A food system researcher unpacks the narratives leading to a race for new protein sources
In Silicon Valley and beyond, tech entrepreneurs are making big promises to disrupt our diets. Their aim is to fight world hunger, climate change and animal welfare issues by replacing meat with alternative proteins derived from increasingly distant sources, such as insect larvae, plastic waste or even looks. This race to develop new protein sources has become the cutting edge of a growing agrifood innovation space. But are new proteins really the most productive focus for so much attention and investment?
In an attempt to answer that question, Julie Guthman, a UC Santa Cruz professor and food system expert, dove into the tech industry’s protein engineering efforts. In her last paper, she argues that deep-rooted cultural mythologies around protein are embraced and disseminated by tech companies as they commercialize and fundraise for new protein products. And these efforts can obscure other existing food system solutions that could be easily implemented with more support and public awareness.
“There’s so much hype and entrepreneurial interest in developing these new technologies as alternatives without necessarily thinking of other ways to deal with the problem,” Guthman explained. “So what we’re looking at in our latest research is what kinds of assumptions innovators bring to the table in how they present and frame what they do and how those assumptions fit with previous social science research. .”
Guthman and his co-author researched this question using databases, market maps, and industry directories—as well as published schedules of Bay-Area food and agriculture tech events—to compile a complete list of companies working in agribusiness innovation that were either based or tied to Silicon Valley. The team then reviewed information about these companies from websites and media, listened to nearly 100 industry events, and conducted more than 80 interviews with entrepreneurs, investors, and other industry leaders.
The analysis identified 84 companies and products developing food from new sources or new processes, and of these, the vast majority focused on alternative proteins. 24 were working on plant simulations of animal products, 12 were investing in technologies to grow meat at the cellular level, and 27 were using other novel sources to make protein ingredients. The researchers also took a close look at how companies communicate about products like these.
What’s behind the focus on protein?
Guthman says the intense interest in protein development is partly driven by concerns about animal welfare issues and the livestock industry’s carbon footprint. But many companies are also promoting their products as solutions to a looming global protein shortage.
This perceived protein crisis, Guthman says, is one of the biggest myths at play in the industry. The article argues that projections of future protein shortages are largely based on increased demand for animal products among a growing global middle class, but these changing dietary preferences are not the same. than a real global nutritional need.
Another important narrative used to support the development of alternative proteins is the supposed nutritional quality of protein in any form or quantity. Guthman says this ultimately stems from a diet and nutrition culture that promotes the fashionable vilification of other macronutrients, including fats and carbs.
“There’s this popular sentiment that you can eat as much protein as you want, but you should really watch how many carbs or fats you’re eating,” Guthman explained. “Protein somehow manages to stay particularly heroic. There are long stories of protein being associated with masculinity and strength and advertised for energy and growth that may contribute to this perception.
Guthman’s team also found that the next generation of alternative proteins, which are engineered at the molecular level, often use narratives about global needs and inherent nutritional benefits to argue that the molecular building blocks of proteins can be derived. from any source material, including those not traditionally considered food. Guthman says this illustrates how edibility is both physically and socially constructed.
“The industry is trying to convince people that these new proteins will be foods largely by establishing nutritional equivalences that, because they’re proteins, have to be foods,” she said. “But protein is ubiquitous in the environment in many forms that aren’t necessarily food, and it’s not yet clear whether some of these things will actually be digestible.”
Broaden the solution conversation
Guthman speculates that Silicon Valley companies may be attracted to some of these protein narratives, in part because their business models rely on venture capital, and investors seek both profitability and a global impact on short lead times. But as alternative protein products successfully capture the public’s attention, other solutions can be overlooked.
For example, Guthman says many people already consume a lot of protein in their diets and could choose to eat fewer animal products with no negative nutritional impact. Plants also provide abundant, ready-to-use forms of protein without the need for heavy processing. And the livestock industry could be better regulated to improve animal welfare and reduce environmental impacts.
“There are many other issues around proteins that are regulatory or socio-economic in nature that have been just out of the conversation in this rush to develop new technologies,” she said.
Guthman is also concerned about the environmental impact of alternative proteins themselves. While many products are described as inherently beneficial over animal production, Guthman says the details of the production processes for alternative proteins are often proprietary trade secrets, which can prevent independent assessment of their environmental merits.
“We don’t often hear details about the products, crops, energy or other inputs that go into these alternative proteins, where these things are going to come from and under what conditions, or where the waste of this process will go,” she said. “It’s like it’s magic. But something doesn’t really come from nothing. And we have no way of evaluating it.
Ultimately, Guthman says she doesn’t think investing in alternative proteins is necessarily harmful, but she would like to see more transparency in the process and a similar level of societal interest applied to existing methods of producing protein. food with fewer toxic inputs, more humane conditions. for animals, and better soil practices.
“The tech industry is kind of like that new kid on the block who comes in and says, ‘We’re here to save the food system,'” Guthman said. “And there is no doubt that we have to seriously rethink the way we produce food. But I also want people to understand that these are not the only answers. There are existing solutions and alternatives that could really use the kind of resources that the technology sector currently has.