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The biosynthetic protein transition: assessing impacts, outcomes and opportunities for Norways post-animal bioeconomy

Alternative title: Overgangen til kunstig protein: evaluering av virkninger og muligheter for en bioøkonomi etter dyrene

Awarded: NOK 10.0 mill.

When Protein2.0 was funded in 2018 there were 30 start-ups working on cultured proteins on small start-up funding. Now, in early 2023, there are over 300 start-ups engaged in the development of meat and milk proteins (some worth over a billion US$) and a growing commercial support infrastructure. In 2021 the cellular protein sector, for the first time, obtained a larger proportion of the alternative protein investment capital than plant-based proteins (US$2.07 billion vs US$1.93 billion). Meanwhile, as products are finalised, life cycle analyses suggest there may be significant reductions in climate gases, land usage, and water usage. The story of cellular agriculture is one of two key technologies. Precision-fermentation based companies already have products on the market in the US. Perfect Day, for example, is manufacturing whey powder for products ranging from ice-cream to body-building powders. Israeli company Remilk and US company Change Foods announced in 2022 they are building factories in Denmark and the UAE producing as much milk as 50.000 and 10.000 cows respectively. Cultured meat protein, on the other hand, is not yet commercially available. Mosa Meat and Eat Just are building small factories in Singapore in the coming years (where regulations are light), but the science and commercial viability of cultured meat remain uncertain. Recently, major food corporations General Mills and Unilever have announced in-house precision-fermented protein start-ups. Many start-up companies now have manufacturing, research, or distribution agreements with large food companies (e.g. Cargill and Tyson). On the regulatory side, the US Food and Drug Administration deemed Upside Foods cultured meat safe to eat in November 2022 in the first decision of its kind for cultured meat products. Cultured protein products have yet to be submitted to the EU for approval as a “novel food”, meaning it will be at least 2 years before a product is on the market. A key constraining factor will be bioreactor space. Even if it can be produced at the same price as conventional protein, volumes will be very small for many years. Protein2.0 has contributed substantially to our understanding of the likely impact of cultured proteins. Some of the key findings are: Much media hype is presented around the positive environmental credentials of cultured protein, the ability to make agriculture more efficient, and food production gains. However, we found that other issues are not highlighted or even considered. For example, what happens to rural communities, who will look after the countryside, and what new environmental problems might emerge? We thus observe that policy-makers should be remember that the outcomes are not necessarily positive. We also conducted an investigation of the willingness of Norwegians to try the product. A study of 1207 consumers found more than 50% had a neutral or positive willingness to try the product with support higher among younger people, males, more innovative people, and vegetarians/vegans. Response to actual products will be positively affected by good environmental impact, price, and nutritional value, and negatively affected by any bad smell, taste, texture or appearance issues. Modelling the economic impact of cultured protein on Norwegian farmers suggested that Norwegian agriculture would be “moderately affected” by a (likely) slow introduction, with most impact being felt by imported foods. The model also suggests Norwegian pork and poultry might lose their ability to grow significantly in the future. Rapid introduction of cultured protein would lead to greater damage to agriculture, according to the model. These results differed to those of the agent-based model (ABM) possibly because of different model coverage and decision-making mechanisms. The ABM is a more complex model that takes into account other actors such as dairies, retail agents, and slaughterhouses – allowing various interdependencies and feedbacks to be explored. This Norwegian model suggested that agricultural regions with high rates of specialist meat and dairy farming are vulnerable to a commercially competitive cultured protein industry. The closure of dairies and slaughterhouses as a result of the competition may have a knock-on effect for farms within their catchment. Population growth may reduce the impact of cultured protein. Finally, interviewing 28 actors in the Norwegian food system found a number of common views including: products are more likely to be imported than locally produced, a large-scale transition towards Norway-based production would significantly disrupt Norwegian distributed agricultural and settlement policy, and Norway’s high levels of animal welfare might mean that consumers are less likely to abandon conventional meat consumption in Norway than elsewhere. A final stakeholder conference recommended that Norway consider launching an alternative protein strategy (looking at all new protein sources).

Protein2.0 has played an important role in raising awareness about this potentially highly disruptive technology. In terms of the scientific community we have four peer reviewed published publications, three submitted publications, and four further publications nearing completion and planned for submission in the first half of 2023 – a total of 10 (promised 7). The project has also involved considerable dissemination. Project findings (media articles and presentations) were presented on 35 occasions (promised 22) including three invited keynotes: the 6th International Scientific Conference on Cultured Meat, the “Transforming Meat: climate, culture, animals” (Research Council funded) workshop, and a Lincoln University post-grad seminar day. Arguably the best indication of impact can be found in the additional collaborations spawned by the project. In 2020 Protein2.0 was invited to join the Danish "Cultured Meat – Nordic Take" network. Through this network we were contacted by both Danish and Finnish researchers working on consumer response who distributed the Protein 2.0 questionnaire to representative samples of Danish and Finnish consumers. In addition, Protein 2.0 researchers contributed to the development of and are now involved in the recently funded Research Council project “Arrival of Cellular Agriculture-Enabling Biotechnology... solutions for food production” (2023-2025) and the project “Protein Futures: Future Scenarios for Land-Use in Aotearoa, New Zealand” (2022-2023). Despite Covid occurring during the main part of the project and limiting contact, the project has made contact with numerous stakeholders from across the industry including Tine, seafood industry representatives, farmers’ associations, animal welfare groups, and government organisations – all of whom were present at the final conference in December 2022. While it is difficult to know the extent to which “individuals, businesses and policy-makers” are able to respond better as a result of the project, with 35 separate presentations of project findings as well as the promised project website, the information has been made widely available. We also developed an agent based model with the James Hutton Institute. This model (based on Norwegian farm data) is available through an open public licence and can be accessed, utilised, and developed further by researchers in Norway ( As the future of cultured protein becomes more certain it may be refined and used for planning responses in the future – in particular assisting in scenario creation.

Within the last 5 years the synthetic production of meat and other animal products has gone from science fiction to reality. Everything from burger meat to egg whites can now be produced without the involvement of a living animal, with many products likely to become commercially available in the next decade. This technology has the potential to enhance food security, reduce the need for industrial agriculture, lower climate gas emissions, promote environmental sustainability, and create new knowledge-based industries for food production in Norway. However, it is also likely to prove extremely disruptive to existing bio-based industries. For example, start-ups are already working on on the production of synthetic salmon and other fish, while the synthetic production of milk and meat is likely to represent a direct challenge to Norway’s farming sector. Although synthetic production systems are currently too small to challenge conventional protein industries, research is underway to both improve manufacturing processes and increase the scale of production. The introduction of synthetic animal protein to supermarket shelves is simply a matter of time. The aim of PROTEIN2.0 is to assist Norway prepare for this eventuality by assessing the likely impacts, outcomes and opportunities provided by the technology. The project focuses on evaluating the protein technologies, assessing consumer response to the concept of consuming synthetic animal protein, and understanding the likely impact of the technology on global food systems. We then use these evaluations to inform economic and social simulation models which will, with user guidance, (a) explore the effect of synthetic proteins on the wider economy and biosectors, and (b) create scenarios of change for evaluation. Scenario evaluation will lead to recommendations for response. The main outcome of the project will be to assist Norway to prepare for the arrival of synthetic animal proteins in the coming decades.

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