Industry watchers predicting the demise of plant-based meats and alt-proteins are wrong. Aside from the bearish attitude being something of a self-fulfilling prophecy (pundits go negative, investors and consumers balk, companies falter, pundits go negative, lather, rinse, repeat), this commentary on the projected downturn omits two critical factors: one, an expected population increase of nearly two billion by 2050; and two, cataclysmic environmental stress on our oceans.
Much of that population growth is expected to occur in China and Southeast Asia. Due to this growth, and rising middle classes that want even more seafood, seafood and meat consumption in Asia will rise 33 percent by 2030.
Seafood demand in Asia has already strained global supply. A NY Times report last week said China is responsible for about 80 percent of the (over)fishing off the west coast of South America, after already depleting fish stocks closer to their own shores.
We are in a global crisis, even now, but the demand for seafood will only increase. This spells disaster. So many people depend on the sea for their main protein, and once there’s no more, it could also spell mass global starvation.
I do understand the concerns about the plant-based food industry. It’s valid to criticize some of the products that are currently available. Taste is always key, and many don’t live up to the standards of flexitarian eaters. The last few years have seen a barrage of burgers and chicken nuggets, with little differentiating one from another except the occasional publicity blitz or celebrity investor.
This brings me to another faux bone to pick. The predictions of an industry in freefall also fail to consider that the best is yet to come. Cell-cultured meat—while years away from market due to scientific and regulatory hurdles—may be a hit with consumers. Our own microbial fermentation method yields extremely realistic alt-seafood (and is highly resource-efficient, scalable, and cost-effective). Advancements in ingredients and technology will improve the taste, texture, and nutritional value of plant-based meats.
I’ll posit that version 1.0 alt-meats haven’t wowed consumers, and they have questions about the health and sustainability of vegan foods. (Let’s keep in mind, the meat and dairy industry has done an excellent job planting that skepticism.) But version 2.0 is largely still in the development stage, and the oceans—along with the rest of the planet—need it to be eagerly funded and marketed if we hope to stave off environmental collapse and feed people sustainably.
Finally, predictions about the downturn of the alternative protein industry fail to recognize one more important factor: at least with regards to seafood, the world may not have a choice but to embrace substitutes, because by 2050, there truly may be no more fish in the sea.