Sustainable and circular bioeconomy for food systems transformation

Alternative proteins top the bill for the latest FAO–International Sustainable Bioeconomy Working Group webinar


Market potential, regulatory issues, and environmental and carbon outcomes all highlighted

On 5 May, FAO and the International Sustainable Bioeconomy Working Group (ISBWG) hosted the fifth in a series of webinars on bio-innovations for agrifood systems transformation, this time focusing on alternative proteins. The webinar was facilitated by Lev Neretin and Marta Gomez San Juan from the FAO Sustainable and Circular Bioeconomy team, and moderated by Ndaindila Haindongo, one of the lead authors of a major forthcoming FAO report on alternative proteins.

Nate Crosser, principal of sustainable agrifood systems investment fund Blue Horizon, and Madeline Cohen, regulatory expert at the Good Food Institute, delivered keynote speeches at the event.

What are alternative proteins?

Alternative proteins are an exciting branch of the bioeconomy that run the gamut from microbial proteins (microalgae and mycoproteins), insect-based proteins, and cell-based/cultivated meat, to plant-based proteins (meat substitutes, dairy alternatives), and fungi. Interest in this niche sector has been growing rapidly in recent years due to a number of factors, including changing consumer tastes, the search for sustainable solutions to feed a projected 9.7 billion people by 2050, and increased environmental and ethical concerns around traditional protein production practices.

A recent study estimates that plant-based proteins are 38–91 percent less land intensive, 53–95 percent less water intensive, and 69–92 percent less carbon emissions intensive than meat-based alternatives. Including alternative proteins in European diets could reduce global warming potential, water use and land use by over 80 percent. Wider production and consumption of such proteins could thus play a significant role in supporting ecosystem restoration and reducing the global carbon footprint of agrifood systems, which account for 31 percent of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, according to recent FAO estimates.

However, alternative proteins are not a silver bullet for every challenge related to food security, nutrition, environment and climate change. Nor are they one homogeneous entity, but rather a suite of potential biological solutions which, similar to other new food sources and production systems, present challenges and risks as well as benefits and opportunities, as highlighted at the 44th Session of the Codex Alimentarius Commission in 2021.

Market opportunities and challenges

There are now 1 000 manufacturers/brands and 500 ingredient suppliers active in alternative proteins worldwide, with venture capital investment reaching a record USD 5 billion in 2021. The global alternative proteins market is projected to grow exponentially to a value of at least USD 290 billion by 2035, with market penetration rising from the current 2 percent to 10–22 percent. Within that projection, plant-based alternatives with similar taste and texture should already reach cost parity with animal proteins in EU and US markets by 2023, becoming progressively cheaper over the next decade.

“We focus a lot on alternative proteins at Blue Horizon, because we think it’s really overlooked generally by investors and by governments and is really key to solving the agricultural issues that face us,” says Nate Crosser. Most investment in alternative proteins comes from the private sector, though there is some public funding in a number of jurisdictions, including Australia, Denmark, European Union, Finland, Israel, United Kingdom, and United States of America.

Crosser references food security and supply chain resilience, plugging the protein deficit in developing countries, adoption of circular and regenerative agricultural practices, and economic growth and job creation among potential benefits of investing in the sector. However, he notes that funding is still miniscule compared to other sectors and points out a number of potential challenges including product formulation, production and extraction capacity, supply chain issues, consumer acceptance – cost parity is vital! – and regulatory issues.

The need for robust regulatory frameworks

“Alongside public investment, regulatory frameworks are going to be a key component in successful development of the alternative protein industry,” according to Madeline Cohen, “so it’s important that regulators have support to develop regulations that are both science-based and fair”.

With specific regard to cultivated meat, several countries already have some regulatory or legal provisions applying to production, sale and manufacture of relevant products, either under existing or new frameworks. Singapore was the first country to approve the sale of cultivated meat, with two cultivated chicken products reaching the market in 2020. In the United States of America, the Food and Drug Administration plans to issue draft guidance on premarket consultation for all cultivated meat products in 2022. Meanwhile, in the European Union, cultivated meat falls under “Novel Food” regulation, requiring a safety assessment from the European Food Safety Authority. In addition to cultivated meat, novel plant-based and fermentation products also fall under regulatory frameworks in some countries; for instance, India has created a draft rule specific to plant-based foods marketed as vegan, which will be required to display the country’s vegan logo.

Looking at future regulatory considerations concerning alternative proteins, Cohen says it is important that regulators include principles of food safety, fairness and applicability, and ensure that such novel products are clearly labelled and explained. Global harmonization of alternative protein regulations would also help ensure food safety and fair trade – FAO has a key role to play in this regard, for example through the Codex Alimentarius Commission.

ISBWG webinar reaction

After the enlightening presentations by Nate Crosser and Madeline Cohen at the 5 May webinar, a rich discussion followed with government officials, private sector actors, researchers and other members of the ISBWG around issues such as price speculation in the protein sector; nutritional value of alternative proteins vis-à-vis animal proteins; the health and safety challenges around adopting a new protein matrix; alternative proteins in animal feed; demand for and regulations around insect-based proteins; FAO’s role in supporting responsible alternative proteins development and disseminating science-based information on novel foods; and potential demand for alternative proteins in emerging economies.

“FAO is already taking steps to address some of the knowledge gaps and information asymmetries relating to opportunities and risks of alternative proteins. Alternative proteins are one of the key areas of focus of FAO’s Programme Priority Area on Bioeconomy for Sustainable Food and Agriculture, in particular with regard to supporting the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal target 12.2 – Sustainable management and efficient use of natural resources”, says Lev Neretin, the programme’s lead.

Points raised during the webinar will feed into FAO’s forthcoming report on alternative proteins, due out in autumn 2022.


Photo:  The world's first cultured hamburger, London, 2013. ©World Economic Forum



FAO Sustainable and Circular Bioeconomy

Blue Horizon

Good Food Institute



The need for guidance on alternative proteins highlighted to Codex Alimentarius Commission