2023 round-up: finding the levers to move alternative proteins forward 

This year has been pivotal for alternative proteins, particularly in Europe. Here is our round-up of GFI Europe’s 2023 highlights.

Also available in German.

8 December 2023

In 2023 GFI Europe sought the levers that would best move alternative proteins forward in europe

2023 has been a pivotal year for alternative proteins, particularly in Europe. As recent years have brought economic headwinds for plant-based producers in some regions, sales of plant-based meat in Europe have bucked the trend and continued to grow. Not only is this momentum building among consumers, but also among governments: public investment has stepped up in several countries this year, with significant new support announced in Catalonia, Denmark, Germany, and the UK

The past year has also been a big one for me personally, as I became a parent. 

Having a child offers a lot of new perspectives on several things. Beyond a better understanding of the true meaning of the term ‘sleep deprivation’, it has also made the future feel a bit more tangible as a concept. It is not just the next chapter of an unfathomably complicated and slowly unravelling story – it is a place my son will live.

In contemplating everything we have achieved this year (and everything we still have left to do), the importance and urgency of fighting for a more sustainable and just world fuels my work now more than ever – even after those sleepless nights! Returning to work, I am filled with new hope seeing what our small but growing team has achieved, both to build momentum where progress is taking place and to catalyse and unite a response to forces seeking to slow progress down. However, it also seems clear that we must be more vigilant than ever to consolidate and extend that progress. 

The increasing recognition of the need for protein diversification and the potential of alternative proteins as a climate solution has drawn growing attention not just from supporters but also those seeking to block innovation in this space. In 2023, the field has had to contend with an alarming growth of increasingly organised opposition, promoting disinformation and seeking to undermine progress. 

So, how did we approach this in 2023, and what did we achieve?

We expanded our country-level work to channel momentum, mitigate opposition and unlock investment.

Building on the foundations laid last year with the addition of team members focused on Germany and the UK, this year saw that strategy begin to bear fruit. 

Germany. As the country with Europe’s largest market for plant-based meat, this year we further expanded our operations in Germany and welcomed a new member to our German team. We published our first-ever country-level report, which took a deep dive into Germany’s alternative protein landscape. We worked with key politicians from across the country in a variety of formats to raise the potential of alternative proteins in Germany – including our first policy breakfast, which we organised together with allies.

Germany has long been a front-runner in terms of plant-based sales, but government investment there has not historically matched that of some other European countries. This year, however, saw a step change in approach from the German parliament, with the budget committee’s decision to unlock a major investment for 2024 that would allocate funds to: 

  •  A competence centre for proteins of the future, which bundles activities in the area of plant-based, fermentation-made and cultivated foods.
  • Bring a stronger focus in the German protein crop strategy to the cultivation of plants for human nutrition instead of animal feed.
  • Support for farmers looking to shift into the production and processing of plant-based and fermentation-made foods and cultivated meat.

The Federal Ministry for Food and Agriculture also assessed the submissions for a research call for alternative proteins and approved projects totalling €16 million. The first projects in the fields of cultivation and fermentation have already received their funding notices.  

The UK. In 2023 we also ramped up our work in the UK, where government support continued to grow. In April, the British government announced its largest single investment to date in alternative proteins, allocating £12 million to establish the Cellular Agriculture Manufacturing Hub (CARMA) to expand research into cultivated meat. 

As our new UK ecosystem report shows, 2023 was a record year for public investment in alternative proteins – and the UK is home to a diverse and growing ecosystem of companies, research institutions and universities. We made nine recommendations for policymakers to enable the UK to unlock its latent strengths and use alternative proteins to deliver on national ambitions for science, food security and economic growth.

Days after a similar submission was made in Switzerland, the UK also became the second European country to receive a formal application for the authorisation of cultivated meat, indicating that the time is now to ensure safe, fair regulatory pathways for alternative proteins – a cornerstone of GFI Europe’s work. 

Developments in the UK culminated in the National Vision for Engineering Biology, published by the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology in early December. The plan earmarked £2 billion for research, development and infrastructure in key fields over the coming decade, expressly acknowledging the opportunities offered by the UK’s “budding” cultivated meat industry. It also included recommendations for smart regulation to enable swift and robust product safety assessments across the field of engineering biology. 

Spain. We also expanded our country-level work into new countries in 2023, working with expert consultants in the Madrid Region and Catalonia to foster new policy collaborations. Spain has a rapidly growing consumer market for plant-based foods and has previously invested €5 million in a project to explore the potential of cultivated meat to prevent food-borne illnesses. Likewise, the Catalan Government announced a new investment in October to create a €7 million research centre to scale up production of plant-based and fermentation-made meat, seafood, eggs and dairy. 

Italy. Unfortunately, while many European governments are beginning to embrace the opportunities of alternative proteins, this is not the case across the board. In March, Giorgia Meloni’s government proposed and introduced a draft law that would ban the production and sale of cultivated meat in the country, stifling innovation and closing the door on Italian researchers and companies working in this fledgeling sector. At the time of the bill’s initial hearing, it was clear that the government’s heavy-handed and anti-science stance was at odds with many Italians, 54% of whom say they would like to try cultivated meat. 

While the ban passed in November, our work to support the newly formed Italian Alliance for Complementary Proteins (IACP) and forge new alliances has awakened a new and more coordinated voice in support of alternative proteins in Italy and beyond. Through the growth of our team and our work with expert consultants, allies, researchers and startups in Italy, we helped raise awareness of the importance of alternative proteins. We also spoke out against the exclusion of many relevant stakeholders from hearings, which removed the opportunity for a fair and balanced debate.   

As the EU Commission prepares to scrutinise the Italian law and its implications for the EU market, we’re dedicated to ensuring alternative proteins stay in the spotlight. We will continue to engage with political forces and stakeholders, calling for the Italian Government to comply with the findings of the Commission’s upcoming review. In doing so, we hope to prevent Italy from being left out of the exciting opportunities offered by the nascent cultivated meat sector.

With worrying signs that those behind the cultivated meat ban have ambitions to help other countries replicate similar restrictions or even push for them at the EU level, our learnings and experience in protecting innovation and progress for this game-changing food will be invaluable, but there is a pressing need to further expand this country-level work in 2024 and beyond.  

We continued to advocate for alternative proteins at the EU level.

Unlocking further EU funding. Our growing Science and Technology and Policy teams facilitated greater collaboration with major European funders in 2023. Demonstrating GFI Europe’s thought leadership, our Senior Policy Manager Acacia Smith became Vice-President of the new Protein Diversification Think Tank convened by major European research funder EIT Food, and was involved in the development of their policy objectives. 

EIT Food also announced an additional €1.2 million in funding for three grantees from our Cultivated Meat Innovation Challenge – a clear example of our role as a field catalyst in action. The innovation challenge, launched by GFI in collaboration with EIT Food in 2022, identified projects with promising solutions to reduce costs in cultivated meat production and awarded each an initial grant of €100,000, which went on to unlock additional funding four times greater than this.

This is an excellent example of how donor support for GFI has been multiplied through its use as leverage to attract further investment in promising research.   

Engagement with the upcoming EU protein strategy. Our policy team engaged closely with policymakers to ensure the EU’s new protein strategy (due to be released early next year) provides an enabling environment for alternative proteins. A report by the European Parliament on what the strategy should look like echoed several of our key recommendations – highlighting the need for more public and private investment in research and development, support for infrastructure, more transparent and efficient authorisation processes for novel foods, and more scientific and technical guidance for companies traversing regulatory approval. 

Lots of opposing views and amendments relating to alternative proteins were debated as part of the Protein Strategy discussions, and some of these votes were very close – demonstrating that GFI Europe focuses not only on what is important and neglected but also on what is tractable. Our continued work to inform policymakers about the potential of alternative proteins is crucial in ensuring the most important features of the report are adopted by the European Commission next year. 

We grew the alternative protein research ecosystem in Europe and beyond

Our work also helped foster collaboration between European researchers and leading international players. Working with GFI Israel, our Science and Technology team supported the launch of a multilateral, multi-million euro funding call involving national innovation agencies from Switzerland, Sweden, Israel and Singapore (InnoSuiss, Vinnova, Enterprise Singapore and the Israeli Innovation Authority), focused exclusively on alternative proteins and their supporting technologies. After shaping the scope of the call, GFI Europe’s Research and Grants Manager Dr Stella Child was invited to present at the launch webinar, and global GFI team members have facilitated collaborations with interested companies. 

Elevating student leaders to catalyse university hubs. This year, we welcomed seven new chapters of the Alternative Protein Project (APP), bringing the total number in Europe to 16 university groups across 12 countries. APPs work to raise the profile of plant-based foods, cultivated meat and fermentation from within their university, with goals including building alternative protein courses, stimulating open-access research and catalysing alternative protein entrepreneurship. European APPs already boast notable achievements on this front, and we look forward to expanding the network further in 2024. 

In order to overcome the major R&D bottlenecks limiting alternative protein uptake, we need many more scientists working in the space. In 2023, we aimed to showcase the incredible potential of the field to a wider scientific audience and attract more researchers from related specialisms. As part of this strategy, we partnered with Cell Press – one of the world’s leading scientific publishers – to leverage their massive platform to reach an audience of scientists from key disciplines. GFI Europe and Cell Press agreed to co-host a webinar focused on how to accelerate scientific progress in the plant-based, cultivated, and fermentation fields, with six key priorities ultimately emerging from the discussion.

We delivered open-access, evidence-based resources on alternative proteins.

Delivering open-access insights into plant-based sales data in Europe. In 2023, we developed resources to catalyse the sector, providing insights to inform the strategic decisions of players in the space. Our release of key retail sales data, offering detailed insights on the plant-based market in 13 European countries, was a pivotal part of this strategy. Our reports mapped the growth of the sector and offered country-level breakdowns both in English and local languages. Beyond providing support for companies and startups in the space, these reports provided crucial evidence that the narrative of a plant-based ‘slowdown’ was more nuanced than some had previously thought. 

Looking at the facts about plant-based meat and health. Health is one of the leading reasons people give for choosing plant-based meat. For a long time, consumers generally understood that plant-based meat can offer a healthy choice as well as a sustainable one.

However, recent years have seen a worrying growth in misinformation about nutrition and alternative proteins online. In our work with policymakers and investors, questions about nutrition have become more frequent, highlighting a pressing need for trustworthy resources on the subject. 

To help offer a complete picture of the current research and key considerations for further improvement, our team developed a report (reviewed by food scientists and nutrition experts) synthesising available evidence on the topic, with summaries available in multiple languages. We found that existing research on products available in Europe was promising and also summarised key opportunity areas for researchers and companies to enhance the nutritional composition of plant-based meat further.

Expanding our research work in 2024 to create more open-access and evidence-based resources is vital for providing policymakers, investors, and scientists alike with the information they need to support alternative proteins.

With the right lever, we can move the world.

It is amazing to look back on the year we have had and to think that all this has been achieved by a small team of just 27 people. 

As Archimedes famously said, with a long enough lever and a well-placed fulcrum, it is possible to move the world – and our laser focus on strategic approaches that are evidence-based and outcomes-oriented enable us to create outsized leverage. 

Several independent charity evaluators have once again recognised GFI’s incredible impact in 2023. Here in Europe, we are incredibly proud that, as of 2023, Doneer Effectief and Effektiv Spenden recognise GFI as a high-impact charity for combatting climate change, in addition to improving animal welfare. We are grateful for the partnership of these organisations!

Europe has been at the forefront of some of the most crucial developments in alternative proteins in 2023, both positive and negative, and at every step, our team has worked tirelessly to consolidate and extend the incredible progress we have already made. 

Coming back to work after a year of maternity leave, I can see the lever is working, and the world has moved. As I think about the future I want for my son and future generations, I’m thankful that GFI Europe’s work means this movement is generally going in a positive direction. However, to help maximise the impact of growing investment and rise to meet the increasingly organised forces that seek to frustrate progress, we need to keep growing.

I feel fired up by that urgency every day, and I know our fantastic family of donors share that feeling. Everything we have achieved so far is only possible thanks to the philanthropic support of our donors, who share our commitment to forging a food system that works better for people, planet and animals. We can’t wait to build on that impact together in 2024.  

Author

Emily Johnson – photo by Barbara Evripidou/FirstAvenuePhotography.com

Emily Johnson Senior Philanthropy Manager

Emily builds relationships with donors in support of GFI’s global mission to make sustainable proteins the default option.