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UK alternative protein: UK could be leader with faster regulation, more funding for cell ag

September 15, 2022

All eyes are on the next country in the world to approve and regulate the sale of alternative meat products produced through cell-culturing techniques.

Singapore was the first after it gave Eat Just the go-ahead to sell its cultivated chicken in 2020. The assumption has been that the US would be next, after remarks from leading cell-based meat startups like Upside Foods hinted they would be on sale by the end of 2021. While the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have agreed to jointly oversee the production of cultivated meat in the US, and the USDA has published an advance notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPR) around how to label cultured meat, nearly a year later it’s still uncertain when regulatory approval will come.

The potential bounty for a country to allow the production and sale of alternative meat products without the slaughter of animals is big. Estimates vary but British bank Barclays predicts the global alternative meat market – including plant-based products – will grow to $14o billion in the next 10 years. With a meat industry estimated to reach over $1.3 trillion in the next few years, according to Statista, the upside is huge.

Besides the US, some commentators and researchers believe the UK is in for a chance of becoming a leading producer of fake meat.

Scientific leadership, willing consumers

Elena Walden from the leading proponent of alternative proteins globally, the Good Food Institute (GFI), believes the UK is well positioned to access this market given its “world-leading science-base and industry capability across the agri-food supply chain.”

“The UK is well placed to become a global leader in the sector given its scientific strengths,” Walden, a policy director for GFI’s European branch, tells AFN. “It is a world leader in life sciences like regenerative medicine and therapeutics, and things which are really relevant to the science behind cultivated meat.”

“The UK has a really good consumer appetite for food innovation and more sustainable options. Brits already consume the second most plant-based meat in Europe, so we have that innovation there,” she adds.

Research by Oxford Economics and UK cultivated meat startup Ivy Farm Technologies projected the country’s cell-based meat industry will be worth £1.7 billion ($1.9 billion) in 2030.

Ivy Farm, a startup that’s raised over $20 million in venture capital funding so far and plans to be the first to sell cell meat in the UK, is promoting the industry as a key way for the UK to reduce its climate footprint and improves its economy. If produced using renewable energy, cultivated meat could emit up to 92% less GHG, and use 95% less land and 78% less water compared to traditional sources, according to a report by CE Delft.

A report by global consulting group BCG also reads: “If cultivated meat’s market share replaced that of imported meat, it would not adversely affect the UK’s livestock farmers. Furthermore, when the entire value chain related to cultivated meat is included, the industry could drive significant value for the overall UK economy.” It adds that according to the Oxford Economics study, “for every £1 of cultivated meat consumed, £2.70 of additional value is estimated to be generated through the production of the required inputs, including the bioreactors and nutrient-rich media in which the meat is grown, and associated employment.”

The report’s authors also believe that cultivated meat will make up a larger share of the overall alternative protein market in the UK compared to other countries globally because “a third of consumers are already willing to try cultivated meat and acceptance of the product is higher than in most European countries or the US.”

Innovation accelerates faster than policy

As with other nations, the UK alternative protein regulatory approval process for cultured meat appears to be slow. For startups racing to start earning revenues, that can be expensive.

Currently, the regulatory approval process involves submitting a dossier of how they produce their meat and proof of its safety. A response on this from the government could take up to 12 months. Meanwhile, the startup is improving its technology and manufacturing facilities to reduce costs and improve product quality. By the time they get a response, the startup has already modified its processes, which then requires the submission of another dossier to include the new technologies. This is in addition to labeling rules that must be adhered to.

“We’re growing meat, the process of how we grow it is novel, and therefore it needs to go through what’s called novel food regulation. The novel food regulations that the UK has are not fit for purpose. They have not kept up with the speed of technology,” notes Richard Dillon CEO of Ivy Farm

The Oxford Economics report points out that faster approval could be beneficial in helping startups achieve cost viability more quickly, acquire market expertise and build on their technology.

While the UK has placed some focus on alternative proteins, as evidenced in the June 2022 Government Food Strategy, it is risking lagging behind other European countries as well as the US and China, according to GFI’s Walden.

“I think the policy measures specifically are kind of slower and we are really at risk of falling behind in this specific measure,” she notes.

Dillon stresses the need for a more iterative approach to regulating food technology. The industry also needs expertise from the regulator to ensure that both sides work together to cover everything needed to deliver safe products to the consumer.

UK alternative protein post-Brexit opportunity

Post-Brexit, the UK has an opportunity to create its own regulatory frameworks in different industries. A report from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) indicates that Britain’s leaving the European Union should make regulation more agile, making market entry easier and faster.

Dillon hopes that the government picks food technology as a sector in which to flex its muscles and show that it can go a lot faster.

“The alternative protein industry could be right at the heart of two important political issues. One is this drive to become a tech powerhouse and the other one is a drive to get the UK public to consume healthier food and have better diets and therefore better health. We believe that alternative proteins can be right at the heart of this and why we think the UK Government should specifically focus on cultivated meat,” he says.

Government investments

Walden and Dillon both believe that for the UK alternative protein sector to establish itself as a leader, it needs to invest in establishing more support for the sector to grow in the country, besides the regulatory landscape. Investing in open access research and development as well as general infrastructure with non-dilutive capital, debt financing, project financing or even equipment leasing for companies developing cell-based products, could build confidence in the sector in the UK, and attract further investment in the ecosystem overall.

“We have seen some research funding, but again, it’s not at the same scale as other countries. It’s not also specifically earmarked for the sector. We don’t have as many kinds of research grants and research funds that are specifically earmarked for sustainable protein research,” says Walden. “What we need to see are specifically earmarked funds for advancing the science and technology and research so that we can start to build a more dynamic ecosystem.”

“We’d love to see support in terms of an ecosystem from the UK, not only with academic research but also with grants and government funding,” adds Dillon.

While the government has made no specific investments yet, the Government Food Strategy did earmark £120 million (£138 million) for investment alongside the UKRI in alternative protein research

If that was deployed in full, it would push the UK far ahead of other European countries such as the Netherlands, which designated €60 million ($60.4 million) through its National Growth Fund to supporting its cellular agriculture industry. The move was touted as the largest public funding to go into this industry.

Spain also invested $5.2 million last year in a project called the ‘Culturedmeat Project’ by Spanish cultivated meat startup BioTech Foods.

UK alternative protein consumer education

“Everyone must take part must take ownership over education” was a sentiment brought out in the UKRI report, stating that all stakeholders from producers, government, and knowledge partners to scientists should chime in to help educate consumers.

The report noted varying levels of consumer familiarity and acceptance for various alt-proteins. Consumers of plant-based alternatives showed higher acceptance levels as it was the fastest growing trend in alt-protein. For cultivated meat in particular, there’s uncertainty due to its nascent nature. The nomenclature used to describe cultivated meat such as ‘cell-based’, ‘lab grown’ or ‘test tube’ meat can leave consumers with some reservations.

In research conducted by Ivy Farm, how the questions were posed affected the rates in which consumers said they would be willing to purchase cultivated meat. Two-thirds of respondents were more willing to purchase cultivated meat if they got a blurb on the manufacturing process and benefits of the meat.

Organizations like GFI also work with businesses to gain consumer insights on things such as factors that motivate them to buy sustainable protein, what drives adoption of these proteins, barriers to alt-proteins among others.

Safe to say, the positioning of alternative protein industry in the UK as a European leader will be a factor of many things, public and private sector support, the development of a comprehensive alt-meat strategy along with a policy framework that keeps up with technological advancement, consumer education, from all stakeholders in the industry as well the continued championing for alterative proteins by Institutes like the GFI and the Alternative Protein Association.

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