The plant protein transformation: does it add up?

What does a plant protein transformation actually mean for the normal functioning of crop markets?

Current studies and projections do not always give a clear sense of whether a plant protein transformation is possible or desirable. This is because they are mainly concerned with various environmental and related objectives or are caught up in the excitement of the new profit opportunities presented by the latest products.

Asking the right questions

These projections often ignore some basic facts about crop markets that have evolved over many decades and which operate according to fairly clear economic fundamentals. These fundamentals, as we shall see, are not changing any time soon, and so it pays to ask: can a plant protein transformation still happen within the confines of the existing agricultural system?

For example, a popular recent study of the sector by BCG and Blue Horizon (Food for thought: The Protein Transformation, March 2021) lays out clearly the various options currently open to the market including plant based, micro-organism based and animal cell based protein solutions. It then goes on to project that by 2035 we can expect around 97 million tons of plant based protein products with a little over half of these in the dairy sector, much of the rest consisting of meat replacers and around 8% replacing eggs. Is this realistic? How can we tell?

Closer examination of the numbers reveals, for example, that around 35 million tons of the total arises from milk replacers but these typically contain less than a couple of percent of protein and consist mainly of water. If we roughly convert these numbers into protein equivalents then 97 million tons of products amounts to perhaps 16 to 20 million tons of alternative protein. What sense are we to make of that number?

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