The Role of Science-Driven Alt Protein Startups in Addressing Global Food Security

A recent review article published in Nature Communications explored an ecosystem of alternative protein startups and their science-powered innovations, exploring the potential market penetration of products and their impact on addressing the food security challenge — doubling protein demand by 2050 without relying on animal agriculture.

Elena Lurie-Luke and her team at the Department of Biosciences at Durham University, UK, utilized science-driven startups as a data source to assess progress in alternative proteins, emphasizing their agility and innovative capabilities.

Translating innovation to the market

The researchers categorized the startup ecosystem based on their product development approach to create alternatives to meat and fish proteins into three groups: Replace, Modify, and Make.

Revo Foods salmon filet on plate with asparagus
© Revo Foods

The study used already-developed products as examples to analyze the potential of products to reach consumers, which, at the same time, depends on scalability and cost.

  • Replace: This production method involves using existing non-animal-derived ingredients such as plants to substitute proteins from animals or fish. Plant-based proteins are the most established alternative, with many products already available in grocery stores and restaurants. Companies are using clever computer programs to design new products. These programs analyze tons of data on food ingredients, nutrition, and recipes to come up with tasty plant-based alternatives. For instance, India’s Eatkind uses AI to convert traditional recipes into plant-based versions, leveraging extensive digital databases and machine learning to optimize food design.
  • Modify: This strategy enhances non-animal protein sources like insect and plant proteins. Plant-based foods have seen significant technological advancements, including developing textured vegetable proteins that mimic the taste and texture of meat and dairy products.  For example,  Spain’s Novameat in Spain is implementing 3D bioprinting technology to achieve meat-like textures in plant-based products.
  • Make: This method involves generating new proteins using advanced technologies such as three-dimensional (3D) bioprinting, precision fermentation, and cellular agriculture. These technologies promise to reduce environmental impact and improve sustainability but require significant investment and infrastructure development. Still, translating these innovations into market-ready products faces several hurdles.
Wildtype Salmon Nigiri On White
© Wildtype

Challenges to reach the market

According to the review, high production costs and complex technological processes hinder mass production. Companies like SciFi Foods are working on using CRISPR technology to reduce costs, aiming to produce affordable cultivated meat burgers. The regulatory framework also slows market introductions since many countries lack established protocols for certifying cultivated meat and other novel proteins. Navigating this landscape requires startups to engage with regulatory bodies actively.

More importantly, consumer acceptance is key to advancing a transition to a more sustainable diet. Mimicking the texture, taste, and appearance of traditional food is crucial for consumer acceptance. The review highlights the US company Wildtype, which has successfully developed sushi-grade cultivated salmon, and the startups Revo Foods and Mycorena, which use novel methods to create fungi-based and 3D-printed protein products.

While products like plant-based meat and fungi proteins are already available, their widespread adoption hinges on addressing the 3As framework: affordability (price parity), acceptability (taste is king), and accessibility (mass markets).

The review concludes that the alternative protein sector is a beacon of hope in addressing global food security and environmental concerns. With ongoing research, partnerships, and investments, these innovations hold the potential to reshape our food systems sustainably.

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