Even with significant improvements in livestock production, meat and dairy will likely remain the most greenhouse gas (GHG) intensive foods on our plates. Yet the plant-based meat and dairy market is taking off in the U.S., driven by a spate of innovation in new food products that increasingly resemble conventional meat and dairy in terms of taste, texture, and price.
If products on the market today are any indication, plant-based pork and chicken could reduce emissions by 30–36 percent compared to their meat counterparts, and plant-based burgers could reduce emissions by 80–90 percent compared to conventional beef patties. At the same time, emerging technologies to produce cell-based or cultivated meat in the lab are advancing rapidly, and their products could be on consumers’ plates in the next 3–5 years. Initial studies suggest that cell-based beef could reduce the impact of livestock on land use by more than 95 percent and bring down GHG emissions by some 80 percent compared to conventional beef.
Supply Chain Constraints
A transition from animal agriculture toward alternative proteins will have massive supply chain implications for global commodity markets. Among them is expanding or retrofitting ingredient processing capacity to create suitable inputs for plant-based products, fermentation, and cultivated meat. Currently, agricultural supply chains are heavily optimized around commoditized feedstocks for animal agriculture, whereas alternative proteins will require novel crop development, clean regulatory pathways, and new processing methods. The variability and inconsistency of raw materials can cause supplier lock-in and increase the technical risk associated with reformulation or process alterations, which can result in resistance from buyers to modify their supply chain.
Production Capacity and Cost
Production capacity is one of the most significant constraints facing the alternative protein industry. Producers do not have the types and quantities of ingredients and other inputs they need, and production equipment is highly specialized. As a result, demand for high-quality alternative protein foods—especially for products like plant-based burgers that require specialized equipment and processes like high-moisture extrusion—has far outpaced supply, and even well-capitalized alternative protein manufacturers have struggled to keep up with sales growth. Shortages aren’t the only problem; higher production costs and prices are one of the most significant barriers to industry and consumer adoption of alternative protein foods. That said, economies of scale from higher production volumes will make high-quality alternative-protein foods and ingredient inputs more affordable. This, in turn, will unleash demand and expand consumer access.
Information Gaps and Consumer Awareness
Because the alternative protein sector is still nascent, gaps in fundamental research areas can lead to redundant efforts. More informational resources would address these knowledge gaps, catalyzing greater participation and minimizing market inefficiencies. Research tools and comprehensive public databases are required to address critical technical challenges such as full genome sequencing for food-relevant species.
In addition, consumers lack awareness of key aspects of alternative proteins, including the nutritional and health impacts of these foods. At the same time, stringent labeling regulations often prevent plant-based products from using meat and dairy-related terms in their packaging, further confusing consumers.
Technology Innovation Examples
Producing plant-based meat is a four-step process. First, food scientists select the best source material for the product: today this is often wheat or soy, but it could also be a novel plant source or fungi, algae, or bacteria. Next, they optimize that source, giving it the attributes the final product needs, such as higher protein content or reduced off-flavors. Then they isolate the desired raw materials from the source materials, which undergo mechanical and/or chemical processes to create optimal ingredients for the final product. Finally, art and science combine these ingredients to create the desired taste, texture, smell, and appearance.
The production of cultivated meat borrows technology from the cell-therapy industry. First, a small biopsy of cells is obtained from an animal. These cells are placed in a tank (called a bioreactor or cultivator) and “fed” with nutrients that allow the cells to divide and multiply exponentially. Once they have increased to a sufficient quantity, the conditions in the cultivator are changed, and the cells differentiate to the cells that make up meat—muscle, fat, and connective tissue. This process takes around 6–8 weeks, far faster than the time required to raise an animal for slaughter (and, of course, the animal in question never needs to be killed).