Plant-based mutton products for Indian closet non-vegans or mince made from mushrooms, almonds and soybean are providing alternatives for meat-free consumers.
But, all is not lost for Australian farmers and they need to become active in this booming space, with room for horticultural and grain growers to provide the raw inputs.
Food Frontier chief executive officer Thomas King wants Australian farmers to be leading the change and not to risk being victim to it.
Mr King said Australia was a leader for food safety, infrastructure, production capacity, research and development.
“The fact we aren’t already engaging more considerably in cell culture meats astounds me,’’ he said.
An analysis of the R&D landscape across Australia and New Zealand by Food Frontier revealed Melbourne was a global hot spot for tissue engineering and stem cell biology but none was directed into the cell-based meat production.
A keynote speaker at the Pasture Agronomy Service conference in Wodonga, Mr King said Australia had the intellectual capital ready to carve out a space in both plant and cell based protein alternatives.
Food Frontier is working with six entrepreneurs forming companies in plant and cell based cultures, along with food manufacturers and meat corporations.
“Australia is behind – for years markets like New Zealand, Singapore and Canada have been undertaking stakeholder mapping, research and talking with international market leaders to understand what partnerships they could develop,’’ Mr King said.
“New Zealand’s small agricultural industry is genuinely scared of losing out to new innovation so they have made it clear they want to be ahead of that change.’’
Since the first hamburger grown from cell culture was launched in 2013, more than 25 companies now operate in the global cell-based protein space alone, and many more plant-based alternative companies.
Yet, cell based meat is still not a commercial reality with discussions underway in the US Department of Agriculture on how the sector will be regulated.
The protein could be grown to be anatomically identical to meat, with the same nutritional profile and texture.
The only difference is it is not grown on an animal’s skeletal system.
“Research is showing we need to drastically change the way we are farming and eating into coming decades if we are to realistically feed the world without crossing certain ecological tipping points,’’ Mr King said.
“We need to diversify protein supply, we can’t just rely on livestock as a means to feed the world moving forward.
“Food Frontier is helping industry and government to navigate this space, and understand what it can mean for Australian industry, manufacturing and agriculture.’’
Meat created from cell culture involves a tiny sample of animal cells being housed in a bioreactor and fed a mixture of nutrients causing them to grow and divide.
The culture medium comprises amino acids, sugars, vitamins, and growth factor.
While in the biomedical field, these growth factors have traditionally been taken from foetal bovine serum, Mr King said all cell-based meat companies were committed to replacing this input with an animal free alternative.
“Foetal bovine serum has batch consistency issues, is ethically problematic for some, is costly and in short supply,’’ he said.
The majority of cell-based protein start-up companies are in the US, followed by Israel and Europe.
US company JUST Foods produced chicken nuggets using cells taken from the inside of a feather.
In 2018, Future Meat Technologies estimated the cost of cell based meat production at AUD$1100 per kilogram while Memphis Meats, USA, announced AUD$6000 per kilogram.
Mosa Meat, Netherlands, estimated retail prices would settle around $19-$96/kg by 2027 and JUST Foods, USA, quoted prices within 30 per cent of current meat prices.
Mr King said surveys in the US, Netherlands and Belgium revealed 20 to 70 per cent of respondents were willing to try cell based meat and pay a premium for it.
“The more information consumers are provided about what it is and how it’s made, the more likely they are to try it,’’ he said.
Plant based alternative proteins use a combination of proteins, fats, water and trace minerals to replicate the sensory experience of meat.
“Plant protein, extracts, spices, gums, seasonings and plant based fats, along with processing methods using moisture, heat, cooling and pressure to create the functional taste and textural properties,’’ Mr King said.
“The demand for these next generation meat alternatives is now outpacing supply.
“The market was estimated to be worth between US$4.3 and $6.4 billion last year.
“In the US, the sale of plant based meat increased by 23 per cent. The Beyond Burger is now available in over 20,000 grocery stores and 11,000 restaurants.
“In terms of the price point of these products, they sit on par with higher range conventional meat such as organic, grass fed and free range.
“I don’t see plant or cell based proteins presenting an immediate threat to Australian livestock farmers at this point.
“The challenge we face is our current production systems have limitations.
“The plant and cell based proteins can be complementary within that market because ultimately the market is growing with space for traditional and new proteins.
“Australia should be part of it or we will potentially miss out.
“We see international firms and governments taking this space seriously and investing a lot of money as they want to lead it.’’
Mr King said Australia was well placed to invest in the technology with opportunities for scientists, chefs and entrepreneurs, and provision of the primary inputs from the horticultural and grains industries.
“I’ve heard experts predict alternative proteins will become a lower grade option alongside conventional meat, which is good news for producers and industry so they can price their products accordingly,’’ he said.
“It could also be considered by some consumers as a more desirable option considering the benefits to the environment and absence of bacterial contamination.
“Farmers, rural representative bodies, governments and meat corporations around the world are taking this space seriously with some major corporates repositioning themselves as protein producers rather than meat producers.’’