Could the source of our protein be the most pressing environmental question of the day? Bill Gates seems to think so. The software tycoon has invested in two big plant-based protein start-ups: Hampton Creek and Beyond Meat, and has gone so far as to declare plant-based protein the future of food.
The destructive impact of industrial livestock on our climate and our waterways means that Gates isn’t the only one making the switch. According to a new report from Lux Research, increased consumer demand means that alternatives to meat and fish could potentially claim up to 33 percent, or one third of the world’s protein market, by 2054.
The report goes on to say that soy will take a projected 80 percent share of the alternative protein market in the short term. Proteins extracted from peas, rice, and canola, also known as “second-generation proteins” will also grow “at a tremendous rate.” Most intriguing, the research firm says that the demand for so-called “nascent” proteins will rise at mid-century. These “third-generation” proteins, which include insects, algae, and other proteins derived from bioengineering, could make up 50 percent of the alternative protein market by 2054.
Beyond Meat, which engineers meatless products made from pea protein isolates, is part of the wave of tech-driven food companies looking to capitalize on the alternative protein trend. It has gained big investors, like Gates, and Twitter co-founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone along the way.
“There are very few things I’ve seen in my lifetime that could simultaneously solve so many problems: human health, climate change, water resources, and lastly, animal welfare,” says Ethan Brown, CEO and founder of Beyond Meat. He claims that one pound of pea protein is 10 times more efficient from a greenhouse gas perspective than grass-fed beef.
Brown, a vegan and former clean energy executive, says he was inspired to build a better fake meat after reading Livestock and Climate Change, a 2009 report co-authored by Robert Goodland, former lead environmental advisor to the World Bank. (Goodland was a family friend of Brown’s father.)
The report’s main takeaway is that livestock and their byproducts account for at least 51 percent of annual worldwide greenhouse gas emissions, on par with fossil fuel-related emissions. Not all scientists have agreed with his analysis, however. In fact, a 2006 by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization says the number is closer to 18 percent. Goodland spends a good chunk of the World Bank report selling readers on the market opportunity to be found in meat and dairy analogue products: soy, seitan, simulated meat, legumes, and grains.
The population is expected to reach 9.5 billion by 2050, and over the last four decades, worldwide meat production has tripled. Production is expected to double again by 2050 to meet the rising demand. This will place an unprecedented demand on agricultural land that is already taxed to the limit. Global livestock production uses about 30 to 40 percent of the world’s arable land.
“When we look at 2050, it’s really more about consumers being able to shop around for protein,” Brown says. “Whether that comes from pea protein, lupine, or yeast, or comes from an animal. Those should be offered at the supermarket side-by-side for consumers to pick from.”
At the same time, some experts have questioned the actual environmental benefits of meat analogues derived from plant proteins. One study found that the fractionation process used to separate soy and wheat is highly energy-intensive, which suggests that the environmental benefits of some plant-based meat alternatives might be negligible.
Other companies are approaching the protein conundrum with insects. If the exuberant marketing on the websites for Bitty Foods, Six Foods, and Exo Bars is to be believed, crickets are the would-be saviors of the American food system.
Whatever your thoughts are on eating Pinocchio’s conscience for dinner, the difference in resource demands between raising crickets for food versus raising livestock is dramatic. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) crickets emit less greenhouse gases and ammonia than livestock and six times less feed than cattle. It’s important to note that these statistics came up for dispute recently. A new study published in the journal Plos One asserts that crickets only have a strong environmental benefit if fed from the food waste stream. Otherwise, the protein conversion rate from the large-scale production of crickets for food isn’t much better than that of livestock, according to the report’s authors.
That hasn’t stopped companies from jumping on the bandwagon.
“There’s a huge amount of consumer interest in these food products made from crickets,” says Daniel Imrie-Situnayake, CEO and cofounder of Tiny Farms. “Companies are working to produce them as fast as they can.”
That said, even if demand for insects rises incrementally, as projected by the Lux Research report, there currently aren’t enough cricket farms raising human-grade, organic cricket meat to meet the need. About four farms in U.S. produce food-grade insects for 30 companies, says Imrie-Situnayake; most started in the past three to five years.
In a 13,000-square-foot space in Creedmor, Texas, Aspire USA raises their food-grade crickets on certified organic feed. Big Cricket Farms in Ohio also uses organic feed, supplying companies like Bitty Flours with insects. Other insect farms exist in the United States, many of them decades old family-run operations, but they serve mainly to provide snacks for reptiles or fishing bait.
Tiny Farms, a start-up based in Oakland, California, is tackling cricket scarcity. Right now, they’re in the process of funding an industrial-scale insect farm, a place to scale-up sustainable human-grade cricket production. The model farm will use data and technology to farm insects efficiently, not surprising since Imrie-Situnayake is a former software engineer. Tiny Farms will then partner with people who want to get into the insect production business.
Harman Singh Johar, a 24-year-old private edible insect consultant, gained notoriety when he raised insects for food in his University of Georgia dorm room. Johar has called bugs a near-perfect famine relief product. He’d like to see insect farming become integrated into a sustainable American food system. For that to happen, the production process needs to become more regulated and streamlined. Right now, the cost of raising insects has made buying cricket powder prohibitively expensive.
“You’re lucky to get cricket powder for $30 a pound right now,” says Johar.
Like Ethan Brown, these insect enthusiasts look forward to a future when alternative proteins claim a bigger share of the market. “To meet possible demand, you are talking about hundreds of thousands of tons of crickets produced every year,” says Imrie-Situnayake. “If this is going to be a robust industry in the U.S., we are going to need a lot of farms. In order to build that system, we need to take away some of the barriers to entry.”