Fish, Fava or Fermented Food? Where’s the Meat (Alternative)?
Contributed by: Aki Georgacacos, Co-Founder and Managing Partner, Avrio Capital
“The opportunities for Canadian entrepreneurs to capitalize on this global challenge are tremendous”
By now if you haven’t heard the ongoing debate about providing sufficient protein for the planet’s increasingly expanding middle class, you probably haven’t expanded your reading interests much beyond the U.S. politics section of your monthly edition of the Economist. If you paid any attention in high school biology, you likely have some vague recollection of the relative ‘feed conversion’ ratios of various sources of animal protein and the sustainability challenges created by reliance on animal protein as the protein source for those expanding populations. The feed conversion ratio is generally accepted, and it informs the sustainability discussion dramatically: feeding a cow 6 pounds of corn, which triggers the related ‘emissions’, produces only 1 pound of beef. This does not add up to a long-term formula for feeding the planet.
Squaring the demand for the growing imbalance between demand for protein with the unsustainable nature of current protein production drives the need for alternate or sustainable sources of production. Recognition of this global issue has prompted development of protein scorecards, ranking foods from lowest (plant-based) to highest impact (beef) based on associated greenhouse gas emissions per gram of protein. The question that remains unanswered is whether plants, fish or other synthetic sources will ultimately provide the solution to growing enough protein to meet world demand.
Plant sources of protein, such as beans, lentils, whole grains, nuts and seeds appear to provide one potential solution that has gained significant traction and popularity. The combination of health benefits related to heart disease, obesity, hypertension combined with the environmental impact above clearly positions plant based sources as a potential solution to the longer-term issues faced by society. Canada is well positioned as the epicenter of this solution given the overall productive capacity of peas, fava and quinoa. There exists a natural competitive advantage for Canadian companies operating in the space, several of which have already generated terrific exits. Daiya Foods (plant-based dairy alternative products) was purchased by a Japanese strategic for $405M, Garden Protein International (plant-based meat alternative products) was purchased for $155M by Pinnacle Foods and Vega (high quality vegetable protein supplements) was purchased by WhiteWave for $550M USD. Several fractionation facilities have been announced in recent months with the likes of Canadian Protein Innovation, a German Company planning a $100M facility in Moose Jaw, SK. Even Hollywood is getting in on the action with Hollywood director James Cameron investing in a 160,000 tonne per year protein facility in Vanscoy, SK. Other companies such as Beyond Meat are making substitutes for meat from plant sources, starting from chicken strips and ground beef, now found in grocery stores throughout Canada.
Sounds like the perfect solution – however, there is a catch – pea protein does not necessarily represent a ‘complete’ amino acid profile and therefore may not be in itself a complete solution to the problem. All plant foods contain at least some of every essential amino acid, but in general, legumes are lower in methionine, and most other plant foods are lower in lysine. Furthermore, certain flavor and texture elements of plant based products preclude their utilization as food ingredients. To this end, more conventional sources of protein such as whey continue to find a home as ingredients in multiple lines of finished food products. Also, as the buzz around plant protein intensifies, the requirement for raw material will increase dramatically. Will increasing transition of corn and soybean into traditional legume producing territories limit the availability of feedstock? Moreover, given the taste profile and formulation limitations of some of these legume sources, there are significant questions that remain surrounding whether these products will acquire large-scale appeal, much less appeal to those consumers on the frontier of flavor?
Fish sources seem a potential solution, but almost 90% of the world’s fish stocks are now exhausted with techniques such as long-lining and purse seining. Alternative approaches to sustainably sourcing fish have also been developed over the years. The breeding of aquatic species in a controlled environment presents a promising opportunity to eliminate the unpredictability associated with traditional and unsustainable practices. However, overall costs, particularly of labour, need to come down significantly, and productivity, including consistency of produce, (colour, weight and taste) need to increase before aquaculture will be able to compete with either wild or ocean based farmed fisheries for anything other than the very exclusive ‘white tablecloth’ market.
Frankenfood, or growing meat in a fermentation vat, is another alternative being pursued by those with a slightly more ‘technology’ focused approach to the problem. Also known as cultured meat this pinkish variety is produced from billions of cells cultured from skeletal muscle cells taken from one beef neck, nourished in a warm broth of synthetic nutrients and cow-fetus serum. To get the cells to grow into myotubes, the building blocks of muscle fiber, the researchers reduce the serum in the broth, which causes the cells to stop dividing and fuse. There is a future, although do not expect to see test-tube meat on any menus for several decades to come.
Although the answers are still unclear, the global importance surrounding “Where’s the Meat (Alternative)” continues to pose one of humanity’s ‘grand challenges’. Clearly, there will be some combination of solutions that will emerge with different unit economics and taste profiles to address the needs of various segments of society. Canada can play a very prominent role in addressing this global imperative given our ability to produce legumes. Canada is the number one producer of lentils, representing approximately 40% of the global lentil market and is also the world’s largest exporter of peas.
To feed the world’s expanding middle-class populations sustainably, production of fava, fish and frankenfood, along with conventional protein, will all need to expand dramatically. The opportunities for Canadian entrepreneurs to capitalize on this global challenge are tremendous, and there is no question that there will be several Canadian solutions that will go a long way toward answering the global question of “Where’s the Meat (Alternative)?”
If you would like to submit an idea for content, contribute to an article, or are interested in submitting an op-ed, contact the CVCA’s editorial department here.