From green hydrogen to clean steel, much of the talk at the Glasgow COP was around innovation in energy, and bringing exciting new technologies into the mainstream. This progress is commendable, but it does not complete the net-zero puzzle.
Animal agriculture is the second biggest emitter of greenhouse gases behind fossil fuels. Therefore, investment in “alternative protein” technologies to produce protein in a more environmentally-sustainable way is a key element in the battle to keep global warming well below 2C.
Everything from algae to agri-technology, re-engineered legumes to lab-grown meat could feature if we are to meet the landmark commitment at COP26 – made by more than 90 countries including the UK – to cut emissions of the potent greenhouse gas methane by 30 per cent by 2030.
This will require working together with farmers to find the climate-friendly crops that protect employment as well as our ecosystem.
Alternative proteins have been coined the next “clean energy”. They provide both climate solutions and opportunities for economic growth here in the UK. Research from the Farm Animal Investment Risk and Rreturn investor network this summer found that alternative proteins could make up 64 per cent of the global protein market by 2050.
But the UK is already playing catch-up to capitalise on this opportunity. Initiatives such as Canada’s Protein Industries Supercluster and Singapore’s $100m (£74m) investment in food innovations have led the way.
So it is encouraging that the UK’s new National Food Strategy launched this year recommended £1bn investment into research areas including sustainable proteins, in particular a new £50m commercial “cluster” for entrepreneurs and scientists working on protein innovation, and annual £15m grants for sustainable protein startups.
The private sector is also gearing up. Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Unilever are among seven large food firms to have announced targets to increase their alternative protein offering. Tesco has committed to a 300 per cent increase in sales of meat alternatives by 2025.
Investment in “cultivated meat” – animal protein grown in a lab – is also booming. Private investment in the sector has reached more than $3bn (£2.22 bn) this year, already surpassing the total from 2020.
At COP, leaders announced the Agriculture Innovation Mission for Climate (AIM4C) a joint initiative created by the US and the United Arab Emirates to accelerate investment in climate-smart agriculture and food tech over the next five years. The initiative signals an important step towards seizing the opportunities presented by a transformed agricultural sector, and the role it can play in addressing the climate crisis.
The UK has a unique opportunity to position itself as a world leader in food tech. That’s why alternative proteins should be part of our Catapult network that is already accelerating the development of hydrogen fuel cells and robotic offshore wind technology.
Here in the UK we should also look at whether better regulation can ensure there is a clear, efficient approval process for new products that guarantees food safety. This will further cement the UK’s reputation as a global scientific superpower and a leader on climate.
Accepting the National Food Strategy’s recommendations will signal to UK innovators that, just as we have led the way on R&D of clean energy and life sciences, we are ready and willing to pave the way on sustainable protein too.