An alternative price for protein

Despite its growing popularity, the alternative protein scene still faces many challenges with cost and production. Agatha Wong speaks with Gautam Godhwani, managing partner of Good Startup, to find out how the production of alternative proteins can be optimised to attract more consumers.

Alternative protein, despite having entered the mainstream, is still commonly associated and perceived as a “niche product”. In your opinion, how can alternative protein break away from this “niche product” label, and what are your recommendations to alternative protein producers to appeal to wider consumers?

Gautam Godhwani: Consumers purchase products based on two primary factors – taste and price. As “alternative proteins” come closer to achieving these objectives across animal product categories such as meat, seafood, dairy and eggs, consumers will adopt them in increasing numbers, and over time will drop the label “alternative” and simply refer to them as “proteins”.

To reach this point, we will not only utilise plant-based technologies like those available today but microorganism- and cell-based technologies, which can produce specific proteins and achieve the taste and texture of meat as animal cells are grown outside the animal. Ultimately, a combination of plant-, microorganism- and cell-based technologies will create products indistinguishable from meat, available at a reasonable price, yet healthier for consumers and the planet.

Despite growing demand, plant-based alternatives still cost more than animal products. Is there a reason why this is so, and how can plant-based meat producers innovate to better scale production costs?

Godhwani: Plant-based meats are still early in their development so the ingredients and processes utilised to create them are also in a nascent stage. As we attain a greater variety of ingredients, improve processes and increase scale, plant-based meats will reach price points that are much more attractive for consumers.

The animal agriculture industry also receives subsidies of various kinds from governments across the world. Without them, their price would be comparably higher as well. As governments recognise that alternative proteins are better for both consumers and the planet, it is likely they will also provide incentives to adopt alternative proteins, similar to the subsidies available for clean energy today. This will raise awareness and accelerate adoption as well.

A Good Food Institute article, When will the price be right?, projected that plant-based meat might achieve price parity with conventional animal-based protein by 2023. Can you share with us your views on this, and how might producers of other types of alternative proteins achieve price parity sooner as well?

Godhwani: Plant-based meat is a broad category. It encompasses various foods like beef, pork, chicken and more, and different offerings such as ground meat and whole cuts. As technologies and processes improve, we will increasingly see prices of plant-based meats match animal products, category by category. While it is difficult to predict when this may happen due to the volatility of supply chains and macroeconomic conditions today, we can be confident that an increasing number of meat categories will match animal products over time.

The other factor here is government subsidies, which are available for animal products in many countries and food categories, but not for alternative proteins. This will shift over time as well.

Do you agree that the plant-based meat supply chain is less complex than traditional livestock agriculture? Even so, what are some of the opportunities and challenges plant-based foods have brought forth to the supply chain, and how is Good Startup helping to address these issues?

Godhwani: The plant-based supply chain is considerably more diverse than traditional livestock culture due to its myriad ingredients, process and products. Alternative proteins as a whole encompass not only plant-based but microorganism- and cell-based technologies as well. Each of these technology stacks has its supply chain, which is rapidly evolving. Plant-based technologies need to utilise new ingredients, create better formulations that are less expensive, create better taste profiles that are healthy and sustainable.

We remain very excited about companies in the supply chain and their contribution to advancing the sector. Over 50% of our 19 investments to date are in companies improving the supply chain, rather than end consumer products.

In your opinion, will meat alternatives completely replace traditional meat? And how will the current supply chain meet the growing demands of plant-based diets?

Godhwani: As we look to 2050 when the planet will have a population of 10 billion people with a substantially larger middle class by percentage, we know that we will face a protein shortage with our current food system. As a result, alternative proteins will fill an essential gap in feeding the population.

However, these products are also increasingly designed to have better nutritional profiles and are produced more sustainably. As these products achieve taste and price parity, we see a significant number of consumers shift to these alternatives. Taking a very long-term perspective, eating meat from an animal will become a novelty, just as eating alternative proteins is viewed as a novelty today.

Microorganism-based, lab-grown and cell-based meats – these are the other meat alternatives that have emerged into the market. Can you share with us your opinion on cultivated meat, and do you foresee these innovations finding acceptance among consumers despite complex technical, social and ethical issues?

Godhwani: Cultivated meat is a promising technology that is comparably early in its development relative to plant-based foods. The end product is molecularly identical to conventional meat, with the exception that the cells are grown outside the animals. Due to its design, the meat is high quality, free of antibiotics, hormones and contaminants, more nutritious, produced more sustainability, and without harming animals.

More than ever, consumers want products they love to eat which are also good for their health and good for the planet. Cultivated meat enables consumers to eat great tasting meat, improve their health and help the planet. Regulatory authorities around the world are actively working to ensure that these products are safe and monitored regularly as they evolve. Singapore offers the most advanced regulatory pathway in the world for cultivated meat, and as the early adopter, has already shown that these products are safe.

This article was first published in the April/May issue of Food & Beverage Asia.