private, and civil society sectors, we’re seeing this readiness and willingness to collaborate and innovate lead to scientific breakthroughs, infrastructure investments, and food solutions that solve multiple problems at once.
These early indicators are exciting to see, but they’re not nearly enough. If we are to avoid what the World Resource Institute describes as the “global land squeeze” — ever-increasing competition over finite land resources driven by agricultural expansion and the rising demand for meat — we will need significantly more entrepreneurs, corporate leaders, investors, researchers, students, policymakers, and regulators seizing their roles in this work.
If we are to fix what’s fundamentally broken, we need to work together to clear a pathway for alternative proteins to become the default choice. To do this, we must ensure that they are as tasty, affordable, and accessible as conventional animal proteins. Here are three specific collaborations that are needed now:
1. Private Sector + Public Sector Investments in Alt Protein R&D
As with the transition to renewable energy currently underway, the global protein transition will require both the private and public sector to play leading roles. History shows us, time and again, the synergistic effects that public and private R&D can have on scientific and social progress, as well as the economy. When leveraged with private sector investments, public investments have stimulated new markets, jobs, and solutions — from radar and information technology to clean energy and vaccines.
Alternative proteins have already attracted millions in private funding from those who see its potential as a smarter use of finite resources and a massive investment opportunity. But while privately funded research is valuable, it’s simply not enough. Private funding tends to focus on applied science and commercialization to achieve a rapid return on investment for a small number of shareholders, while public investments fund long-term basic research, often leading to unanticipated advances on decades-long time scales — and it benefits the whole industry, not just one company.
When paired with private investments in R&D, publicly funded innovation — in the form of increased government investment in alternative protein R&D — can have a multiplier effect on our collective food future. It can simultaneously help spur economic growth, reduce environmental harm, and deliver broad and long-lasting public benefits. Together, public and private investments can lead to more choices for consumers, climate-forward job creation, a stronger economy, and a more resilient food supply.
2. Investors + Climate Technology + Alt Proteins
For investors, the convergence of social, environmental, and economic crises in recent years has illuminated the risks associated with business-as-usual production practices and portfolios. Investors across sectors are waking up to the massive social and economic potential of food technology to radically remake our food system for the better. In 2021, investments in alternative proteins grew to a record-breaking $5 billion, up 60% from the prior year.
While investment capital in alternative protein industries has grown at an impressive rate, it remains a small fraction of the trillions of dollars that have been invested in climate technology companies. In fact, $47 billion of private capital flowed to climate technology companies in 2021 alone. When considering that alternative proteins offer a critical solution to mitigating the 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions resulting from animal agriculture, it is clear that much more investment will be needed to help reach net-zero commitments. Such investments will allow companies to continue critical R&D, scale production, and bring down costs to better compete with conventionally produced animal protein.
3. Alt Proteins + Nonprofits Focused on Global Health, Food Security, and Biodiversity
For organizations and institutions working at the intersection of food, hunger, health, animals, and the environment, a global protein transition is like a solution sitting on a shelf that many just haven’t realized is there yet. Shifting to new ways of making meat solves many of the biggest existential threats of our time, yet too few are centering alternative proteins within their strategies.
Take food security and health: Growing crops as feed for farm animals is inherently inefficient (it takes nine calories of feed for a chicken to produce one calorie of meat), driving up the price of grains and legumes and entrenching global poverty and hunger. Instead, we could feed those crops directly to people as ingredients in plant-based meat. Shifting to more efficient alternative proteins eliminates the use of animals for food, which is a key driver of zoonotic diseases, pandemics, and antibiotic resistance. With less reliance on livestock, the need for antibiotics in our food system plummets, which is key to keeping antibiotic-resistant bacteria from undermining the effectiveness of lifesaving drugs around the world.
Or consider biodiversity: The world’s largest and most influential environmental and biodiversity-focused nonprofits know that to solve for biodiversity, we must solve for food and agriculture. They see and study the impact that agriculture has on forests, grasslands, wetlands, rivers, and entire ocean ecosystems. While some of these organizations know about and talk about alternative proteins, these conversations are happening in the margins, as just one of several things happening in the sphere of sustainable agriculture. Too few of the world’s biodiversity nonprofits are centering alternative proteins as the essential solution and enabler that it is.
If we care about healthy forests and woodlands, then we need alternative proteins to stem the root cause of deforestation — agricultural expansion needed for crops and pastures for livestock. (In addition to direct emissions, changing how we produce meat could free up to three billion hectares of land — a landmass larger than China and India combined and then doubled.) If we care about rivers, wetlands, lakes, creeks, and streams, then we need alternative proteins to prevent them from continuing to be polluted. (Plant-based meat uses 95–99% less water and causes 51–91% less aquatic nutrient pollution than conventional meat. It also requires a fraction of the cropland, proportionately less fertilizer, and produces no manure.) If we care about coastal zones and ocean ecosystems, we need alternative proteins to not only prevent pollution, but to also enable marine biodiversity to rebound and recover with the advent of alternative seafood.
As essential as renewable energy is to the future of energy and as electric vehicles are to the future of transportation, alternative proteins are essential to the future of our climate, global health, food security, and biodiversity.
Alt Proteins Are at the Center of Every Collaboration Needed To Create a Better Food Future
As an enabler of global goals, alternative proteins are at the center of every collaboration needed to usher in a more sustainable, secure, and just food future. Without them, it will be impossible to decarbonize our food system, impossible to hit net-zero emissions, and impossible to sustainably feed 10 billion people.
While the potential of alternative proteins is exciting and promising, success is not inevitable and requires significant investment, innovation, and collaboration. If investors and companies want to minimize risk, create value, and achieve sustainability goals, they need to recognize that making meat from plants and cultivating it from cells are opportunities rather than threats. If governments want to meet their climate targets without telling people what to eat, they need to invest in developing delicious, affordable plant-based and cultivated meat so that the sustainable option becomes the default choice. If NGOs want to solve the biggest social and environmental challenges of our time, they need to prioritize alternative proteins.
We can do this. We can collaborate and innovate. Together, we can create a brighter food future.