Food Technology That May Save the Planet: Plant-Based Protein

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Food Technology That May Save the Planet: Plant-Based Protein

As the world’s human population continues to grow, the question of how we are going to meet the protein needs of the planet is rapidly becoming the biggest challenge of our time. It’s no secret that the developed world is obsessed with protein, with the average person in the U.S. consuming 103 grams per day, around double the actual recommended amount, two-thirds of which comes from animal sources. On the other hand, animal protein consumption is on the rise in developing countries like China and India because of rising incomes and improved quality of life. Forecasts suggest that in a few decades, developing countries’ consumption of animal protein will reach the current levels of the developed world.

The True Cost of Protein Obsession

But what most people don’t realize is the tremendous cost producing animal protein has on the planet. At current rates, 45% of land worldwide is occupied by animal agriculture and another 33% is used just to grow livestock feed (dependent on commodity crops like soy and corn that are devastating the planet). Not to mention, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that livestock production is responsible for 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions while other organizations like the World-watch Institute have estimated it could be as much as 51%. We’re pushing the world’s resources to their absolute limit now, all for the sake of creating animal protein – and despite all of this, 850 million people still suffer from hunger worldwide. To call the current food system dominated by the production of animal protein inefficient and outdated would be a gross understatement.

The Tech Solution: Upgrade or Leapfrog Change?

The obvious solution to this challenge would be to invest in technological innovations in livestock production to ensure worldwide food security and stability of the global economy. The question we face though is whether that is going to be enough. Given the scale of the problem we are dealing with and the rate at which we are depleting our natural resources to fuel a food system that is incapable of even feeding our current population of seven billion people, we need nothing short of a leapfrog change. Yes, a mere upgrade to our current system is not going to handle the rising global demand for protein. What we need is an entire new technology stack reimagined from the ground up, capable of exceeding required protein outputs without sucking up precious inputs like freshwater, land, energy, and grain to grow animals that we eventually turn to food.

Luckily, the answer has been staring us right in the face for years. If we look closely at our current food system and livestock production, in particular, producing enough food is not the problem. The fact is that the world currently produces about enough calories for 10-11 billion people, except that a significant portion of the calories from our staple crops are used to feed animals. If all current crop production used for animal feed and other non-food uses (including biofuels), were targeted for direct consumption, around 70 percent more calories would become available – potentially providing enough calories to meet the basic needs of an additional four billion people!

The simple answer would be to encourage people to cut down on meat consumption and eat more plant-based foods, which is undoubtedly the right advice. But what about the billions of people that just refuse to cut down or give up on meat because of its cultural significance or because of their love for its taste and texture? Fortunately, even that answer has been right under our noses, but the technology didn’t exist to harness its power and transform it into foods that can replicate the much-sought-after animal proteins of today. The answer can be found in the plant kingdom.

The Plant-Protein Food Tech Revolution

Plants have protein, but today’s food scientists aren’t just extracting protein from soy and wheat any longer to produce meaty alternatives. They are going way beyond by breaking down the structural components of meat and other animal sources of protein, turning to the plant kingdom and using computing power to find viable replicas or combinations that can result in a product that tastes, feels, and even smells like the real thing with an identical (or most often, enhanced) nutritional profile. Innovations in the plant-protein space have the power to transform food as we know it and write the story of the future of food. By choosing plants as a direct source of protein, we would

  1. Use less of our planet’s finite resources,

  2. Drastically cut down our carbon footprint and

  3. Give thousands of species a fighting chance at survival.

  4. Most importantly, we could redirect enough grain to feed our entire growing population over the course of the next 30 years and beyond.

Great examples of tech-driven plant-based proteins that are already in grocery stores or hitting the market soon, which is using technology to transform pea protein into beefy meat crumbles, burgers, and chicken strips. From a protein standpoint peas are hot right now, not only because they have a lower environmental impact (less land and water use), but also because of their high nutritional value, and functional properties that make them a versatile, allergy friendly, non-GMO clean protein powerhouse. But peas are hardly the only star in the plant kingdom that has been engineered in this way. 

One start-up stumbled across the ultimate plant-based answer to animal protein in the form of a molecule called heme that gives meat its craveable flavor and smell. Although this chemical is exceptionally abundant in meat, heme is essential to every branch of life, including plants. Using a heme-containing protein naturally found in plants, tFhey are making a burger that looks, tastes, and is even so close to the real thing, most people would never guess its base is all vegetables.

The New Food Ecosystem

There was a time when meat substitutes and dairy-free alternatives were created to cater to a specific segment of the population, namely people who ate a vegan or vegetarian diet. Those days are long gone. A report from global market research firm, Mintel identified meat and dairy alternatives as one of the 12 key trends set to impact the global food and drink market in 2016. The plant-based food sector specifically has reached $3.5 billion with an 8.7% growth rate in the past two years. The growth in this space is being driven by two key factors: an accelerated shift in consumer behaviour and rapid product innovation.

3D-printed meat is now a thing, and it's plant-based

An Israeli start-up Redefine Meat is working to create a meatless steak using 3D printing at an opportune time.The meatless food industry is expected to hit $8 billion in sales in the next five years, according to Business Insider.There are a big company of which alt-meat is made from a proprietary blend of soy and pea proteins along with coconut fat and sunflower oil. Even a well-known chef sampled the steak of that company and said most people would not be able to tell the difference between theirs and a real one. What’s new with 3D printing though is not an innovation in ingredients, but rather in technology, which uses specialty machines made by the company to print the steak one layer at a time. The company will be the first to sell 3D printers, and the ingredient packs, to meat distributors which means you might have a 3D-printed plant-based steak at a restaurant near you in 2021.

Future of the plant-based food

Bill Gates was an early adopter (and investor in Beyond Meat). He not only wrote about it two years ago by pointing out that there’s plenty of protein and necessary amino acids in plants, including the world’s four major commodity crops – rice, maize, wheat and soy, but he added “The problem is that instead of feeding these crops to people, we’re feeding most of them to livestock. And so we’re caught in an inefficient protein-delivery system. For every 10 kilograms of grain we feed cattle, we get 1 kilogram of beef in return. The calorie kick-back is just too low to feed a growing world population.”

But he’s not alone in the tech world. Silicon Valley’s elite are starting to recognize that animal agriculture is at the core of our broken food system and is in desperate need of disruption. In the past few years, venture capital firms have funneled billions in food technology start-ups that are developing innovative new products, several of which are plant-based. Firms like Obvious Ventures, Google Ventures, Khosla Ventures, SOSventures, and Horizons Investors are betting millions on FoodTech start-up companies to develop foods of the future.

The most recent affirmation comes from Eric Schmidt the Executive Chairman of Google’s parent company Alphabet. According to Schmidt, the development of plant-based proteins is one of the top game-changing “moonshot” technologies that will improve society. During a presentation to a ballroom filled with investors and business executives at the Milken Institute Global Conference in Los Angeles, he argued that replacing livestock with growing and harvesting plants could reduce greenhouse gas emissions and fight climate change. He also mentioned that the process of raising, slaughtering, and shipping meat products is inefficient and that looking to plant-proteins could also reduce the cost of food in developing nations.

The Food Tech Revolution

The fourth industrial revolution is underway and plant-protein is at the forefront of a much-needed transformation in agriculture, driven by companies that are working to disrupt our food system by offering healthier, more sustainable foods. At the heart of this revolution is the adoption and proliferation of meat substitutes, dairy and egg alternatives that will mark the beginning of the post-animal agriculture era.

If you want a glimpse of what the future holds, look no further that the refrigerated and frozen sections of grocery stores. Plant-based milks are dominating the dairy aisle, a new dairy-free cheese, yogurt, and dessert brand seems to be popping up on shelves nearly every week and plant-based meats and all-vegan frozen meals are literally flying off refrigerators the frozen foods section.

We are in the early stages of the development of a whole new food sub-sector that has the power to shape our food system into a more sustainable and just one. But this new economy lacks the essential building blocks, namely definition and structure that can help accelerate its growth.

Advancements in plant-protein are the kind of technological innovations the world desperately needs. In fact, it may be one of the only real shots we have to make our future on this planet possible.

Vegan Food Market Outlook - 2026

The Vegan Food market size was valued at $14.2 billion in 2018 and is expected to reach $31.4 billion by 2026, registering a CAGR of 10.5% from 2019 to 2026.

Vegan food products are generally dairy free or meat free food products that are derived or processed from plant-based sources. Meat substitutes are products that resemble actual meat in terms of taste, flavour, and appearance but are healthier than meat. Such products are increasingly being used as substitutes for regular meat and meat products. They are primarily composed of ingredients such as soy, wheat, and others. Tofu is probably the most popular meat substitute and is widely used as an alternative for pork, chicken, beef, and other meats. Similarly, dairy free food & beverage products are prepared from sources such as almond, soy, rice, coconut, and others. Popularly consumed dairy alternative based products are milk, ice cream, cheese, butter, and others.

Based on distribution channel, the Vegan Food market is segmented into offline and online. Among the distribution channel, offline segment accounts to higher value vegan food market share. Some of the key retailers such as the large, small retailer including the specialty stores have been considered in the offline stores of vegan food products. The growth of supermarket/hypermarket segment in the dairy alternative market can be attributed to the increase in adoption of supermarket and hypermarket in both the mature and emerging markets. Moreover, the one stop solution provided by these retail formats makes it a very popular option for shopping for consumers. Furthermore, these retail formats offer a wide range of products at a competitive price to customers and are usually located at easily accessible areas, which adds to overall attractiveness of this segment. Moreover, the specialty stores also fulfil immediate gratification for consumers as products bought can be taken home without waiting time.


Technology will continue to play an increasingly critical role in producing the food we eat, packaging and delivering the food. Investments in food tech will continue to increase to help deliver on the promise of healthier, more sustainable food systems for the world. Partnering with CogentHub will ensure that your customers and shareholders can have access to unhindered support 24/7 and will keep you ahead of the curve.

About the Author

Swarbhanu has completed his post-graduation in Applied Geology from Presidency University, Kolkata, India. His key areas are Content writing and Research Work. He is in this industry for one year. His areas of interest include Structural Geology, writing, Rock Climbing and Trekking, Painting and Playing Guitar.