Alternative proteins’ impact on the livestock sector
By Mike McMorris, Livestock Research Innovation Corporation
As far as alternate proteins go, the future is here. When considering livestock products such as meat, milk and eggs, consumers have many plant-based options and the expectation of cellularly produced products in the near future.
Plant-based options are far from new. There is a fascinating short CBC video from the 1970’s on YouTube all about pea protein used to make meat analogues. The reason it was a hot topic then was due to food security and affordability. Today, consumers are attracted to protein alternatives because they believe them to be better for their health, the planet, and animal welfare.
The past three to five years have seen a huge investment in plant-based alternatives. Most traditional meat processing companies invested as well. Consumer interest sagged in the past 18 months and sales have diminished. The stock valuation of one of the leading plant-based companies is currently at about $9, a long way from sustained periods at around $125.
The newer kid on the alternate protein block is cellular production. This process can be used to replicate most livestock products. The first cellularly produced “hamburger” made waves in 2013 with a price tag of over $300,000. A recent report from the Canadian Food Innovation Network documents investment in cellular production to be about $2.8 billion. A lot can change with that kind of money. Today, you can buy cellularly produced “chicken” nuggets in Singapore, and the U.S. just recently gave approval for the sale of the same product.
How will these competitors affect the livestock industry?
Fortunately, global demand for animal products is expected to rise due to population growth as well as changes in eating patterns as more people join the middle class. Plant-based products will most likely make a comeback of sorts, though current consumer preferences suggest that it will be hard for them to displace a significant portion of the animal product market.
The impact of cellular production is harder to predict and depends on three key factors.
Cellular production will require new regulations, and this will be a repeated challenge in every country. The regulatory process moves slowly, however, as key markets implement regulations, it will become more likely and probably somewhat faster for others to follow.
Taking today’s proven cellular production technology and making it work at a commercial scale will be a huge task. Commercial scale requires massive bioreactors with an important caveat: they must be clean. Massive AND clean is a big step from what can be done today.
The third factor is a “reality check”. Will consumer interest turn into sustained buying patterns or simply be a curiosity? What will the environment impact of cellular production actually be?
Some in the industry are making fantastic claims relative to livestock production. Recent research from University of California Davis suggests that scaled up cellular production may actually be more energy intensive than livestock production. Just how similar are these products to animal-derived products? The package labels may appear similar (protein, fat content, etc) and yet they may be drastically different when consumed.
Recent work by food scientist Dr Michael Rogers at the University of Guelph looked at digestion of the A&W Beyond Beef “burger” versus that of a real burger. The fat in the Beyond Burger is attached to the protein much differently than in real meat where it is intertwined. For real meat, the fat and protein bonds break down slowly over time while in the plant-based product, these bonds break very quickly, releasing high amounts of fat into the gut and bloodstream.
Dr Rogers also found that this quick release of fat has negative implications on the microbiome of the gut further downstream in the digestive system. These impacts are expected to be the same for cellularly produced products due to the way that fats and proteins are bound.
To minimize the impact of alternate proteins, the livestock sector should invest in research that addresses consumer concerns: ensuring and documenting the good health reasons to eat animal products, ways to lower the environmental impact of livestock production, and production methods to improve animal welfare. There is also a clear need for further research to document the actual digestion on the various forms of protein.
The future is here but it continues to change by the day. Through targeted research, innovation and implementation on farms, the livestock sector can help to determine the future of tomorrow.
This commentary by LRIC CEO Mike McMorris was published in the November 27, 2023 edition of Farmtario.