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More than Meats the Eye

11 September 2019
4 Minute Read

It’s summertime and you’re enjoying a lazy morning by the hotel pool. As the lunch hour approaches, you consider ordering a burger … until you notice that your new bathing suit is already stretched to the limit.

Fortunately, there’s now a far healthier and more environmentally sustainable way to satisfy that craving.

Consider the “burgers” produced by Beyond Meat Inc., a California-based maker of “alternative proteins” that listed on the Nasdaq in May and whose early-stage investors include Bill Gates and Leonardo DiCaprio. Beyond Meat saw its share price jump by over 160% on the first trading day, giving the company a market value of nearly $4 billion.

Beyond Meat’s patties are mostly made of pea protein, plus some beet juice to mimic the “bleed” of beef. Just Inc., another Silicon Valley startup, produces “meat” through the in vitro cultivation of animal cells, rather than from slaughter, while Finless Foods markets “fish” grown in a bioreactor.

Recognizing that livestock is responsible for around 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions, on par with the auto industry, such firms seek to address issues such as natural-resource scarcity and climate change – as well as animal cruelty – and form part of a broader movement of new food production and farming techniques known as “Agriculture 4.0.”

Today, the plant-based and animal-free segment represents just a fraction of the €7 trillion global food and agriculture industry. However, according to AgFunder, an online agrifood platform, worldwide investment in food technology more than tripled between 2012-2017. Such investment continues to increase, with a particular focus on precision farming, alternative proteins and digital food technology.

While consumer knowledge and acceptance of these products is still low, the cost of alternative proteins has fallen significantly over time. Consequently, evidence suggests that large-scale tech-food production could be achievable in the medium term, helping to feed a growing global population.

Just as important for the sector’s long-term success, ethical concerns are reshaping eating habits in many developed markets, especially among younger demographics, who are increasingly embracing vegetarian and vegan lifestyles.

Moving forward, the greatest obstacle to the growth of companies like Beyond Meat, Just and Finless Foods is likely to be regulatory. Almost everywhere on earth, the food industry is very heavily regulated – and for good reason.

That explains why you probably can’t order an alternative-protein burger for your lunch today, though, if you’re feeling virtuous, there’s surely at least one salad option on the menu.