This is a pivotal time for the alternative meat industry. I remember when we interviewed Josh Tetrick back in 2013 when JUST (then Hampton Creek) was one of four new Silicon Valley-style foodtech startups looking at replacing animals in food and other products.
The other three were Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods, and Modern Meadows.
You will have to have been living under a rock not to have seen Beyond Meat’s blockbuster IPO and stock market listing last week that’s pushed the company’s valuation beyond $3 billion. Impossible Foods will no doubt follow suit soon. To say the industry is having a moment is an understatement.
Consumer demand is there, and where there’s consumer demand you know there will be investor demand (as GFI’s report this week detailing $16bn of investment in 10 years shows). But I think we’re still in the early innings of this growing market.
I don’t think consumers have any intrinsic loyalty to animal-based meat and food products. If we can make alternatives from plants that cost less, are healthier, and can replicate the taste and texture of animal-based products, why wouldn’t most consumers switch?
Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods, and JUST were unique in that they were really the first to obsessively focus on making plant-based products that could replicate the taste and texture. These were no hippie bean burgers, but genuinely great tasting products.
However there’s been a lot of people questioning whether this is just vegan junk food — heavy processing and bulking agents can still make for an unhealthy dish. Not too many people think that margarine is healthier than butter just because it comes from plants, so we need to make sure we’re not creating a generation of food that’s margarine 2.0.
After nailing the taste and texture — and there’s still opportunity for improvement within category and with new products — we’re going to see a greater and greater focus on health.
Chuck Templeton at S2G Ventures really nailed it when he said to me that he believes in the next decade consumers will be looking at the back of the product to understand how this product provides benefits and not just focus on the hedonistic experience.
In this way, the American consumer may be drifting more toward an Asian appreciation for the health benefits of food. My wife’s mom is Chinese and she loves to make bitter mellon. Personally, I couldn’t stand it until I asked her if she liked the taste. She said “No, but it’s good for you!” From that point on, I’ve had a greater appreciation for Chinese food.
We’ve only scratched the surface of what’s possible when it comes to food science and plant science: we only utilize a small fraction of edible plant species in our everyday foods — leaving many potential plant properties unexplored — not to mention the opportunity to leverage gene editing, fermentation, and enzymes to create new proteins and compounds.
I’m excited to participate in the Virtual AgTech Summit next week alongside some of category leaders, including Beyond Meat’s Ethan Brown. I’ll be on a panel with Impossible Foods and IndieBio discussing cultured meats – the other method of creating meat alternatives. While we certainly need many tools in the toolbox for improving the sustainability and health profile of our food system, I’m a bit more skeptical of this incredibly hard space. Even Mark Post, the world’s first cultured hamburger flipper, admits there’s a long way to go. And looking at the growth of that industry next to plant-based, the timeline is clear.
We now have the potential to not just replace inefficient meat production with alternatives, but to produce improved protein products with much better health and nutritional values. I think the plant-based space will be the one to get us there.
At AgFunder, we invest in transformational food tech and agtech startups and we’re still looking for our first plant-based meat alternative. If you think you’re solving some of the challenges I mention above, please get in touch and apply for funding here.