Alternative protein sources have morphed—in just a few years—from a niche product to a mainstream phenomenon. Big players in the meat industry have come aboard this movement, and they must now work to communicate the sizeable impact of this trend for the industry, and how they reflect their commitments to sustainable production and food security.
What are they?
Alternative protein sources, such as plant-based, microbial-based and edible insects, are ‘eco-friendly’ protein sources, offering potential solutions to the global problems of food shortage, unsustainable farming methods and depletion of natural resources. Products range from imitation-meat to plant-based produce and friendly alternatives to our everyday products.
According to the Food Security Report, “the UK is a net importer of dairy and beef,” but is “largely self-sufficient in production of grains” (producing 100 percent of its own oats and barley, and 90 percent of wheat). The UK also “produces over 50 percent of vegetables consumed domestically.” About 4 percent of UK consumers are vegans; another 7 percent are vegetarian. It is expected that by 2025, one in four of us could be vegetarian or vegan, according to recent statistics. Diversifying portfolio ranges and expanding into the alternative protein sector also offers food production companies a more robust position in safeguarding food security, alongside the ongoing efforts to manage global supply and demand trends.
The interest for alternative proteins is growing, and manufacturers need to shed light on this as a sizeable market opportunity. The UK is seeing increased interest from consumers who—with growing consciousness of their carbon footprint—weigh up alternative diets. The Biotechnical and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the UK’s biggest public funder of non-medical bioscience, states in its 2022-2025 strategic delivery plan that it will jointly invest at least £20M for developing alternative, more sustainable protein sources.
According to Consultancy.uk, only one-fifth of respondents to their poll said they never avoided specific ingredients they identified as having a greater impact on the environment. While only 7 percent said they are always vegan, a further 31 percent said they at least sometimes adopted a vegan diet. This means that the market is growing, and investors should be aware of the potential for growth. Research by Oxford Economics (World Economic Advisory Firm) projected the UK’s cell-based meat industry will be worth £1.7 billion in 2030.
For now, alternative proteins do not receive the attention due to them from investors: according to the BCG, buildings have received 4.4 times more mitigation capital than food production, even though building emissions are 57 percent lower than those tied to food production. The Project Drawdown group, which assesses climate solutions, places plant-based diets in the top three of almost 100 options. Investors need to understand that alternative proteins have a much greater impact than other green investments—and manufacturers need to get that message out there.
In 2022, the Good Food Institute noted a record-high year for companies investing in alternative protein products, with an increase of 60 percent of investments from private capital in 2021. This positive trajectory in funding and investment for the alternative protein industry sets the scene for the future of global food producers and encourages industry players to diversify their portfolios and product offerings. But what does this mean from a media perspective?
Communicating environmental benefits
It is important to remember that these innovative substitutes will play a role in tackling climate change. The production of plant-based food emits 90 percent less carbon than traditional meat rearing and processing. Similarly, plant-based food production uses 99 percent less land than meat. On the other hand, FAO forecasts that global meat consumption will grow by 70 to 100 percent by 2050. A large-scale switch to alternative proteins would free up enough of the projected staple crop supply to lower crop prices by as much as 12 percent. This balanced messaging will give the sector more credibility and scope to collaborate with other stakeholders on climate action, integrating various comms expertise and broadening the horizons of industry stakeholders.
So, manufacturers of alternative proteins need to communicate the environmental benefits of their segment. As communications consultants, we would advise and inform client messaging on the benefits of investing in alternative proteins, as well as the strength in using that key messaging to generate media opportunities. And there are various ways to showcase the different stages of food production. For example, the production of meat is an energy intensive production process and will become more efficient as the technology advances to produce cultivated meat. Cultivated meat is produced by cultivating animal cells directly. Contrary to common misconceptions, cultivated meat is real meat produced by more scientific and sustainable methods. According to a report by independent research organisation, CE Delft: if produced using sustainable infrastructure, such as using renewable energy, cultivated meat could emit up to 92 percent fewer greenhouse gases, use 95 percent less land and 78 percent less water compared to traditional sources.
Alt proteins also go hand in hand with food security. In light of the political instability and supply chain disruptions globally, this could have a significant and positive impact on the UK food system. The war in Ukraine has highlighted the need for resilient and sustainable food supply chains. Once the production of cultivated meat is more energy efficient, it offers a highly controlled and environmentally sustainable process of producing food. Cultivated meat production is also not dependent on weather, meaning it is shielded from adverse climatic events.
The communications element here is that the future lies in sustainability. With clients of all profiles attending global events such as the World Economic Forum (WEF) or COP, the key is to position them as experts in agri-food. Discussing their perspectives on sustainability and corporate commitments makes for successful campaigning across key industry publications and increased media connections.
Engaging with stakeholders
The UK has been named as a potential world leader in alternative protein regulation and development. However, the implementation of alt protein-specific funding and policy targets will be crucial to making this happen.
The UK Government Food Strategy earmarks £120 million for investment alongside the UKRI in alternative protein research. Through funding and improving the regulatory frameworks, the government aims to support progress on a wide range of issues, including alternative proteins and gene editing.
It is undeniable that the future of food needs to become more sustainable. With these prospects in mind and the scope for growth in the industry worldwide, there is a huge opportunity for the media world to evolve alongside these developments in the agri-food sector. The scope of thought leadership around sustainability is bountiful. With comprehensive analyses of the industry landscape, and robust messages to put forward their unique selling proposition, manufacturers of alternative proteins can position themselves as key providers of foodstuffs in a landscape where sustainability and food security are challenges to be managed hand in hand.