We are all aware of the figures and projections for our planet. Our food system is in dire need of urgent transformation to avoid collapse. So why does it feel like all momentum in the alternative proteins sector has come to a sudden halt? Why is the transition from unsustainable meat and dairy to new protein innovation proving challenging amid a soaring population?

Since the inception of Future Food-Tech, we have seen the alternative proteins sector take off and accelerate at an unprecedented rate to meet this challenge, with massive investment meeting massive potential. However, the last couple of years have seen even the most exciting start-ups struggling to scale, and consumer appetites turning away from ‘alternatives’ that are seen as either ultra-processed (and therefore unhealthy) or priced to only reach the ultra-rich.

Where once there was hyper focus on the newest and most exciting technology in cell-grown and precision fermentation, food brands are slowing down and realising there is still room on plates for plant-based proteins with a simplified ingredient list, and perhaps the combination is key.

As Future Food-Tech Alternative Proteins draws closer and stakeholders across the alternative proteins and ingredients value chain prepare to meet in Chicago for the first time (previously located in New York), we spoke to some of the summit’s expert contributors about the main theme of this year’s event: protein diversification. Is this the solution for both the planet and industry-wide success?

Julie Willems, UNILEVER

Julie Willems, Global Director Nutrition- Head of Diet & Health, UNILEVER, will help set the scene at the summit this June, joining the opening panel on ‘Navigating Global Protein Diversification’. Speaking to us about the consumer behaviors that have led to diversification strategies becoming a priority across the industry, Julie said “only if diverse proteins are the easy, obvious choice will they be widely adopted”.

“We rely on a small range of foods, which means we are excluding valuable sources of nutrition and limiting the resilience of our food supply” Julie continues, “the more diverse and plant-centric our diets become, the better for both human and planetary health”. Unilever believes that this shift cannot be achieved alone: “The development of alternative proteins requires innovation to ensure they are tasty, nutritious, better for our planet and affordable. Funding to facilitate research and development and cross industry collaboration are critical to accelerate this transformation. Once products have been developed, policy should support a company’s ability to communicate their products to consumers, ensure there is a level playing field with animal protein and support their affordability to ensure their widespread adoption”.

While in an ideal world, the global masses would replace all animal products in their diet with planet-healthy alternatives, idealism has softened to realism and conversations are changing from ‘replacing meat’ to offering new and delicious tasting experiences for meat-eaters. In a recent Green Queen interview with VOW CEO George Peppou, following the launch of VOW’s cell-cultivated quail parfait in Singapore, Peppou states “cultured meat only makes sense as a way to create new, delicious foods, not imitate the food we already know and love. We are proud to create an entirely new category of food designed specifically for meat-eaters to enjoy”.

Sarah Frick, CARGILL

This sentiment is echoed by Future Food-Tech Alternative Proteins speaker Sarah Frick, Managing Director of Plant-Based Meat Alternatives, CARGILL who told us “I believe creating a future where protein is accessible for all should be a ‘yes, and’ conversation, not an ‘either/or’ argument. This includes animal-based and alternative proteins: plant-based, fermentation-derived, cultivated or hybrids and even innovations that haven’t been introduced yet. You see this philosophy reflected in Cargill’s inclusive approach to protein. Our alternative and traditional protein businesses are highly complementary and reflect our ambition to deliver the best protein to the most people”.

This all feeds into the idea that diversification of protein is key to stabilising food supply for growing populations and helping to tackle climate change through an overall reduction animal protein consumption. Vow’s quail, however, is not exactly available to the masses, being served in only exclusive restaurants under tight regulation, for a luxury price tag (not to mention it only passing regulation in Singapore so far). What then is the magic mix of proteins needed for everyday diets and households around the world?

Sarah continues “The alternative protein category is at a point where affordability and scale are critical challenges to solve soon to be able to grow. Plant-based burgers, crumbles and more are not luxury products and need to be accessible. They need to be affordable, tasty, and with the appropriate nutritional profile”. Cargill is keen to play the role of ecosystem enabler, “partnering with technology leaders to scale production and working alongside industry peers and supporting university and public research on the nutrition of these products, we’ll make the biggest advancements by working together as an industry toward a common goal: feeding a hungry world”.

Jim Laird, ENOUGH

Jim Laird, CEO, ENOUGH, highlights that progress requires transformation right at the beginning of the value chain, “Respecting farmers’ roles is crucial to ensuring an equitable and affordable food system. Education programmes raise awareness and investments in R&D can reduce production costs allowing nutritious meals at competitive prices, available at scale”. Jim continues this train of thought, driving home the importance of grants, funding, and anti-competitive actions (plus fair accounting for emissions) across the supply chain in driving necessary change, reiterating that “high scale change will only occur though partnering with traditional agriculture, respecting the role of farmers and leveraging the scale of the incumbent industry”.

Udi Lazimy, LAZIMY REGENERATIVE IMPACT PARTNERS

Opening panel moderator Udi Lazimy, Founder and Principal, Lazimy Regenerative Impact Partners agrees with Jim on the importance of starting with farmers, sharing that diversification is key to agricultural resilience, and critical to the future of protein consumption. Udi said “I encourage brands to consider that it’s not only what’s NOT in your products that’s important, but also what IS in your products. Relying on a very limited variety of proteins, such as soy, pea and chickpea severely limits the food industry’s ability to drive fundamental changes in regenerative agriculture, functional product development innovation and nutrition”.

Ashley Hartman, BLUESTEIN VENTURES

Udi also warns that “Regulation and policy have tremendous influence on the proteins we consume, as they have for decades incentivized and subsidized the monoculture production of feed grains to feed livestock, as well as encouraging the excessive consumption of meat and dairy” – this point was also raised by Ashley Hartman, Managing Partner, Bluestein Ventures, who identified that “updating dietary guidelines to emphasize plant-rich, reduced animal protein diets” is key for significant, long-term change in consumer behaviour alongside “taste, nutrient density, price and convenience – the holy grail for adoption”.

It is clear every stakeholder has an important role to play. Ashley sums up the issue nicely – “our overconsumption of animal proteins is harming our health and environment” – and the solution – “the agri-food sector can catalyze collective action by fostering knowledge sharing, pooling investments, and advocating for supportive policies”.

We are excited to see the entire industry represented on stage on June 17-18 at Future Food-Tech Alternative Proteins, to continue this conversation and kickstart the collaborations that are urgently needed for the diversification of proteins.

Explore the full program to see how expert speakers will drill down in to the why, what, and how of diversifying proteins for the benefit of all: www.futurefoodtechprotein.com/agenda