Good Monday, fellow nerds! It’s been quite the week in the plant-based news space, with one of the major highlights being the amount of money investors continue to pour into alt protein. 🤑🤑
Part of me is excited to see the movement growing, but another part is feeling increasing concern over what seems to be a single-minded fixation on one perceived solution to the complex problems within our food system.
So today, we are taking a look at the financial side of things in the alt protein/plant-based space and doing a bit of a dive into how this may conflict with the greater goal of improving human health. 🥗
Foodtech companies (including online grocery, e-commerce and alt protein) raised $18.1 billion in VC funding in 2020; $1.6 billion went toward cultivated/cell-based protein.
The interest—and the market—is expected to keep growing as regulatory barriers come down and an increasing number of startups continue experimenting with novel protein ingredients. Projections for plant-based protein 🌿 alone show growth in alternative meat and dairy could reach as much as 20% annually.
This is no longer a small or niche movement. With such a prominent figure as Benjamin Netanyahu and Bill Gates speaking out in favor of alt protein (cultivated meat in particular), it’s becoming impossible to ignore the accelerating shift toward “realistic” replacements for animal protein.
And then there’s Shandi Global, with their incredibly realistic “chicken” drumsticks. 🍗
Which is all very cool in its own way and offers quite a bit of potential for new alternative protein products going forward, especially with supporting technologies growing more accessible and efficient.
The prevailing argument in favor of these advancements is the potential climate benefit they offer. 🌎 By switching from resource-intensive factory farming to tech for producing meat at a large scale, the reasoning goes, greenhouse gas emissions can be markedly reduced and natural resources can be preserved.
But given that similar goals could be achieved by initiating a widespread movement away from factory farming 🏭 and monoculture and back toward the way that food is supposed to be grown 🌾 and produced, is tech really taking the food system in the right direction?
If this sounds like an unusual or even ridiculous question, consider the other food tech trends getting backing from VCs in 2020. The pandemic has accelerated consumer behaviors that were already beginning to take hold, namely a change in the way people interact with food. Consumers are becoming more comfortable letting third parties take almost complete responsibility for what and how they eat. 🍔
Take the rise of ghost kitchens, for example. Instead of restaurants where patrons have a chance to have a prolonged sensory experience with food before eating, these “dark“ establishments prepare all orders behind closed doors and offer only takeout—no dining rooms. 🚗
Grocery delivery creates much the same scenario, in which store employees or people working for services like Instacart 🛒 take over the shopping duties that once were firmly in the hands of consumers
Even farmers markets are beginning to offer order and pickup options. For some people, these hubs of local commerce are the only places where they have a connection with food, farming and farmers. 👨🏻🌾 Eliminating that relational and tactile experience threatens to undermine the very foundation of the human eating experience.
In ancient times, food was considered a sacred gift from God, and sharing a meal was a symbol of fellowship and acceptance. Society has been moving away from this view of food for a long time—first with factory farming and fast food, and now with the current “snack culture” and the pandemic driving more people to order in or pick up.
Despite statistics showing more people are cooking homemade meals, 🍝 it’s hard not to wonder if the overall increasing state of disconnectedness within the food system is eliminating critical parts of the cultural and personal experience of food. And—coincidence or not—the increase in this disconnect appears to correspond with the increased interest in foodtech.
Tech can be great, of course. 👩🏻💻 Without it, society would lack many of the innovations that save lives or restore quality of life. Tech allows humans to observe and even visit some of the greatest wonders of the universe. 🌙 It shows more of the world and the place of humanity within it. 🔬
But how wise is it to elevate technology in the food sector to a position dangerously close to the saving grace of life on earth—and of the earth itself?
Everything comes back to plants (and microbes). Plants make up 83% of the planet’s total biomass, and everything humans eat can be traced, in some way, back to a plant.
Even food created with tech. 🌱
Examining the current narrative with this in mind reveals the potential vicious cycle that could arise from looking to foodtech as a way to feed the increasing global appetite for meat. The reasoning goes something like, “People are never going to change their eating habits, so the food system needs to satisfy their appetites.” This begets new products with corresponding new waves of marketing, which serve to reinforce the public mindset that protein is king 👑 and meals aren’t worth eating unless they contain meat or an acceptable analog.
As interest and investment in foodtech grows, it’s becoming increasingly possible to enable a shift to a world where everyone has access to protein alternatives. Continuing down this path could have positive climate effects, but time will only tell whether it will actually allow humanity to live better, healthier lives.
Again, tech has its place, but there’s a real danger in continuing to lead the public to believe that they can continue to satisfy every craving without consequence instead of learning to make better choices.
The question remains: Is it necessary to provide everyone with novel, tech-derived proteins when plants themselves serve as healthy protein sources without the need for modification? 🥒🥕🥔🍠🍅🍏
Science continues to show plant proteins are more than adequate for life and health. In fact, they come out as the best choice more often than not. Pulses (beans, lentils and peas) have been staple protein sources for centuries, and many alt protein products rely on one or more of these as foundational ingredients. Other plants, like duckweed and pereskia, are also being explored as potential sources of protein ingredients.
But what if the solution isn’t engineering plant ingredients into meat analogs? Rather, is the food system better off literally getting back to the roots of where actual food comes from? Supporting the narratives that have led to the near demise of our current food system isn’t working, and it’s too early to know for sure whether the foodtech movement will help or hurt in the long run.
People are not, by and large, incapable of change. Everything is a choice—what it comes down to is knowing it’s possible to make another choice and having the support to continue down a new and unfamiliar path. 👍🏻
There’s still time to start a shift in consumer behavior that leads society back to reconnecting with the origins of food and eating. Origins that rest in food grown in healthy soils, eaten with the seasons and enjoyed in as close to its whole form as possible. 😋
As exciting as novel proteins are, society isn’t doomed without them. And it's time to stop asserting otherwise. That doesn’t mean foodtech should immediately shut down and go away—but the focus may need to change to a role better suited to supporting truly healthy food production.
Because saving the planet won’t matter very much at all if we don’t save the people on it in the process.
Where do you stand? Pro-tech? Anti-tech? Completely blown away by tech? Share your thoughts! 👇🏻👇🏻