UK Must Invest £390M in Alt-Protein by 2030 to Boost Food Security & Stay Competitive
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To avoid ceding competitive advantage in the global alt-protein race, a new report suggests the UK needs to invest £390M ($493M) in alternative proteins between 2025 and 2030. This includes plant-based, cultivated and precision-fermented meat, seafood, dairy and eggs. The research comes a week after another report found that the British alt-protein sector could create 25,000 jobs by 2035.
Industry think tank the Good Food Institute (GFI) Europe suggests nine policy recommendations across five pillars to create a thriving sustainable protein ecosystem in the UK. According to the proposal, the suggested amount of funding – which comes to £79M annually over five years – would help create more green jobs, bolster domestic food security, and turn the UK into a scientific superpower. It would also fund open-access research, business grants and a new sustainable protein catapult – enabling small businesses in the sector to prosper.
Cultivated meat is winning the alt-protein race
The report found that cultivated meat is the fastest-growing sector out of the three alt-protein pillars (cultured, plant-based and fermented). Since January 2012, cultivated protein R&D in the UK has commanded £20M in total funding, while plant-based protein has reeled in £15.4M. Fermentation is yet to catch up to these levels, with a total investment of £6.4M for research and development.
At least 23 companies are working on cell-cultured meat in the UK, a sector that received more private financing last year than the rest of Europe combined.
Explaining the boom in cultivated meat, GFI Europe’s UK policy manager, Linus Pardoe, tells Green Queen: “Latent scientific strengths in key fields like stem cell biology and bioprocess engineering give the UK a competitive advantage, and the country has an impressive record spinning out cultivated meat companies from its universities, demonstrating the power public funding for open-access R&D plays in commercialising sustainable proteins.
“For instance, the University of Edinburgh – renowned for its work on animal genomics – has spun out Roslin Technologies, a company providing cell lines to researchers and cultivated meat businesses.”
Despite the UK being the second-largest market for plant-based food in Europe – Brits spent £964M on vegan meat and dairy last year – GFI Europe says public research developing tastier and more affordable plant-based meat has so far been neglected. “While the UK has many of the right ingredients to play a key role in advancing research to make plant-based foods tastier, healthier and more affordable for consumers,” notes Pardoe, “most of the expertise in important fields like crop breeding and food science tends to be funded in a way that focuses on other, more established areas of research.”
More research is needed into plant-based protein production processes, like methods of fibre formation and improved plant protein texturisation, including extrusion and electrospinning. This will help drive down costs and elevate vegan meat’s sensory properties – the two biggest barriers to consumer uptake of plant-based food.
And while the precision fermentation segment remains undeveloped in the UK, Pardoe says: “The UK is well-placed to capitalise on the transformative potential of precision fermentation with its biotechnology expertise and the government’s ambitions for prioritising engineering biology to create a more sustainable world.”
Government developments in UK alt-protein
Since 2012, the country’s main research funding agency, UK Research and Innovation, has invested at least £43M in sustainable protein R&D – and nearly two-thirds of this has been since last year. In April, the government made its largest investment ever in alt-protein, with a £12M grant for a research centre analysing how to scale up cultivated meat production.
With a total of 138 companies working with alt-proteins in the UK, there is further potential here. The UK science minister Michelle Donelan has announced that engineering biology – the underlying tech behind such foods – will be an area prioritised by the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT).
And in its recent Carbon Budget Delivery Plan, the government referred to alt-proteins as a way to reach its 2050 net-zero target. It added that further research and investment is needed here to overcome tech barriers and increase consumer acceptance.
GFI’s policy recommendations
The five pillars of recommendations comprise political leadership, research and development, infrastructure, regulation and fair competition. Leadership entails affirming an ambition to develop and scale sustainable protein production in the UK, and developing a national sustainable protein plan. The R&D pillar outlines the recommended funding amount, with an average annual spend of £49M between 2025 and 2030 (a total of £245M), which should increase to £78M yearly to truly compete on the international front.
In terms of infrastructure, the UK’s Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs and DSIT should conduct/commission a review into alt-protein infrastructure, which will help the government “derisk the necessary private investment to scale sustainable proteins in the UK”.
Regulation is one of the biggest obstacles for new proteins. Post-Brexit, the UK is reviewing its novel food regulation changes, which could speed up cell-based and precision fermentation approvals. However, it currently still relies on the EU regulatory framework. Along these lines, an independent review by Deloitte in June found that the regulatory framework for novel foods needs refreshing.
In July, Israeli-cultivated meat producer Aleph Farms became the first company to apply for regulatory clearance in the UK. “Currently, the UK’s regulatory framework isn’t optimised to foster the growth of this new way of making sustainable food,” notes Pardoe, “and our report recommends that regulators move urgently to introduce ‘quick win’ reforms to the novel foods framework to build confidence in the sector.”
In addition, the GFI Europe report says the UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA), which is responsible for regulatory approval in this space, should learn from best practices of more innovation-focused regulatory bodies, both domestically and overseas. And the government should inject £30M into the body to ensure real-term budget growth and enable the FSA can fulfil its expanded post-Brexit role.
As part of its fair competition pillar, GFI Europe recommends removing existing restrictions on plant-based dairy labelling – decades-old EU laws prevent vegan companies from using terms like ‘milk’ and ‘cheese’ on product labels – and implementing a suitable framework to help brands clearly communicate clearly the nature of their products to consumers.
The importance of keeping up
These actions are important if the UK is to avoid losing momentum to other countries in the global alt-protein industry and reduce the risk of startups moving overseas due to regulatory uncertainties.
“As other countries, from the Netherlands to Singapore, invest heavily in sustainable proteins, and as many British startups look to the US following the landmark approval of cultivated meat, failing to act now could see the UK falling behind in this global challenge,” says Pardoe.
He adds that these policy changes could help boost the country’s food security: “The UK imports more than 3 million tonnes of soy – much of which is destined to feed animals – along with millions of tonnes of meat every year, but because sustainable proteins use less land and fewer resources, they can help us support home-grown food production, reducing overseas competition for our farmers, and ensuring our food is sourced sustainably.”
The organization also cites the Green Alliance’s report last week, which found that, with the right combination of targeted investments and regulation, the UK alt-protein industry could be worth £6.8B annually and create 25,000 jobs by 2035.