Plant-based Protein Needs AI and Other Advanced Technologies for Further Growth

Some level of acceptance of gene-editing technologies to develop protein-optimized crop varieties, as well as exploration of alternative crops needed, says Cleantech Group

San Francisco, CA ­– October 5, 2023 — Plant-based protein needs to leverage emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and gene-editing to bring down manufacturing costs, drive further growth, and realize its emissions-reduction potential, Cleantech Group said in a report.

Plant-based alternatives require 93% less land and cut greenhouse gas emissions by 85% compared to beef. But challenges have emerged, despite growing popularity among younger consumers and market share growth in food service and e-commerce. Retail sales have declined in successive years, driven by unfavorable prices when compared with conventional meat products and issues with taste and texture, while venture capital funding to start-ups developing plant-based protein remains on a downward trend.

“Overall, plant-based meat alternatives are still priced substantially higher than animal-derived meat, and their taste is yet to match expectations,” said Jack Ellis, Senior Associate, Agriculture & Food at Cleantech Group. “Novel manufacturing technologies are needed to reduce costs, while a combination of artificial intelligence, genetic engineering of raw ingredients, and alternatives to extrusion might be needed to enhance taste and texture,” he added.

Key findings:

  • Tech is everything. A cocktail of technology, including artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, and 3D printing holds the key to further growth of plant-based protein products. AI, for example, is seen as a magic bullet that can identify ideal tastes and textures or optimize flavors and aromas. Gene-editing and similar technologies can be used to raise protein yields from raw ingredients and enhance their qualities when being processed. Similarly, 3D printing and fiber spinning can hasten the development of prototypes.
  • Market remains robust. Despite retail setbacks, plant-based protein remains on a positive trend line. In 2022, the global market for plant-based meat and milk alternatives was valued at $25.2B, representing 7.7% year-on-year growth, according to Euromonitor. Looking specifically at plant-based meat and seafood substitutes, Europe remains the largest regional market at $3.3B, while Latin America is the fastest growing, clocking a blistering 36% annual rate.
  • Building the supply chain. Incumbents, such as ADM and Bayer, have an outsized role in building supply chains that will sustain production of plant-protein products. These large companies are focused on ingredients markets and are gradually integrating into full production of plant-based products through venture investments, partnerships, and acquisitions. Bayer, for example, has built a portfolio of companies in crop genetics and optimization, such as NuCicer, Amfora and Pairwise. ADM has invested over $350M to set up protein research facilities in the U.S. and Singapore, besides funding various process innovations.
  • Strong innovation pipeline. Innovators such as Benson Hill and NuCicer are focusing on selective breeding and genetic engineering of raw plant ingredients, while Mission Barns and Nourish Ingredients are eyeing hybridization with cell-cultured and precision fermented products. AgGene is using plant genetics to enhance protein content in rice and chickpea varieties, while Forte has developed an expression system to grow proteins in leafy plant tissue. Manufacturing innovation is seen in companies such as Project Eaden, which is adapting spinning technologies from the textile and fashion industries, and Nova Meat, which has built 3D printing and modular micro-extrusion technologies.

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About Cleantech Group

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