Plant-based potential: Report warns UK risks missing out on alternative protein boom

The UK government is failing to match the ambition of several leading competitors that are seeking to carve out dominant positions in the fast-growing global market for alternative proteins.

That is the conclusion of a new report from the Social Market Foundation (SMF) think tank, which argues that the absence of a “coherent strategy” from government means the UK is at risk of falling behind the likes of China and the EU in the Race to develop businesses and products to meet surging demand from consumers adopting more plant-based and climate-friendly diets.

The report, titled Putting British success on the menu, Details how retail sales of plant-based meat in western Europe grew by almost 20 per cent in 2021 with sales of vegetable and plant-based alternatives equivalent to four per cent of total meat sales in 2021.

Moreover, last year British alternative protein businesses attracted over £150m of capital investment.

However, the report – which draws on an SMF roundtable that was sponsored by Impossible Foods – argues that the absence of a formal strategy from the UK government for supporting the nascent market contrasts with ambitious plans from governments in Europe and Asia.

For example, China recently adopted a five-year plan to support cultivated meat, while Denmark earmarked $168m for plant-based R&D and the Dutch government has announced an initial €60m investment to support the development of a cellular agriculture ecosystem. Similarly, Qatar’s Doha Venture Capital and Qatar Free Zones Authority recently partnered with novel food company Eat Just to build a $200m commercial facility for cultivated meat products.

In contrast, the SMF said UK alternative protein policy was “underdeveloped and underfunded”, with responsibility for the sector scattered between Defra, the Department for Business, and the Cabinet Office.

“A failure to act soon risks the UK falling behind international competitors, foregoing opportunities for British businesses, and hindering the transition to greener diets,” the report states. “Government must do more to catalyse a consumer-led transition in dietary behaviours.”

Specifically, the report calls on the government to develop a UK alternative strategy strategies within 12 months, commission an innovation needs assessment for alternative proteins to better understand the scale of R&D required and where money could be spent most effectively, and urges supermarkets to publicly disclose What proportion of protein sales come from plant-based products, with a view to reaching a 30 per cent share by 2030.

It also argues that reforms to Government Buying Standards for food should leverage the power of the public sector to boost demand for meat, dairy, and seafood alternatives.

However, the SMF argues against proposals for a meat tax, arguing that ministers should instead focus on how alternative proteins are an opportunity to boost consumer choice.

“Sustainable proteins will be a big part of British diets over the coming and this is a real opportunity for Britain’s leading food industry, entrepreneurs and scientists to come together to make affordable, tasty, and healthy alternatives,” he said. Linus Pardoe, SMF research associate. “At the moment, the government isn’t doing enough to light the fires of innovation and drive a consumer-led transition to greener diets.

“The government has pointed to alternative proteins as an archetypal Brexit opportunity. But current inertia in Whitehall risks squandering opportunities for British businesses, offshoring the benefits of sustainable proteins to countries like China, Denmark, and the Netherlands.”

Pat Brown, Impossible Foods founder and chief visionary officer, urged the government to embrace the opportunities on offer. “The rapid development and adoption of plant-based proteins is an extraordinary opportunity for positive, consumer-driven change, and it has the potential to be a powerful part of the UK’s ambitious goal of reaching net zero by 2050,” he said. “UK policymakers should not overlook the power of the food system as both a major economic growth driver and a solution to the world’s climate issues.”

However, the report comes in the same week as campaigners warning the government’s imminent Food Strategy is expected to water down many of the proposals put forward in a government-commissioned review produced earlier this year by restaurateur Henry Dimbleby.

Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy featured a host of recommendations designed to reduce the environmental impact of food production and deliver healthier and more sustainable diets.

However, the Guardian reported this week that campaigners fear many of the proposals – including plans for mandatory reporting from retailers on how much animal protein they sell compared to plant-based protein – have been shelved with the government deciding not to move forward with a new Food Bill.

Rob Percival, head of food policy at the Soil Association, told the newspaper: “We worked closely with Henry and the team throughout the process to shape his recommendations. I can’t say we are hugely confident we are going to see an ambitious response from the government or even an adequate response to be honest.

“The government’s already said they’re not going to offer a Food Bill, which is hugely disappointing. This would have been a way to bring recommendations into law. We don’t have any confidence the government is going to follow through on our recommendations .”

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