Friday, December 1, 2023

Threat to meat is a distraction

Neal Wallace
New Zealand is being distracted from its export mission by the hype from alternative protein makers seeking promotion and funding, AbacusBio consultant Sharl Liebergreen says.
Reading Time: 2 minutes

Food producers here have a decade or more to confront the impending threat but decisions must be made soon about where in the market we want our food to be and how we target it.

“Is NZ supplying ingredients or the natural whole food space?

“We don’t need to be distracted.

“If that’s our strategy then let’s focus on it,” he said.

Plant protein alternatives are already on sale in NZ while cultured cell technology to produce alternative protein is real and will initially be a threat to ground meat and milk.

But Liebergreen says scaling up production will be a major challenge for cultured meat companies because their manufacturing process is energy intensive and requires large volumes of nutrient additives.

Those companies have slick marketing programmes promoting their strategy but Liebergreen says little is known about other aspects of their business, such as their product’s life cycle, energy use, impact on resources and the environment.

“Their life cycle analysis is a pure puzzle.”

The millennial generation, who now outnumber baby boomers, appear to be the main consumers of alternative proteins.

But with the global population of 7.7 billion expected to grow by an extra two billion by 2050 NZ food producers have opportunities.

“We are facing nine to 10b people. It’s all opportunity.

“We produce an incredibly good product and the market is growing. There has got to be opportunity in that.”

Many of the competitors are focused on developing protein as an ingredient but in a different form to animal protein so NZ producers need to assess if that is a market they want to participate in.

Technology is advancing fast and the image of cultured meat being grown in petri dishes by people in white coats in a sterile laboratory is not accurate.

Manufacturers use precision fermentation, bioreactors and gene editing to produce the ingredients, which are then grown in large stainless-steel silos.

“It’s brewed like beer,” he says.

Israeli scientists at Future Meat Technologies have successfully brewed meat cells and are now brewing fat cells. Once they have accumulated all the cells need they will use a 3D printer to produce a cut resembling a steak.

Liebergreen says while they are testing the technology the backers are also gaining media coverage and attracting investors.

This early stage technology is expensive with Future Meats estimating its initial products will cost $560 for 450 grams. It believes that could eventually be reduced to between $3.60 and $7 for 450 grams.

Bloomberg reports a San Francisco company, Just Inc, is growing chicken protein and has developed chicken nuggets, costing $78 each to produce.

Despite the cost and texture not being perfect Just Inc is commercialising the product.

While investment in alternative protein is growing, Bloomberg reports publicly announced investments in cellular agriculture total about $220 million, still well short of the $2.2 trillion global meat business it wants to displace.

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