Erika Smith, technology director at General Mills (center), joins (from left) Ory Zik of Lux Research and Bruce Friedrich, of New Crop Capital, at the Future Food-Tech conference. Photo: Teresa Novellino

Erika Smith, technology director at General Mills (center), joins (from left) Ory Zik of Lux Research and Bruce Friedrich, of New Crop Capital, at the Future Food-Tech conference. Photo: Teresa Novellino

Teresa Novellino writes in the New York Business Journal that we should expect to see more plant-based proteins, algae and meat-mimicking products on our plates and in our grocery stores in the future. Alternative foods dominated the discussion at Rethink’s Future Food-Tech conference this week in Manhattan, where figuring out how to feed everyone on the planet as the global population explodes was an overriding theme. And startups aren’t the only ones concerned about developing alternative food sources. One of the panelists discussing “The Future of Animal-based and Alternative Protein” was Erika Smith, technology director at General Mills.

“It’s pretty clear based on all the information we have: the (global) population will be 9.5 billion by 2050 and our food demand expected to increase by 70 percent by then,” Ms. Smith said. “We know that our land and water resources are limited. Unless there is a huge innovation in the animal protein space, we’re going to have to rely on plant proteins. We need to position ourselves to be competitive in the space, as we’re looking at the alternatives.”

General Mills first looks at what the consumer wants, and decides on products via that lens, she says. That said, the company is “bullish on plant proteins,” and interested in technologies surrounding, for example, the use of algae in food products, she said. “Taste is important, nutrition is important, and safety is of paramount importance,” she said.

For others in the food industry, the toll on the environment and the energy it takes to produce meat are also driving the field of alternative proteins.

Bruce Friedrich, founding partner, New Crop Capital and executive director of the Good Food Institute, cited the inefficiencies and environmental impacts of producing animal meat. He said a chicken requires nine calories of feed to produce one calorie of meat. Soy and legume proteins produce 2 grams of carbon dioxide per protein calorie versus 54 grams for chicken, which is the least polluting protein among meats.

“It’s an extraordinarily good time to be getting into the food technology of plant proteins,” Mr. Friedrich said, pointing out that Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt cited it as one of the top six innovations that would improve human life by tenfold.

One issue, until and unless the plant-based meat category scales, is cost. “We tie it to beef parity because we believe these emerging protein types will be cost-competitive with the other meat,” said another panelist, Ory Zik, vice president of analytics for Lux Research. “The question is how long will it take?”

Ms. Smith said that, right now, affordability is also a “significant hurdle,” for General Mills. “We would adopt more alternative protein systems if they were more in line with conventional proteins,” she said. “Right now they are more expensive.”

Still, one area that startups might have over say, dairy and eggs, she said, is price volatility. “If these innovative startups can make products have flat pricing, that would be huge.”

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