Alternative proteins in the United Kingdom
With world-class scientific institutions, innovative food producers and a strong plant-based market, the UK has the potential to be at the forefront of the transition to alternative proteins.
The UK’s alternative protein opportunity
The UK Government has expressed an ambition to develop and scale-up alternative proteins in Britain, most clearly in its Food Strategy. The remainder of this decade will be crucial to deliver on this aspiration and unlock the environmental and societal benefits of plant-based, fermentation-made and cultivated meat, seafood, eggs and dairy. With decisive political leadership and ambitious policies, the UK can become a home for this dynamic new green industry.
“The UK has been at the forefront of innovation in protein sources since the development of Quorn products in the 1980s, with a world-leading production facility in Billingham creating jobs and investment in North-East England. The government will keep the UK at the front of this growing and innovative sector”Government Food Strategy, 2022
Becoming a scientific superpower
The UK has a proud history of leading the world in scientific fields like crop breeding, genomics and bioprocess engineering. Drawing on that bedrock of expertise, scientists in the UK can lead the charge in addressing critical R&D bottlenecks, unlocking tastier and more affordable alternative proteins. With the government pledging to invest in alternative protein research and backing engineering biology as one of five critical technologies of the future, plant-based foods, fermentation and cultivated meat can help the UK realise its ambition to become a science superpower.
Growing the net zero economy
The Climate Change Committee says UK meat and dairy consumption must fall by 20% by 2030 to help the country hit its net zero targets. Plant-based and cultivated meat can play a role in this transition by providing the British public with the familiar foods they love, at a fraction of the environmental cost.
Cultivated meat could cut the climate impact of meat by up to 92%, reduce air pollution by up to 94%, and use up to 90% less land. Quorn’s mycoprotein-based meat has a carbon footprint four times lower than chicken and can be produced with just 6% of the land needed for beef. And plant-based pork produces 85% less climate emissions and needs 63% less water than conventional pork.
Investing in these foods won’t just be good for helping the UK hit its goals for nature and the climate – it can also create good green jobs throughout the country. Research has shown that alternative proteins could generate up to 25,000 UK jobs by 2035 in food manufacturing, agriculture and other fields, adding £6.4 billion to the economy.
Securing a more resilient food system
The UK has imported an average of 2.6 million tonnes of meat and dairy every year since 2012. That’s equivalent to 30kg per person annually.
Rather than depending on other countries, making meat from plants and cultivating it from cells domestically is a much more efficient way to produce food sustainably. This will help to future-proof Britain’s food supply from external shocks.
Advancing the UK’s alternative protein ecosystem
British entrepreneurs, food producers and scientists need an enabling environment to make new discoveries, grow innovative businesses and produce alternative proteins which are affordable and delicious. In this report, we analyse the development of the academic and commercial alternative protein ecosystem in the UK. Our deep-dive sheds light on public investments, research at British universities, and where the UK has areas of the potential to create regional alternative protein clusters.
Priorities for UK policymakers
Here are our nine policy recommendations to allow the UK to fulfill its potential, grouped under 5 key pillars: political leadership, research and development, infrastructure, regulation and fair competition.
1. Use the forthcoming engineering biology action plan to decisively affirm a cross-government ambition to develop and scale alternative protein production in the UK
The forthcoming engineering biology action plan represents an opportune moment to decisively affirm a cross-government ambition to develop and scale alternative protein production in the UK. This will provide clarity to scientists, investors, businesses and other stakeholders that the UK intends to compete with other world-leading countries in the race to unlock the benefits of protein diversification.
2. Develop a national plan for alternative proteins
A national plan for alternative proteins should set out research priorities, the coordination of public research funding, an infrastructure strategy, fair competitive conditions and the role of agriculture in the transformation.
3. Invest between £245-390 million in alternative protein research and development between 2025-2030.
At an absolute minimum, we recommend that between 2025 and 2030, UKRI, DSIT and Defra should together target an average annual spend of £49 million (£245 million total) on public R&D to support plant-based, fermentation-made and cultivated meat, seafood, eggs and dairy.
To truly compete internationally, this should increase to a £78 million average annual spend (£390 million) between 2025 and 2030. To put this in context, our recommended lower and upper scenarios would be equivalent to 2.5% and 4% respectively of BBSRC, EPSRC and Innovate UK’s combined budgets in 2024/25.
4. Conduct or commission a review of alternative protein infrastructure
This should consider both current and future needs, set out a roadmap for what capacity must be built or retrofitted and by when, and outline how the government could target public funding strategically to derisk private investments.
This is crucial to transition the alternative protein sector from venture to patient capital – since the former is not well-suited to expensive, capital-intensive infrastructure investments. A failure to address questions of future infrastructure capacity increases the likelihood that manufacturing will be offshored, reducing the potential benefits to UK food security and economic growth.
5. Implement ‘quick win’ reforms to the UK novel foods regulatory framework
It is no secret that businesses looking to develop cultivated meat and fermentation-made products, as well as some innovative plant-based ingredients and foods, view the current regulatory system as a critical obstacle.
We recommend that the FSA focuses urgently on low-hanging fruit reforms that would improve trust and confidence in the novel foods pre-market authorisation process. Many helpful changes could be made relatively quickly, without legislating.
These include introducing a single point of contact for businesses to engage with the FSA and publishing bespoke, regularly updated dossier-submission guidance to alternative protein companies.
6. Learn from best practices of more innovation-focused regulators, both in the UK and overseas.
The FSA should look to mirror best practices from the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) and the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulator (MHRA) – both have focused on the unique role regulators play in stimulating innovation.
For example, the FCA has created a ‘regulatory sandbox’, enabling companies to trial innovative concepts with real consumers – something which would be transformative for alternative protein companies. The FSA should also explore whether it could replicate the MHRA’s recent move towards recognising medicines approved by other trusted regulators.
7. Provide the Food Standards Agency with a £30 million increase to its budget at the 2023 Autumn Statement – and ensure its budget increase in real-terms over the rest of the decade.
Having an effective regulatory framework for alternative proteins will be severely limited without an increase in regulatory capacity. The FSA is operating on a frozen budget for the current spending review period (£113 million annually 2022-2025) at a time when inflation (CPI) has hovered between 8-11% – likely leaving the regulator tens of millions of pounds worse off by 2025.
The FSA’s remit has expanded considerably post-Brexit and it now has a clear responsibility to help foster a more sustainable food system. At a minimum, at the 2023 Autumn Statement, the Chancellor should give a one-off £30 million cash injection to the FSA. The next Comprehensive Spending Review should ensure that the FSA’s budget continues to grow in real-terms over the rest of the decade.
8. Remove existing restrictions on the use of dairy terminology – provided adequate qualifiers are used.
Retained EU law means that plant-based foods cannot use common dairy nomenclature like “milk”, “cheese” or “cream” in the labelling and marketing of these products – despite widespread colloquial usage of terms like “plant-based milk” and no robust evidence that consumers are confused by such labelling practices.
An evidence-based, commonsense solution would remove existing restrictions on the use of dairy terminology – provided adequate qualifiers are used. Powers in the Retained EU Law Act could enable ministers to take action on this front.
9. Implement a framework that allows precision fermentation and cultivated meat companies to communicate clearly the nature of their products to consumers.
Government should engage with the evidence base and fill gaps where necessary to build consensus around clear labelling of cultivated meat and precision fermentation-made foods.
It is imperative for food safety reasons alone that the government permits labels that correctly inform consumers that cultivated and precision fermentation-made products contain meat, seafood, egg and/or dairy, including reference to the respective species (e.g. “beef” or “tuna”) to which products serve as alternatives.
Restricting companies to unhelpful and inaccurate terms like “fake” or “in-vitro” will damage the UK’s chances of creating a thriving cultivated meat and precision fermentation sector.
Spotlight on plant-based foods in the United Kingdom
Over the last decade, the growth of plant-based foods has been transformative in the UK. Consumers spent £1 billion on plant-based meat and dairy in 2022 – a 9% increase since 2020. Overall, nearly six in ten UK consumers now purchase plant-based meat products.
However, plant-based foods still struggle to compete on taste and price – the top two barriers to eating more plant-based foods. For instance, research has shown that plant-based chicken is 27% more expensive than conventional chicken in the UK. With increases in public funding for open-access R&D, the whole plant-based sector can make strides to address these challenges, for example by improving our understanding of plant proteins and developing better plant-based fats.
UK alternative protein company database
The UK is already one of the biggest markets for alternative proteins in Europe, with sales worth almost £640 million in 2020. Private investment is also soaring – with British companies raising £41 million in 2020 and almost £38 million in 2019 – making up over 90% of the £86 million raised in the UK since 2006.
But with demand continuing to outstrip supply, and plant-based and fermentation options representing a tiny fraction of the overall meat market, further investment will be crucial to realise the full potential of these foods.
Use the database below to explore the landscape of British plant-based, cultivated meat and fermentation companies. This tool will help you stay up to date on new companies and products in the space, find a manufacturing partner, or identify groundbreaking startups (to see only British companies, filter by country/region and select United Kingdom).
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