COVID-19 has revealed to humanity the potential impact of not being prepared, with the world now pulling together and accelerating the response to something that could have been mitigated. Food security is a global issue that needs to be addressed because our global population will continue to skyrocket and our current food systems cannot feed all of us without also destroying the planet.
In Singapore, the government recognises this and has placed food security on the front and center of its strategic agenda. Its “30 by 30” goal aims to produce 30 percent of Singapore’s nutritional needs locally by 2030. Alternative protein companies will play an important role in Singapore’s and wider global pursuit for food security as these novel food solutions are projected to be less resource consumptive than traditional protein production.
The alternative protein industry has been experiencing incredible growth over the last few years with 2020 being another milestone year as companies in this space have raised $1.5 billion through July according to GFI. Starbucks China just announced its Hong Kong partner, Green Monday, will rollout plant-based products like OmniPorks in all Starbucks locations in China - over 3,300 outlets.
Others like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have shown that the preferences of consumers are shifting from traditional meat products, and towards healthier, environmentally- conscious alternatives. This upward trend in alternative food adoption is likely to continue as UK-based consultancy AT Kearney estimates cultured meat to account for 35% of global meat consumption by 2040 with plant-based protein and conventional meat accounting for the remaining 25% and 40% respectively. The market for alternative protein can be broadly broken down into plant-based and cell-based. On the cell-based side, TurtleTree Labs is one of the first biotech companies to create components of milk sustainably using cell-based technology. The approach involves working with mammalian cells so they can be cultured, differentiated and induced to lactate.
As the industry continues on its current growth path, there are several areas that the cell-based food space will have to address and pay close attention to:
1. PROOF OF SCALE
Currently, the greatest challenge for the cell-based food industry is for companies to prove their ability to scale various production processes and lower costs significantly to demonstrate commercial viability. However, this cannot happen without building a robust ecosystem around the sector. We are expecting more companies to enter this space by targeting different avenues of cell-based food production such as food-grade media production, downstream processing, specialised equipment and cell-based supply chain.
Eventually, partnerships will also be essential for cell-based food companies to focus on innovating within their areas of expertise, while leveraging on the experience and infrastructure of external partners. For example, in July 2018, M Ventures, the VC arm of the multinational life science company Merck, took a leading stake in Mosa Meat’s Series A round. Through our engagement in P&P, we have been introduced to key contacts that could be potential partners who will play an extremely valuable role in accelerating our progress.
2. MATURITY OF REGULATORY FRAMEWORKS
Currently, regulations around novel food is very much a chicken-and-egg issue where regulators are looking to alternative protein start-ups to see the products they will be releasing, then coming up with the framework to assess them. Conversely, start-ups are looking to regulatory bodies for their requirements around these novel foods that would increase their likelihood of getting the approval to go-to-market. While the regulatory climate in every nation is evolving at different speeds, over the next few years, we can expect certain countries to emerge as leaders within this developing regulatory governance space. As these countries take the lead, others will adopt or tweak their existing strategies to accommodate these industry standards.
In Singapore, the Singapore Food Agency (SFA) has formed an industry group for novel food regulations, for which a lot of emphasis is placed on food safety. TurtleTree Labs is working closely with them to develop our products while being cognizant of any developments that might arise. Being in P&P allows us to tap on relevant contacts to better understand the local regulations in order to accelerate our go-to-market path.
3. CONSUMER EDUCATION
Conquering the complex science behind the production of cell-based food is not simply the first step, it is essential that companies in the space do not leave customers out when thinking about the commercialisation of cell-based food. At a recent event organised by International Flavor & Fragrances, attendees provided a glimpse into their sentiments around the consumption of cell-based food that could very well mirror that of the larger public. While 24% of respondents indicated an interest in trying these novel foods, 47% of respondents remained on the fence and might require more convincing.
We will see more companies working closely with regulatory bodies and obtaining the necessary certifications will demonstrate to consumers that cell-based food is safe for consumption. This will go a long way in changing perceptions about cell-based foods. Furthermore, companies can take the additional step of benchmarking the increased nutritional value or sustainability of cell-based food against their traditional counterparts to educate consumers on the difference such technologies have. For example, BlueNalu launched their “Eat Blue” platform to emphasise the importance of choosing your food from a sustainable source. They do this by highlighting not just the economic impact of sustainable seafood but also serving as a knowledge hub to share resources about other sustainable development in the industry.
4. TRUE EXTENT OF ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT
How do we measure the true extent of the environmental impact of cell-based on the environment?
Every production line comes with a production and emission cost. It’s difficult to accurately ascertain the true extent of the environmental impact of cell-based food production at the current stage of the industry. All we know is that cell-based food might potentially be a solution to existing issues regarding land use, energy and water consumption associated with traditional cattle farming. However, there are still various unknown factors that we expect will play a pivotal role in better understanding the impact of cell-based food.
For example, we expect that there will be an increased focus on the life cycle analysis to understand the environmental costs associated with not just the bioprocesses, but also with raw materials, waste products, logistics within the factory. For example, the importance of sterility in cell-based food production might lead to the increased usage of disposable plastic materials such as plastic gloves or one-time use flasks. The amount of plastic waste generated from the intensive R&D in this sector could exacerbate the current plastic waste problem we’re already facing in the short term. Hence, this life cycle analysis can and should be done once production plans are finalised and the data can be evaluated comprehensively as companies continue to scale.
ARTICLE WRITTEN BY: FENGRU LIN Fengru Lin is the CEO TurtleTree Labs.