Alternative protein has a naming problem. As a burgeoning global population gets hungrier and hungrier for meat, do we need to reframe the industry’s identity?
I’ve been covering the alternative protein industry for over 6 years. At this point, I have read over 1,000 press releases detailing the mission of umpteen food tech startups, and I have attended hundreds of conferences where I have listened to unending hours of panels (and spoken on my fair share). I have met visionary founder after visionary founder. I have edited and published countless articles about their companies. The details of their mission may vary, but the basic storyline is always the same; no matter what country they hail from or what vertical they are disrupting, and it goes something like this:
‘The global food system is broken. We can’t feed 8/9/10 billion people with our existing food industrial complex. It’s not sustainable (too many GHG emissions), it’s not ethical (too many animals slaughtered), it’s not safe (too many antibiotics causing superbug resistance)…’
This week saw a major demographic marker crossed globally. In the midst of the COP27 hullabaloo, where food was given a pavilion for the first time ever despite the fact that the food system accounts for over a third of all global GHG emissions (yes, it’s true, and yes, it’s ridiculous), the global population finally crossed the eight billion mark.
NB: it’s actually a major event in name only because we don’t actually know exactly how many people there are on the planet at any given time. The counter is based on models managed by the United Nations using the best data available from national population censuses and, as such, the final tallies are our best approximations. So, technically, we could have passed 8 billion people two years ago, or we could pass 8 billion people two years from now. But we are nothing without our models and, so, officially speaking, we are celebrating the big 8 billion as of this week. November 15th, to be exact. But I digress.
So here we are, 8 billion people. Finally. What does that mean for the alternative protein industry?
Well, for starters, we might want to rebrand. One of our biggest mistakes as an industry may have been to group the many technologies that will help bolster our food system against the consequences of a growing global population amidst a worsening climate crisis under the moniker alternative protein. Who wants an ‘alternative’? Not your average consumer. The mere idea of calling something an alternative is reductive. It pits said alternative as a lesser option next to the superior original. By calling it ‘alternative’, we are signaling a compromise. And I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that no one wants to compromise.
But the nomenclature problem goes beyond the inherently negative branding around the term alternative. It’s actually a definition problem because the reality of the situation is that there is nothing ‘alternative’ about alternative protein. A better description would be ‘additional’ protein, or ‘supplementary’ protein.
What am I talking about, exactly? As countries get richer, more people develop a taste for animal protein, particularly beef. There are many reasons for this, but the gist of it is that, for most of human history, beef was 1) scarce, 2) the most nutritious food in terms of calories per gram, and 3) expensive. To be fair, there’s also 4) it’s delicious (vegans may disagree but billions of humans do enjoy the taste of animal foods). As a marker of status, it’s hard to find a better mascot than beef.
Americans consume the most beef per capita than any other nationality on earth, approximately 25.6kg per person per year. For comparison, the average Chinese citizen consumes 5.8kg per year, and the average Indian eats 5.5kg per year.
India and China are currently the two most populous countries in the world. In both nations, there are still hundreds of millions of people that still need to be lifted out of poverty. When those folks attain a middle-class life that matches that of the average American, they will want animal protein in similar quantities as the average American, as these extrapolated consumption curves illustrate.
We simply can’t meet this increase in demand. We would need at least a whole other planet to do so (some estimates say up to five). We do not have enough water or land to do so, never mind what this increase in demand will do to us in terms of GHG emissions, antibiotic resistance, deforestation, and the many other unfortunate consequences of livestock agriculture.
This isn’t an opinion statement. This is a fact. Our industrial animal agriculture system survives on the premise that there are huge amounts of land that can be used to grow the 1.2 billion metric tons of feed needed to nourish the tens of billions of livestock creatures, not to mention unlimited amounts of water to support this production.
So, to overstate my point, there’s nothing alternative about alternative protein. We need more solutions for protein production because the harsh reality is that, due to the growing demand for high-status animal protein from a burgeoning world population in regions where hundreds of millions are middle-class ascendant, we will need existing industrial animal protein production PLUS the food tech-powered alternatives.
Dubbing them alternatives is missing the entire point of why these so-called alternatives need to exist.
I say we rebrand. Not only would a different term be far more accurate (see arguments above), it would also mean that we don’t start every conversation on a compromised footing.
Instead of saying to your average consumer: ‘Hey, I’m here to replace your bad-for-the-planet-meat with this imitation alternative’, we could try: ‘Hey, you are going to run out of that meat you love. And holy cow, have I got the solution for you.’
Just a thought.
On that note, does anyone have any naming suggestions in mind? In India, the Good Food Institute refers to the industry as smart protein, which I like. But I’m open to any and all submissions.
Lead image: cultivated beef steak, courtesy of Aleph Farms.