Investing in the alternative, plant-based protein sector would align with the government’s net zero and healthy eating priorities, writes Costanza Poggi from Seahorse Environmental

It doesn’t take much to notice the boom that alternative proteins – plant based, fermented or cultivated meat substitutes – are experiencing in the UK. This January more brands than ever are embracing veganuary and launching new plant based products.

Plant based foods are incredibly popular in the UK, and not just among vegans: one-fifth of meat eaters report eating a sustainable protein option at least once a month. The UK has the second largest plant-based market in Europe, which is projected to rise above £1.1bn by 2024.

But despite the huge appetite for these foods across the nation, as well as being home to some of the original leaders in this space like Quorn, the UK is currently not capturing the full benefits of this market. We largely import these foods from countries that have invested heavily in alternative protein R&D, when we could be leaders in this rapidly advancing field of science and innovation.

With the climate impacts of meat consumption well documented, and the CCC recommending a 20 per cent reduction in consumption of animal protein, the benefits of eating more plant-based proteins are clear. But whilst the government has invested significantly in other solutions to tackling carbon emissions from food – for example food waste and agriculture – it has yet to do so in this sector.

There is also more to this industry than the climate and potential health benefits. As primarily an area of scientific and industrial innovation, the industry could add £1.1bn-£2.1bn to the UK economy in 2030 and $100bn globally by 2040, and the UK is well placed to capture much of this value, but not without a concerted effort from this government to do so.

Time is of the essence. Other countries have already recognised the opportunity of this market and the race to lead the alternative protein space is truly on. Canada has established its own protein supercluster, Singapore was the first country to approve the sale of cultivated (or ‘lab grown’ meats in 2020 and Israel has made the incubation of the industry a national priority, investing approximately $20m into it. By comparison UK investment amounts to £3m-4m.

As outlined by the Good Food Institute (GFI), thought leaders in this space, the UK has a potential natural advantage in this field: as well as being culturally open to food innovation, it has a great deal of transferable expertise in pharmacology, regenerative medicine and biotechnology that would particularly lend itself to the advancement of cultivated meats. It also has a research centre at Bath University directly linked to the production of alternative proteins, and projects at the universities of Cambridge, Newcastle, Manchester and Aston to improve production methods (National Food Strategy).

Private companies such as Quorn, Impossible Foods and others have also largely led the way in terms of advancing innovation in this space. But fostering the development of this new science and industry, and ensuring that the value created is retained in the UK, requires more than private sector investment. Government investment into open access research would benefit the UK alternative proteins sector and help accelerate the resolution of issues around cost, regulation or safety. Without it, we would rely on the privately funded research that companies would have an active incentive to not share with the wider industry. GFI and the National Food Strategy – commissioned by Defra last year – estimate the minimum investment needed to be around £125m.

Politically, investment in this sector not only aligns with the government’s openly stated goals of becoming a science and innovation superpower and reaching net zero, it would also support the levelling up agenda. The National Food Strategy estimates that developing a sustainable protein hub would create 10,000 new factory jobs and secure 6,500 jobs in farming (to produce protein crops and other inputs), and act as an accelerator between the public and private sectors, bringing together researchers, universities and companies.

This is a particularly opportune time to make these commitments. The UK government is due to publish a Food White Paper (its response to the National Food Strategy) and a Levelling Up White Paper, both of which offer the opportunity to set out how the UK will take its place in the global alternative protein race. Significant net zero related innovation funding was also announced in the Comprehensive Spending Review at the end of last year. Given the sector’s alignment with the government’s priorities, allocating some of that funding to its growth would be an investment well made.

Costanza Poggi is account director at Seahorse Environmental.

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