Europe must build on research potential to become plant-based world leader

16 September 2022

A new paper by the GFI Europe, Bridge2Food and the European Alliance for Plant Based Foods calls on the EU to create a long-term vision to make sure the continent’s plant-based sector can deliver on its potential.

With its long history of scientific innovation, Europe is well placed to lead the global transition to plant-based food. 

The European Union now needs to recognise this, build on existing academic strengths, and make sure the continent doesn’t fall behind other parts of the world.

With some of the most ambitious climate targets on the planet, European leaders should be well aware that animal agriculture causes 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Plant-based meat, which can deliver the meat people want with up to 90% less emissions, is a scalable solution that doesn’t rely on drastic diet changes. 

It also has the potential to provide a much more efficient way to produce food and reduce the EU’s dependence on imports – boosting food security for the bloc’s 27 member states.

Despite being relatively young, the plant-based sector is already booming across Europe, with the market expected to reach €16.7 billion by 2029. But so far, plant-based options make up just 1% of the total meat market and up to 6% of the total dairy market.

A new paper by the Good Food Institute Europe, Bridge2Food and the European Alliance for Plant Based Foods calls on the EU to create a long-term vision to make sure the continent’s plant-based sector can deliver on its potential as quickly as possible.

Our paper points to how European policymakers must fund open-access research and development to enable these foods to compete with conventional meat on taste, price and convenience – the three factors that drive most people’s food choices.

Bringing prices down would help these sustainable foods to become the default – rather than the luxury – option, driving down emissions and helping the EU meet its agricultural climate change targets. 

Academic strengths

Scientists across the continent have already demonstrated innovative ways of making sustainable proteins compete with animal products. Researchers from Danish Technical University National Food Institute in Copenhagen recently developed a new bacteria to produce a natural butter flavour to be added to plant-based dairy products.

Some of these innovations have already been made as a result of public investment. The EU-funded Pro-Future project helped scale up a new microalgae strain that can produce tastier, more environmentally friendly, more nutritious food, while the Alseos project enabled NapiFeryn BioTech to turn rapeseed oil waste products into a valuable food ingredient.

A lot of incredible scientific expertise already exists across Europe, and if the right funding was made available, far more exciting work could be done to bring plant-based foods into the mainstream.

The continent is home to 38% of the world’s research universities, with expertise across all the relevant scientific disciplines, such as plant biology, crop sciences, physics, and biochemistry, meaning there is strong but dormant potential for Europe to be at the forefront of this field. 

Compared with investment in animal-based agriculture, research and development into plant-based food has so far been woefully underfunded by the public sector, with crucial areas missing from EU funding calls, such as improving taste and reducing price, and exploring the use of new crops.

Public funding can play a key role in addressing many of these long-term challenges, and supporting commercial spin-offs to make sure the benefits of European research are felt here on the continent. 

Europe must rise to challenge

Other parts of the world are now making serious investments in this space: 

Europe must now rise to the challenge. The revision of the Food 2030 Strategy – aimed at ensuring everyone has access to affordable and nutritious food – must reflect the role of public R&D in making these foods more appealing and affordable, and the EU’s flagship Horizon Europe research programme must direct sufficient funds towards the sector. 

Our call to action

Under Horizon Europe, the EU should create calls focused on improving the taste, price and availability of plant-based foods, develop a partnership dedicated to novel foods, and ensure EU Missions highlight the role of sustainable proteins in transforming our food system.

The EU should also create dedicated innovation hubs for plant-based food, bringing together researchers, universities and companies to accelerate innovation. 

They should increase the availability of grant funding for plant-based food startups to provide non-dilutive funding – a crucial step in getting these new businesses off the ground – and establish a grant programme or prize incentives to develop supply chain solutions addressing future bottlenecks.

They should also allow tax relief for companies investing in R&D with societal benefits and provide funding to universities able to bring experts from a range of departments together to carry out cutting edge plant-based research.

Plant-based meat has the potential to help Europe tackle the climate crisis, while providing affordable and nutritious food to the continent’s half a billion residents – but it will take serious and targeted investment to make sure this happens.

These steps outline how EU leaders can do this, and ensure the bloc takes its rightful position as a leader in this dynamic new sector.

Author

Acacia Smith, GFI Europe Policy Manager

Acacia Smith Senior Policy Manager

Acacia focuses on securing public funding for sustainable protein research and development.