Feed the World (Sustainably) – Accelerating the Plant-based Protein Transition


There is no doubt that the world is in a climate crisis. The food industry has a significant role to play in global emissions, with a report from Nature Food stating that in 2015 the food sector accounted for 34% of global greenhouse gas emissions. With the supply chain for plant-based proteins typically emitting less carbon than animal-derived proteins, a transition from animal proteins to plant-based proteins is a key part of addressing the environmental impact of the food sector.

Overall, global meat consumption has been increasing, almost doubling since the 1960’s according to the FAO. The shift to plant-based proteins is gaining pace in some countries but plant-based protein products are yet to achieve price parity with animal proteins and converging prices would help to accelerate the transition globally.

The question then remains, how can we pave the path for plant-based protein to reach price parity with animal meats? Part of the answer is establishing a symbiotic production process for plant-based proteins.

The world population is forecast to grow to 10 billion by 2050 and, according to the Good Food Institute (GFI), global demand for meat is projected to rise 50% between 2013 and 2050. Transforming our food systems to meet this demand sustainably will require the most radical upheaval since the agricultural revolution.

Whilst the price differential between meat and alternative proteins is shrinking, a report by ProVeg found that this was driven mainly by animal meat becoming 21% more expensive, with plant-based products remaining the same price or becoming more expensive.

The beef and dairy industries have well-established structures and systems for using and valorising by-products. These synergies mean the economics for animal meat are better and the resulting retail products are cheaper.

The plant-based food system is still relatively nascent and there are opportunities to develop more efficient supply chains which can deliver sustainability and financial benefit.

For example, let’s take the Yellow pea – an emerging ingredient used widely in plant-based proteins. Only 25% of the yellow pea is protein, with the by-product being used for animal feed and biomass energy. This by-product can be used as feedstock for a biomass fermentation process to grow more protein, meaning a lower input cost and more protein per hectare of land.

A more efficient use of by-products, alongside strategic co-location, can maximise the positive impact of alternative proteins and help to drive down costs and in turn, lower prices. Bitburger and Mushlabs in Germany are exemplifying co-location.

Mushlabs grows mycelium using biomass fermentation and in July, Bitburger announced that it would provide production capacity and spent grains to Mushlabs. Mushlabs is one of the first start-ups to use upcycled ingredients to ferment mycelium and the new collaboration makes production cheaper and more sustainable by allowing Mushlabs to reduce the distance its materials are transported.

Another prevalent example of valorising by-products is The Protein Brewery, who are using waste streams from vegetable production and fermenting them to brew plant-based proteins.

There is a huge opportunity to make a difference, but scale economics are crucial for the continuing acceptability of plant-based proteins. Plant-based meat sales have stagnated in the last year, nevertheless, Food Strategy Associates predicts that plant-based will return to very strong double-digit growth, despite continuing volatility as new technologies, new brands, and new products come to market. This growth will be underpinned by establishing symbiotic, co-located systems of production. Achieving cheaper, more efficient and sustainable production of plant-based proteins will support the food transition and in turn, help to feed a growing population more sustainably.

Why listen to us?

At Food Strategy Associates, we have been focused on the plant-based transition since our inception a decade ago. We have extensive knowledge of the key players, emerging technologies, business models and operations. We have completed over 20 plant-based food and dairy projects in the last three years across Europe, North America and the Middle East and in addition to our experienced leadership team, have a broad network across the plant-based world. We also have an extensive collection of market data, including scan data, consumer research commissioned by FSA, store audit and retailer web scraping that we leverage for our work.