Alternative proteins could be a new, sustainable pathway to meeting the future food demands of a growing global population
Global protein demand is increasing rapidly, thanks to a confluence of factors such as a growing population, rapid urbanisation and rising incomes. There are no signs of a plateau for global meat consumption – production today is nearly five times higher than in the 1960s.
Even so, demand is still expected to outpace supply, as we seek to feed a population of nearly 10 billion by 2050 – of which more will become increasingly discerning about their food choices, opting for diets that are more diverse.
The challenges of providing sufficient and more nutritious food come against a backdrop of expectations to do so more sustainably. Livestock farming is already one of the largest users of land and fresh water globally, and a not-insignificant contributor of greenhouse gas emissions – especially one of the most harmful: methane.
Providing the food needs of nearly 10 billion people with less resources will be a major challenge of this century. We need additional, sustainable pathways to ensure food security for future generations.
A new supply of protein
Alternative proteins have been attracting recent attention as a sustainable substitute.
The concept itself is not new – mock meat for vegans and vegetarians has been around for a long time. What has changed is the quality of this new generation of alternative protein, made possible by advanced technologies in the lab.
Plant-based proteins are rising stars on this stage. Impossible Foods, one company in this space in which Temasek has invested, has already become a familiar global name, with its products, such as beef patties, made with plant-based ingredients.
The products do not sacrifice on taste and have high protein values. They have received satisfying reviews, even from meat-lovers. In summary, they are a new source of protein that could meet both sustainability and consumer acceptance objectives.
However, they are not cheap – partly because the supply chain for their ingredients is less established than that for traditional animal protein. Despite being priced at a premium today, there is a market of increasingly eco-conscious consumers who are willing to pay for these products.
Meanwhile, cultured meat, or meat literally ‘grown’ in bio-reactors, is another emerging field to watch. Cell-based products are not yet priced at commercially acceptable levels, but costs have been dropping rapidly. When Memphis Meats produced its first lab-grown meatball in 2016, it cost nearly US$40,000 per kilogram to produce. By January 2018, it had dropped to a little over US$5,200 per kilogram.
It is not just meat but also dairy that is undergoing a revolution. Companies like Perfect Day are producing animal-free milks, cheese, yoghurts and ice creams. These are not the usual soy or almond substitutes; they contain the same dairy proteins as cow milk, and taste like it too.
Such innovations are not just happening in the US but all over the world, with companies adapting to local taste buds. In Singapore, local start-up Shiok Meats unveiled a cell-based shrimp dumpling (or siew mai) earlier this year. Impossible Foods also arrived in Singapore to much excitement for food-lovers here, while in Australia, V2Food is developing plant-based protein products, and winning interest from quick service restaurants.
Looking forward, researchers are also exploring insects, algae and fungi as sources of protein. Some may be for human consumption, while others may replace proteins used in animal feed, allowing animal agriculture to become more competitive and sustainable.
Two of Temasek’s investments in this space include InnovaFeed, which produces fish feed with insect protein, and Calysta, which uses microorganisms to convert methane into feed protein. These innovative solutions serve as supplementary sources to meet the overall demand for protein, not just by humans but also animals, including livestock, poultry and fish.
Diversifying a trillion-dollar global meat industry
Four years ago, the alternative protein market was in its infancy, with only around 20 identifiable start-ups globally. Today, there are at least a hundred, at a quick count – and the numbers are growing.
Even as traditional meat continue to supply most of the world’s protein needs in the foreseeable future, alternative protein will be an important part of the mix. Barclays analysts expect the alternative protein market to reach US$140 billion, or 10% of the global meat industry, over the next 10 years.
As an investor looking to do well and also do good, Temasek sees alternative protein companies offering a strong value proposition, while being a sustainable solution for the world. There is long term growth potential in this space – with that view, Temasek has invested in a total of eight start-ups in this space, including Impossible Foods and Perfect Day.
Governments and regulators also play a big role in this future. The main challenge lies in food standards and regulatory acceptance of new proteins. There are also differences in regulations between jurisdictions that add complexity. It is no longer a purely agricultural-based landscape and ecosystem. Like many other areas, the technology underpinning these changes are evolving rapidly, and regulatory regimes need to move as well.
However, there are signs of growing acceptance as governments see the potential of alternative protein as a viable food source for their populations. In Singapore, the government allocated S$144 million to fund innovative agri-food projects, including lab-grown meat. This is part of its ‘30 by 30’ vision – to produce 30% of the nation’s nutritional needs locally by 2030, up from less than 10% currently.
Together with the growing agri ecosystem, which brings together world-class research institutes, home-grown innovators, and global accelerators, incubators and investors, Singapore looks well-placed to nurture innovations like alternative proteins targeted at an Asian market. This is important when we see that Asia’s population is amongst the fastest-growing in the world, and with vastly different taste preferences than the West.
The recipe for a more sustainable world
Taking a step back, traditional meat will continue to play an important role in feeding a world hungry for protein. Factors like scale of production, lower price points and consumer preference point to this. New technologies in this industry are also helping to lower its environmental footprint, and this needs to continue at a faster pace across the industry. For example, DSM is developing cow feed which biologically reduces the animal’s methane emissions.
At the same time, adding alternative protein to the mix will help to alleviate the strain on existing systems and lessen the ecological impact of the production of protein products for human consumption. Even established meat players like Tyson have started their own forays into this space.
Building a sustainable future requires the reimagining of our food systems – this means new ways of catering to the demand for protein to feed a growing population, while reducing the impact of doing so on our planet.
Temasek is an investor in Impossible Foods, Perfect Day, InnovaFeed and Calysta.
Temasek is also an investor in Australian deep tech start-up fund, Main Sequence
Ventures, which is an investor in V2Food, as well as the New Protein Fund, which
is an investor in Shiok Meats.
 CNBC, “Alternative meat to become $140 billion industry in a decade, Barclays predicts” (23 May 2019)
 UN Food and Agriculture Organization, “Meat production across the world” (Aug 2017)