Will alternative proteins capture 10% of the market soon?

Alternative proteins may capture a significant portion of the overall protein market soon.

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(Courtesy Upside Foods)
(Courtesy Upside Foods)

Alternative proteins may capture a significant portion of the overall protein market soon.

A $240 billion market?

I recently returned to the road, after the long COVID-19 break, and attended the USA Poultry & Egg Export Council’s Annual Meeting in Nashville, Tennessee, on June 24, 2021. The event featured a presentation by Caroline Bushnell, the Good Food Institute’s vice president of corporate engagement, on the future of the alternative protein market.

As part of her speech, Bushnell examined analysts’ expectations on the size of the alternative protein market in the coming years. Estimates varied but there was a general sense the alternative protein market will constitute about 10% of the global protein market within the next 20 years. That translates to between $240 billion to $290 billion.

What are alternative proteins?

Bushnell’s assessment of the current and future alternative protein market included three areas: plant-based proteins, fermented proteins and cultivated proteins. Plant-based proteins are the traditional alternative, while fermented proteins – products typically focused on replacing dairy products – and cultivated proteins – formerly known as cell-based, or lab-grown proteins which aim to replace meat – are the relatively new entries. 

The Good Food Institute (GFI) is a Washington-based technology accelerator focused on advancing the alternative protein sectors. It is a non-profit organization which helps researchers and start-ups in the space find funding while providing some research funding, too. The organization is critical of animal agriculture. Its website says: “Current meat production is unsustainable and inefficient. It is a key driver of climate change, environmental degradation, and antibiotic-resistant disease.”

Comparing alternative and animal protein sales 

To compare the estimated size of the market with the current situation, I asked Bushnell to compare the present sales of alternative proteins with those of animal proteins. She said that plant-based protein sales currently constitute about 1.4% of the current market in the U.S. She also said GFI’s projections indicate plant-based proteins make up about 1% of global protein sales.

“It’s still small, it’s definitely still early days,” Bushnell said. “But what I think what the industry is looking towards is more like what plant-based milk has achieved, which is 15% of all milk sales in U.S. retail.”

In her presentation, she said the total U.S. plant-based food market was worth $7 billion in 2020, an increase of 42.8% from the $4.9 billion in 2018.

Looking toward the future 

According to consumer research from Mintel, more U.S. shoppers say they have tried plant-based meat (48% in 2020 versus 13% in 2019), they are eating more plant-based meat than they did in the past and they are planning on eating more plant-based meat in the future.

Moreover, consumer interest in these products is higher in China, India, Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Chile, the United Kingdom, Brazil, Malaysia, Canada, Argentina and Australia than it is in the U.S. Bushnell was most optimistic about the prospects for plant-based products in East Asia and Brazil. She pointed to restauranteurs and foodservice providers expanding plant-based options in those regions. 

On the cultivated meat side of the equation, Bushnell said the technology is making rapid advances thanks to strong funding for its research. One company, Eat Just, has already launched a cultivated chicken product in Singapore, she said. 

Upside Foods, formerly known as Memphis Meats, plans on launching a chicken replacement product by the end of 2021. By 2025, GFI believes cultivated meat products will reach regulatory approval in numerous regions and achieve a cost reduction between 10 to 100 times the current price. By 2030, it believes operational industrial-scale facilities will exist and that price parity may exist for some products. 

A moment of ubiquity? 

I also asked how soon Americans might be able to buy a cultivated meat product from grocers. 

“It’s probably going to be a while before you can buy it,” Bushnell said. “Right now, the costs are high.”

“These first products that we market will be premium priced. They will likely be in limited quantities and we’re likely to see a route to market that starts more in foodservice at premium pricing before they’re able to get the scale up to come to retail supermarkets.”

Nevertheless, I believe the chicken industry and all of animal agriculture should continue to monitor the development of alternative proteins. Right now, some integrators and major food companies are taking a non-combative approach toward the issue by launching products which mix plant-based proteins with chicken or another animal protein to appeal to flexitarians. 

The prevailing thought, it seems, is alternative proteins are an “and” not an “or” issue. I am not so sure about that. We shouldn’t forget the ultimate mission of these products is to replace animal agriculture which they view as either inefficient or immoral. These replacements are getting more sophisticated and they are coming to a grocer near you. The industry needs to take the threat they pose seriously. 

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