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  • Writer's pictureClare Nasir

Feeling the love for meatless meat?

Meet the talent who are championing alternative protein

Caption: 'Meat Less' Graphic of a steak with a background of grass

Let’s get down with the alt protein crowd

Have you ever arrived at a party, a stranger to all, but oddly comfortable amidst the welcoming buzz and curiously scintillating conversation?

Well, that was the sensation as I tentatively poked my head around the door of the alternative protein crowd — the focus of the first three episodes on the new series of Cultivating Conversations.

As producer and host of the podcast, I approached the conversations as an inquisitive outsider with few preconceptions. Quickly though I realised that this crowd were bouncing off the walls with innovative zest, healthy investor interest and acute consumer insight.

My overarching line of enquiry …

…Why does this community exude so much confidence in the future of alternative protein?

The Han Dynasty (202 BC to 202 AD) loved their protein staple, tofu. Today its appeal is global — I would confidently deem this food a success. Which possibly can’t be said for late twentieth century attempts to produce nonmeat versions for the dinner plate; dishing up a whole platoon of ingredients — for the want of meaty flavours or textures?

However, in the past decade the age-old process of fermentation has had an upgrade, resulting in a new wave of alternative proteins that are now breaking into the mainstream and, according to some, could change the course of history (for the better).

Exciting times for those at the cutting edge and seeing results. Let me introduce you to a few who are pushing the boundaries of food tech, and I had the pleasure of chatting to.

Alternative Protein - People pushing the boundaries of food tech

The Entrepreneur

The distant hum of inner-city Paris was just audible above Martin Habfast’s enthused tones, discussing his team’s latest creation; a tasty chicken fillet made from only seven plant ingredients. Our interview, which is central to episode one of the new podcast series, overran the agreed half hour as he waxed lyrical over the agony and ecstasy of reaching this whole chicken nirvana.

According to Food Hack, a global community for food entrepreneurs and innovators founded by visionary Arman Anatürk, whilst chicken-less chicken isn’t a new trend, in 2021 there was a ‘marked uptick’ in this marketplace with big names launching new products and fresh players entering into impressive funding rounds.

Umiami plant-based chicken fillet
Umiami plant-based chicken fillet

A key driver has been international supply chain issues across the established poultry industry during COVID — allowing greater opportunities for plant-based producers to target the flexitarian market.

Martin’s company Umiami, is one of a wealth of plant based meatless meat start-ups with notable backing, currently producing cleaner, greener, tasty alternatives whilst striving towards price parity. Exciting times.

The Plant-Based Investor

David Benzaquen is a food tech oracle. He also invests in start-ups and an advisor to many more. I caught up with him from his New York office to understand more on why plant-based alternative protein products are now gathering such momentum. He is a co-founder of Moonshot Collaborative, a consumer insights firm that studies the behaviours and beliefs of those who buy alt protein.

The research, discussed in episode three, highlights the main reasons why people opt for meat and dairy alternatives.

“The number one motivator is health, then sustainability and the third is animal welfare.”

There are evangelical undertones to David’s discourse, but this sits alongside a clear and frank assessment of where things are currently, stating that taste, price and convenience have to be met before habits change.

David explains why milk alternatives now occupy 15% of the market. This major step change to mainstream occurred when brands such as Blue Diamond began merchandising their products in the refrigerated section (rather than ambient shelves). The association with freshness is everything.

These changing consumer trends, David comments, are also steering international meat and dairy companies to rebrand as ‘protein’ companies.

The Cultured Meat Scientist

Anyone remember Pigs in Space? It was a regular strand on the 1970’s tv network hit The Muppet Show starring iconic ‘singing’ legend Miss Piggy; a left-field plot that has not since been replicated, to my knowledge. Fast forward to 2020 and food tech company Aleph Farms made headline news by creating the first steak on board the international space station.

Space station
Dining in space

Yes. Beef in Space — sprang to mind.

Their three-dimensional bioprinting method is swifter to execute in zero gravity than down here on terra firma, and an original way of announcing their successes to the world.

I loved chatting to Dr Neta Lavon, Chief Technology Officer and Vice President of R&D at Aleph Farms. Her stripped back explanations of cultured meat production would make for great talk at my next dinner party. She spoke to me from her lab in Rehovot in Israel, explaining how the adoption of cellular technology has its roots in stem cell research — and is now part of their cultured whole cut creations.

“It tastes delicious,” she lavishes.

And whilst not available to us normal people just yet, the President of Israel is a fan of their cultured cell-based entrecote.

Unlike early results that were exorbitantly expensive to produce, production costs have dropped like a stone. Also, Neta is strongly reassuring that no animals are harmed at Aleph and her vision for locally produced cultured meat, reducing the need for transportation across the globe, is a huge step towards a fully sustainable solution for cruelty-free protein choices.

It’s worth noting these goals Neta cites, are the criteria David Benzaquen marks as the driving forces of market growth and consumer adoption.

When asked about the greatest challenge to developing their products further Dr Lavon replies,

“… scaling up.”

In other words, industrialising precision fermentation, (normally performed in a lab) and something I have been told is not as easy as just doubling up ingredients and making the instrumentation bigger.

It’s worth knowing that the response to this challenge is manifesting in a growing set of companies developing bioreactors for the purposes of cultivated meat and biobased fermentation.

Other aspects of the science are there already — and waiting to be utilized to create new eating experiences — with microbial tweaks constructing bespoke blueprints for taste and texture. The possibilities are endless and without the landscape of cruelty.

The Market Trends Analyst

What Dr Neta Lavon discusses in episode two of Cultivating Conservations, Catherine Tubb, in episode three, elaborates further as a ‘food as software’ model. She points to the positives of new cell-based technologies; the removal of animals from food production and the myriad of ‘animal-free’ food options, from mammoth to turtle and beyond.

The title of the Rethink X report (that she co-authored with Tony Seba) covers all eventualities…

Rethinking Food and Agriculture 2020 to 2030. The second domestication of plants and animals, the disruption of the cow and the collapse of industrial livestock farming.

It’s a hard hitting read — particularly for the millions working in current industrial livestock farming.

Using a specific algorithm, the report plots the rise of alternative protein market (fermented and cultured meat) over the next decade, following what she describes as the Sigmoid or S Curve; where sluggish growth (the bottom part of the S), then accelerates significantly causing a disruption in the market.

Catherine insinuates the cow is going to have an existential crisis as these alternatives become the consumer’s choice cut. In return reducing the 70 billion animals currently farmed every year, thus freeing up the worlds arable land and closing the open wound of emissions and environmental degradation. The report also highlights the advantages of producing locally — transforming environmental footprints further. The positives may look like pie in the sky but according to S curve projections this sector is already well on course.

The Talent Scout Executive

It’s not just the scientific change makers that are injecting momentum into the alt protein sector. Channelling talent to drive the industry forward to greater success is what Mark Cooper and his international team at Chaseman Global deliver. Mark heads up the APAC region based in Brisbane, where he describes the ongoing climate change impacts faced by farmers and growers across Australia, from extreme heatwaves to wildfires to flooding. He stresses the importance of diversifying to produce resilient business models. Preparing for change starts with understanding how market forces are responding to consumer choices, government policies and investor interest.

There is a cadence of urgency to Marks discussion on the importance of supply chain continuity and crucially its transparency. Yet his overall conversation nodes are laced with fervour as he describes the ground-breaking developments in AgTech and food tech right now.

By embracing a broad skills base, taken from the pool of underlying expertise in the sector to the sharpest new talent, Mark argues burgeoning sustainable businesses will be propelled into the post COP26 era. Allied with net zero solutions and strong leadership there’s a far greater likelihood of achieving transparent and reliable supply chains.

Late to the party?

The alternative protein crowd is an evolving and growing community — populated with scientists, innovators, entrepreneurs, financiers, analysts, growers and farmers.

There is one major thing that unites them …

…they are mission-aligned.

This group are striving to profit through purpose, enabling talent, unlocking innovation and with a keen eye on long term resilience. Together their role, in reducing the en masse animal annihilation (cruelty seems too mild a word) and acute environmental degradation — that has been the norm for decades across industrial farming, cannot be underestimated.

However the growing pains of developing a resilient, stable and circular agricultural market are already multidirectional. An unremitting stream of questioning from concerned parties focusses on adopting the all-too convenient methods of monoculture and chemically intense processes to resolve supply chain crunches. However, I would argue the tasks that lie ahead are not Sisyphean; the many mountains are surmountable with the right people at the helm.

Whether the food and farming industries are on the brink of an abrupt and irreversible change or a slower burn, one thing is for sure, right now, no-one is late to this party.

All are Welcome

All are welcome.

Or perhaps a more appropriate invitation would be

“we need you…”

…because feeding 10 billion people by 2050 and saving the skins of billions of animals a year, whilst restoring enriched and sustainable environments across Planet Earth, will be our greatest human challenge and achievement.

Cultivating Conversations podcast, the latest series produced and hosted by Clare Nasir.

Episode 1 to 3 delve into the world of alternative protein. Podcast available on all the regular applications and at

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