2023 was a record-breaking year for UK research funding in alternative proteins – here’s a recap
The results of a £15.6 million funding call round out a bumper year for British alternative protein researchers and entrepreneurs.
The results of a £15.6 million funding call tops a bumper year for British alternative protein researchers and entrepreneurs.
Food producers will work with British universities on a wide range of projects benefiting from last week’s Low Emission Food Systems investment. These include using new technology to reduce the cost of cultivated meat, artificial intelligence to find new strains of yeast to scale up precision fermentation, and developing high-protein plant-based cheeses.
UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) – the country’s biggest public funding body – has comfortably invested more in alternative proteins in 2023 than throughout the entire previous decade (2012-2022).
The vast majority has been driven by three of the organisation’s research councils – the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) Innovate UK and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).
A stand-out investment came in April when the EPSRC invested £12 million to establish the Cellular Agriculture Manufacturing Hub (CARMA) led by the University of Bath – a game-changing leap forward for the development of cultivated meat and precision fermentation in the UK.
The funding – the largest single investment the UK Government has made to date in alternative proteins – formed a research hub that will run until the end of the decade, investigating how to produce cultivated meat at scale, as well as developing ingredients such as sustainable palm oil through precision fermentation.
Led by Professor Marianne Ellis, CARMA will bring together researchers from universities across the country, while companies including Hoxton Farms and Quest Meat will bring their expertise, and new partners will join as the project progresses.
By 2030, the group aims to make significant contributions to cracking some of the biggest technical challenges blocking the commercialisation of cultivated meat, such as creating inexpensive cell culture media – the nutrient-rich ‘broth’ that enables cells to grow.
The group also plans to gain a clearer understanding of consumers’ views, with a focus on building trust by engaging with farmers and other groups, organising industry workshops, and running a school engagement programme.
CARMA will help to establish a network to enable some of the country’s best alternative protein scientists to exchange ideas with industry – and vice-versa – while attracting talented new researchers to the field.
Other research funding calls
Alternative protein researchers have benefited from other pots of public funding throughout the year, such as Innovate UK’s £17.4 million Better Food for All call, announced in October.
Exciting projects to receive funding included Adamo Foods and the University of Nottingham, exploring ways to further enhance the nutritional content of their mycoprotein, while startup Stars UK will work with the University of Leeds to optimise the taste and mouthfeel of their plant-based burger using locally available whole foods.
Although not exclusively aimed at alternative proteins, businesses and researchers aiming to build a home-grown plant-based protein supply also benefited from the £12.5 million Sustainable farm-based protein call announced by the Department of Environment Food and Rural Affairs in May.
These included the National Institute of Agricultural Botany’s project developing chickpeas as a domestic protein source and Upcycled Plant Power’s project focusing on sustainable plant protein from vegetable crop sidestreams.
The opportunities ahead
More alternative protein funding could still be announced as part of the Engineering Biology Mission Hub and Awards and the £6.5 million Plant-based Protein Innovation collaboration with Protein Industries Canada – both expected soon. Looking ahead to 2024, another landmark moment will be the creation of a £15 million Alternative Protein Innovation and Knowledge Centre – designed to undertake cutting-edge research with a focus on commercialisation.
The funding we have seen throughout 2023 is a strong indication that the UK Government increasingly recognises the importance of alternative proteins to achieving its ambitions for food security, economic growth and net zero.
As the year came to an end, there was more good news when the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology highlighted the importance of alternative proteins in its National Vision for Engineering Biology.The government has made a good start, but over the next few years, the UK must double down on its ambitions. Our UK ecosystem report sets out what needs to be done by the end of this decade – from investing £390 million to reforming the country’s regulatory system – to enable the UK to become a global leader in developing these more sustainable foods.