2 December 2022

How to let Britain lead the way in the new food revolution

By Andy Clayton

A change is coming to your dinner plates soon – in the form of ‘alternative proteins’. The vision of this fast-growing industry is to feed the world without the need for animal farming, which accounts for over a quarter of all human-made carbon emissions and is the leading threat to natural ecosystems.

This vision is fast becoming reality. Dozens of companies and research teams are now developing novel foods and production methodologies. People are starting to realise that we are in the midst of a new food revolution.

Alternative proteins broadly split into three main types: 

Plant-based, which use plant proteins to create foods that look, feel and taste similar to animal-based products, like sausages and burgers. This is now a well-established category and is growing rapidly, with many products on shelves and in restaurants;

Animal-free, which use modified microorganisms to produce foodstuffs. Quorn is a good long-standing example, but this space is now exploding, particularly in the dairy and eggs sector. There are already products, such as ice cream, available for sale in supermarkets in the USA where the dairy protein has been produced without any cows being involved.

Cultivated meat, which is genuine meat, grown in bio-reactors from stem cell lines. A British company famously fried a hotdog made this way at COP26 last year, and more and more such products are now under development. It will not be long before your bangers are made without the need for pigs.

Why do we need these new foods, if they’re just replicating ones we already have? Well, many reasons. 

As touched upon above, the most obvious is the environment. Switching to alternative proteins will prevent the emission of over three gigatonnes of carbon each year, and allow for the rewilding of over a third of farming land. It’s simply more efficient to produce animal proteins without the animals these days. It’s an essential part of saving the planet for future generations. 

But it’s also about food security. Alternative proteins mean that any country with access to feedstock and the right technology can produce abundant protein-based food at home, rather than relying on imports from abroad.

And it’s about economic opportunity too. The UK already occupies a strong position in this thriving new ecosystem. With a dynamic life sciences industry, and clear carbon reduction commitments, many leading companies have emerged right here at home. This includes the cultured meat company Ivy Farms, who have opened the largest such facility in Europe in Oxford (and fried the famous hot-dog at COP26). 

In precision fermentation, Better Dairy are developing cheeses such as cheddar and gouda in London, and Fermtech, also in Oxford, are scaling production technologies. There are already over a dozen alternative protein companies in the UK.

Despite this, regulation is throwing sand in the gears of the UK alternative protein industry. Other countries have fast-tracked support, in the form of R&D and enabling legislation, to allow the development and sale of these products. In Singapore it is now possible to go to a restaurant or supermarket and buy chicken nuggets that were grown from chicken stem cells in a bioreactor. The FDA in the USA has just approved the first cultured meat products for sale there, and countries such as Qatar and Israel are moving fast to legislate to keep up.

The promise of Brexit was that it would release us from the choke of EU regulations, so that our life sciences sector could flourish. However, where we currently stand, it’s having the opposite effect. People in the alternative proteins industry are thinking twice about the UK, because, as one recently told me, “not only does current legislation not allow for sale of our products, but any product registrations will have to be duplicated within a new UK regulatory system, in addition to EU registrations.” 

There are two main barriers currently hindering the industry. First, there are no rules around cultured meat at all, which leaves the industry shrouded in uncertainty. If we’re to grasp this lucrative opportunity, this needs to be resolved. 

Second, the country’s laws on GMOs also stifle progress. Current UK GMO rules are a hangover from our former membership of the EU, which prevent most GMO products for sale for food consumption.

Politically, this is a tricky subject. Despite decades of consumption in markets such as China and the USA showing that GMO foods pose no more risk to human health than non-GMO foods, public opinion lags behind the science. Lobbying against GMOs from groups such as Friends of the Earth – who you’d hope would support environmentally beneficial technologies – hasn’t helped either.

There is currently a bill going through Parliament to address the issue of legislation of GMO foods. However, it is woefully ill-suited to the purpose. The new legislation attempts to distinguish between genetically modified foods where the foods could somehow have ‘naturally’ evolved the new function, from those that are clearly genetic transplants from other species – the intent being that ‘acceleration of natural processes’ is allowed, but ‘playing God’ is not.

This is a spurious distinction on many fronts, and in any way misses the point – a dairy protein produced in a cow or produced by a genetically-modified microorganism is the same dairy protein. The source does not matter, the output is chemically identical.

A concern the GMO legislation addresses is the creation of rampant ‘super-species’, particularly in plants, that could run amok and displace original variants. Clearly this is not a concern for microorganisms kept alive only in industrial fermentation tanks. 

The fact of a food having been genetically modified does not make it intrinsically more or less dangerous to human health. What matters is what’s in the food. It is no different adding a vitamin as an ingredient to the same vitamin being introduced and produced genetically.

Nor is the alternative – industrial farming – any more ‘natural’. The animals used are bred to the point where they no longer at all resemble their natural counterparts, and are treated with chemicals such as antibiotics and hormones.

Trying to distinguish between ‘accelerated natural evolution’ and ‘artificial genetic engineering’ is impossible, and the intent of both is to reach the same objective anyway, one is simply much slower. 

Ultimately, these changes are going to happen at a global level anyway, so the UK has the choice of staying ahead or falling behind. Ill-conceived legislation will not halt the path of progress, it simply disadvantages UK companies in this space.

The Government needs to urgently solve these two challenges. 

First, foods produced by precision fermentation using GMO organisms need to be treated in the same way as we would treat any other foods – by examining the foods themselves, not the organisms that made them.

Second, we need to fast-track legislation for the testing and sale of cultivated meats. The job of legislation should be to ensure consumer safety, not to restrict consumer choice. Let the food regulation agencies test and assess these foods on their own food safety merits, and let consumers decide whether they want to buy them.

A new wave of alternative proteins will be hitting our plates soon. The question for the Government is whether it wants to allow British companies to tap into that opportunity, or let other nations seize the prize.

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Andy Clayton is the CEO and Founder of Fermtech.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.