Report elaborates on Brexit Britain’s plans to become ‘a world leader’ in the alternative protein sector

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

There is great potential to leverage algae in the UK by exploiting the coastline, believes UK Research and Innovation. Image: Getty/MontyRakusen
There is great potential to leverage algae in the UK by exploiting the coastline, believes UK Research and Innovation. Image: Getty/MontyRakusen

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With Brexit potentially providing an opportunity to make the UK’s regulatory process more agile, providing a quicker route to market for new and novel products, the country is looking to strengthen its capabilities in the alternative protein supply chain.

In this setting, the Transforming Food Production challenge, part of UK Research and Innovation's (UKRI) Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, which is investing £90 million to support new ways to produce food that reduce emissions and pollution, has published a new report titled Alternative Proteins: Identifying UK Priorities​. The report details a roadmap for the future of alternative proteins in the UK, identifying three key areas: plant proteins, fermentation, and novel systems requiring investment and development.

As the alternative protein sector grows and demand increases, there is an increasing pressure for the production of different protein sources for human and animal consumption, believes Tom Jenkins Deputy Director: ISCF Transforming Food Production programme at UK Research and Innovation.

The UKRI projects the alternative protein sector will reach $27 billion by 2027 with the UK becoming the biggest consumer market for alternative proteins in Europe.

“This is a fantastic opportunity to build on our underpinning capabilities across the research-base and SMEs, in order to establish new industries and UK manufacturing capabilities in alternative proteins - building on our track record in developing mycoprotein production here in the UK through Quorn,”​ he said.

“There has also been significant equity investment into alternative protein companies, a record $5bn in 2021, that will support the scale-up of their operations. Through the Transforming Food Production programme we have also been working with the Venture Capital sector to align our grant funding with equity investment to support the growth and scale ambitions of UK SMEs, and have recently funded two projects developing cellular or lab-based meat technology.”

There is also a food security aspect to consider, particularly given the recent shocks to our global food supply chains, he explained. “Alternative proteins have the potential to be produced in non-traditional environments like brown-field sites or adjacent to other industries where they can use co-product streams like CO2. This could take pressure away from more traditional food production systems and allow opportunities for biodiversity and carbon abatement. The emerging alternative protein sector provides an opportunity for consumers to benefit from a greater variety of products in the coming years as the industry evolves, so, within this context, taste, price and availability will be important to consumers trying new alternative proteins and, crucially, staying on as repeat customers.”

Big niche or big opportunity? 

But the challenge of transforming the alt protein market from a big niche into a big opportunity is one he also recognizes. Innovate UK acts as the national innovation agency as part of UKRI to support companies and helps them take new technologies towards commercialization, he explained. “Through our competitions, we provide grant funding that helps companies access some of the world-leading scientific capabilities in our UK universities and research institutes. This enables R&D projects to be ‘supercharged’ in a way that would be really challenging for SMEs to achieve under normal circumstances. We are supporting some exciting projects focussing on the development of alternative proteins from algae, insects, advanced fermentations for production of single-cell protein, and cellular agriculture and lab-based meat.”

The UKRI published a recent roadmap in June which brought together partners involved in these projects with a wider cohort of interested academics, technology providers, food producers, retailers and government departments to identify and agree the opportunities and barriers to establishing a competitive UK alternative protein sector. “Bringing these different actors together across supply chains helps create a shared vision to realise the big opportunity the emerging alternative proteins sector offers,”​ noted Jenkins.

Nutritional qualities 

Other concerns relate to the nutritional qualities of alt proteins compared to animal-derived proteins. “Plant-based alternatives to dairy or meat products will have different nutritional profiles and the importance of recognising this was highlighted in the workshop,”​ revealed Jenkins. “Developing better and more diverse plant-based raw materials was also highlighted as an opportunity for the sector going forward, for example through advanced plant breeding and genetics. There are also opportunities to use new alternative protein sources such as microalgae to enhance the nutritional profile of traditional animal proteins.”​ UKRI, for example, is funding a project that is increasing the DHA content of meat through incorporation of algae in chicken diets. 

Another challenge is consumer acceptance and repeat purchase. Jenkins believes the wider availability of these types of alternative food products will be key to getting them into peoples’ diets. “There is a much larger range of these types of alternative protein products in supermarkets and also greater choice when we consume food outside the home. The breakout discussions we had as part of the roadmap workshop highlighted a consumer shift towards flexitarian diets, and the potential for new alternative proteins to become a part of our diet alongside more traditional meat and dairy products.”​ 

'Greenwashing' warnings accelerate 

There are fears meanwhile that it may be ultimately counterproductive and divisive to focus on the environmental credentials claimed by alternative proteins. The UK’s largest supermarket Tesco, for example, was recently rebuked by the advertising watchdog, after it failed to show that its Plant Chef burgers and plant protein-based foods were more environmentally friendly than their meat equivalents. In response to this case, the Countryside Alliance, argued it should not be a case of ‘meat bad, plant-based good’, but ‘locally sourced and sustainably produced good, food miles and heavily processed bad’.

“Knowing where your food comes from and how it is produced is far more important than whether it is animal or vegetable,” ​it said. “Challenging assumptions about the benefits of some plant-based products and the casual denigration of livestock farming matters because, if they are allowed to go unchallenged, they threaten the sustainability of both the planet and the countryside.”

Alternative proteins should complement traditional protein sources, Jenkins stressed. “The UK has some of the best livestock production systems from a welfare and sustainability perspective, and we support developing a positive narrative to celebrate this,”​ he said. “There is also an opportunity for alternative proteins to complement traditional protein sources and we are funding projects developing alternative proteins such as insects and algae that can be included in livestock and aquaculture diets to reduce reliance on imports of soy- and fish-meal​.”

Post-Brexit UK regulation 'to drive innovation'

Brexit is key to the alt protein acceleration, UKRI has stressed. For example, UKRI discussion is currently centred around how to use post-Brexit UK regulation to drive innovation. There is great potential, it stated, to leverage algae harvest in the UK by exploiting the coastline. Post-Brexit, the UK is also its own regulator for crop protection products and GM/ GE regulation. Discussion has also focussed on addressing agronomy at the primary production stage by identifying new crop protection approaches.

The regulatory framework for fermentation products, meanwhile, is complex and difficult to navigate. For example, extensive food testing is required to bring lab-cultured meat to the market and extensive testing is also required to register novel mycoproteins as a food source. Brexit is an opportunity for UK regulatory bodies to streamline these processes, according to the UKRI. As a national funding and innovation agency, its remit is not to lobby FSA - but it says it has been working with the agency to help UK companies better navigate the regulatory landscape. “Brexit provides a potential opportunity to make the regulatory process more agile, providing a quicker route to market for new and novel products,” ​the latest report stated. “This could help UK companies to expediate the development of nutritious and sustainable alternative proteins.”​ 

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