Europe aspires to lead in cleantech and biotech – but they need alternative proteins to win the race

It’s time for policymakers to rethink their approach, and give the same level of priority to alternative proteins as they do to other promising biotech and cleantech fields.

the European Union is keen to win the cleantech race, image of an anthropomorphised European flag limbering up at the start of a race
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As European policymakers rally to bolster the domestic manufacturing capacity of critical technologies for a greener and more competitive European economy, alternative proteins, despite their huge potential, have so far been largely overlooked. It’s time for policymakers to reevaluate their approach and accord the same level of priority to alternative proteins as they do to other promising technologies. The upcoming EU Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Initiative is an opportunity to lay the groundwork for the sector’s development and achieve Europe’s industrial ambitions. 

Europe’s quest for (green) re-industrialisation 

Europe is on the brink of a new chapter in its industrial history, and the stakes are high. The continent must achieve the climate targets set in the Paris Agreement and the European Green Deal, take part in the cleantech race sparked by the US Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and assert its industrial sovereignty. In laying the foundations for sustainable economic growth, policymakers face the crucial task of strategically choosing sectors with the greatest potential. This is not only about steering Europe towards promising opportunities but also about enhancing resilience in the face of an ever-evolving global landscape. 

Recent strategic documents from EU institutions and national governments suggest that cleantech and biotechnology are the cornerstones of tomorrow’s economy. However, the roadmap to position Europe at the forefront of critical technological innovation and development is yet to be articulated. The real challenge? Advancing from research and development (R&D) excellence to securing robust production capabilities within the region, ensuring that groundbreaking ideas seamlessly transition to large-scale production on European soil. 

Alternative Proteins are Europe’s next strategic opportunity

Amid these debates, alternative proteins, ie plant-based, cultivated and fermentation-made meat, emerge as a silent powerhouse. They are strategically positioned at the intersection of biotechnological innovation and the demand for more sustainable products, leveraging both conventional agricultural methods and the industrial opportunities of biomanufacturing. Alternative proteins can not only drive the EU towards its objectives of industrial growth and open strategic autonomy, but they also play a crucial role in fostering the responsible use of natural resources and significantly reducing the environmental and climate impact of food production. 

Research suggests that the production and consumption of animal products in the EU accounts for 12-17% of the bloc’s greenhouse gas emissions, and a study led by Oxford University found that – even if fossil fuel emissions were eliminated immediately – the world cannot meet its Paris Agreement targets without shifting away from conventional animal agriculture. 

Relative to other cleantech and biotech industries, alternative proteins have also received far less funding to date, even though food production drives a considerable proportion of global carbon emissions. This offers a clear opportunity for Europe to secure leadership in this important and emerging space, as money invested in R&D and infrastructure will have a greater impact than in more mature sectors that already have significantly more funding. 

global public investment in alternative proteins compared to projected need

Alternative proteins are a concrete example of enablers for turning Europe’s aspiration for cleantech and biomanufacturing into reality. However, like any innovation, the sector requires positive signals from policymakers and predictability to fully unleash its potential.

“The risk looms large that Europe’s innovation ends up benefiting other regions, replicating stories seen in sectors now dominated by third countries.”

Pauline Grimmer, GFI Europe

As the EU strives to regain ground in vital materials like batteries and solar panel components, it must learn from past neglect and proactively invest in critical industries to foster strategic autonomy and economic competitiveness. The alternative protein sector is now at a crossroads in this regard, and public support will be crucial to prevent history from repeating itself. 

Notably, for emerging technologies such as precision fermentation and cultivated meat, the key challenge over the next five years is to demonstrate their potential at scale. Europe is well-placed to scale up, given its existing production capacity, with almost half of global fermentation and extrusion capacity situated in the region. But this requires a genuine European industrial approach to catalyse the sector’s growth. 

Scaling alternative proteins with the Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Initiative

The upcoming EU Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Initiative, with its anticipated focus on scaling, presents a strategic opportunity for Europe to position itself as a driving force of the alternative protein ecosystem. Other governments have already set the pace: The United States Executive Order on Advancing Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing explicitly refers to alternative proteins and recognises their potential in shaping the future of sustainable food production. In the United Kingdom, the recently adopted national vision for engineering biology is committing £2 billion in research, development, and infrastructure over the next decade, including for cultivated meat. It’s now time for Europe to not only join but also lead this strategic race, ensuring that its policy landscape and investments stand on par with other governments. 

Key priorities

To this end, the EU Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Initiative should build on the following principles and objectives:

  • Elevate alternative proteins, including plant-based, cultivated, and fermentation-made meat, as a strategic priority within the EU’s industrial agenda. Drawing inspiration from recent developments in the cleantech space, notably the Net Zero Industry Act, the Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Initiative should identify strategic sectors and lay the foundations for tailored development pathways. The Initiative should strengthen the connection between biomanufacturing and the food sector by explicitly including food in its scope. Additionally, it should recognise the alternative protein sector’s significant potential in contributing to Europe’s ambitions for economic competitiveness.
  • Foster research and industrial leadership through public funding. The Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Initiative presents a unique opportunity to set the stage for an ambitious industrial policy that fosters both research and industrial leadership on critical technologies within the EU. Such an industrial policy approach must commit to a comprehensive set of policy measures and financial instruments, including targeted R&D grants, loan guarantees for critical infrastructure – such as fermentation capacity – and fostering public-private partnerships. These initiatives should span the entire spectrum, from initial research and innovation stages to the commercialisation phase.
  • Streamline the regulatory approval process. In the EU, most alternative protein products require authorisation under the Novel Food Regulation, a regulatory framework that balances support for innovation with a rigorous focus on science, transparency and consumer safety. However, procedural complexities risk compromising the EU’s attractiveness as a market launch destination. To address these challenges, there’s a crucial need to improve the implementation and efficiency of novel food authorisation, by reducing ambiguities and costs, particularly for small and medium-sized companies. This is essential to ensure that the burgeoning innovation happening in Europe’s alternative protein sector can actually reach the market. 
  • Build an integrated European bioeconomy ecosystem. The Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Initiative should recognise the holistic and cross-cutting nature of the bioeconomy. This requires an ecosystem vision that harnesses the potential of cross-sectorial synergies, where advancements in technologies like bioprocessing, cell lines technologies, 3D printing, etc, offer simultaneous benefits across various industries. To make this vision a reality, policymakers should actively champion interdisciplinary collaboration. In the case of alternative proteins, this entails, for instance, expanding the focus beyond traditional agrifood clusters to secure public R&D funding or encouraging the retrofitting of fermentation facilities from other sectors.
  • Ensure policy coherence. To establish a credible response to similar strategies adopted by countries like the US and the UK, the EU must ensure policy coherence. This involves building on the Farm to Fork Strategy and the Bioeconomy Strategy while aligning efforts and ambitions with upcoming initiatives such as the Protein Strategy or the 2040 climate targets. 

Europe fell behind in the race for solar power and battery technology – but it doesn’t have to play catch-up when it comes to alternative proteins. European scientists and entrepreneurs are at the forefront of plant-based, fermentation and cultivated meat innovation. EU policymakers must act fast to capture the value and future-proof jobs they could create.

Author

Image of Pauline Grimmer

Pauline Grimmer Policy Officer

Pauline engages with EU policymakers to advance sustainable proteins and create a better European food system.