Tapping into the ‘virtuous cycle’ of plant-based protein production

Alternative Proteins encompass a wide variety of products and can fulfill different consumer needs, but they are all meant to substitute for traditional meat.

The market for them is growing rapidly, as consumers do their part to counter the climate change drivers and environmental degradation of animal farming.

In the second and final part of our interview with food experts Philipp Hasler and Annina Winkler, we discuss the ins-and-outs of plant-based protein and what the future holds for this dynamic sector.


Protein production is an area that Emerald is actively watching – and investing in. We obviously see promise in alternative proteins, but do you think there’s a sustainable way for people to get their protein via husbandry – rearing and slaughtering animals? 

Annina: I’m not sure it’s right to say that animal husbandry is categorically unsustainable. It’s more a question of amount – if everyone reduced their meat intake by a little bit, it would make the system as a whole much more sustainable. We’d need less land to rear livestock, to grow the crops that feed them, we could preserve more forests; the trickle-down effects would be huge.

Philipp: I agree that animal husbandry is not unsustainable per se, but how we produce meat today is. These factory farms with tens of thousands of cows that produce huge amounts of manure in a concentrated area, that are fed by grain from far-off factories, shipped over long distances in cars and trucks that burn fossil fuels: this is not sustainable. We can raise beef cows much more sustainably, but we don’t.

What do you see as the ideal role for alternative proteins in the global food market? Are they more of an alternative or an add-on to traditional sources of protein? 

AnninaWesterners do not need more protein in their diets, so it’s not quite right to call them an add-on. The point is more to create protein-based products that mimic the look, feel and flavor of meat so that people can feel good about reducing animal-based meat in their diets. It’s meant to make it easy for them, so it doesn’t feel like a sacrifice.

Philipp: I’d call it more a complement. If we can make food from plant-based ingredients that tastes as good – if not better – than meat, I think we can really move the dial on traditional meat consumption.

Do you see the same opportunities for alternative proteins in the global south as you do in the West? 

Annina: We are indeed seeing more and more companies outside the West that are developing plant-based protein products. I think they’re catching up very quickly. There are of course local discrepancies—different cultures view meat consumption differently and attach different values to it, depending on how strongly rooted it is in diets and traditions—but overall, I’m bullish on this transition as education about the harms of animal-based meat spreads, people grow more aware, and more products and technologies come online.

One of the biggest hurdles to widespread adoption of alternative protein-based products is cost – it is almost always cheaper to buy real meat. Why do you think this is and what will it take to bridge this gap? 

Annina: As with many technologies, we have to both make the processes more efficient and scale them up more. We need to work on finding cheaper raw materials, especially the key ingredients used to make the products.

Philipp: If the product is truly better than the traditional alternative, then we can probably justify charging higher prices for it. You have to think of this market along three axes: cost, nutritional value and the “aesthetic” quality—taste, look, texture. If we are not fulfilling the second and third criteria—nutritious food that looks and tastes great—then it will likely fail in the market regardless of cost. But I do think that if consumers prefer these products over meat for various reasons, they will be willing to pay a slight premium.

Annina: I agree that if we could make the product demonstrably better than meat, this would be great, but I’d prefer to focus on process efficiencies. For instance, one company we invested in is looking into using so-called “side streams” from food production—these are raw materials or processing residues that are typically used to make animal feed, but could be utilized or upgraded to make plant-based protein products for human consumption. Leveraging these creative pathways could help bring costs down.

Philipp: Regardless of how these products are made, the quality of plant-based food products simply has to increase. Few companies today have found the recipes or formulas to make these products something that people really crave. There’s not a reason why we cannot do this, we just have to work harder.

Is the goal to make alternative proteins a kind of mass consumer good, like the way ground beef is in your local supermarket, or do you think it will remain a premium product for the foreseeable future? 

Annina: I view these products as ultimately something transitional, something that can lead consumers toward adopting different, more sustainable habits. In that way I don’t see them “replacing” meat on a mass scale, even if the quality is better; it’s hard to imagine that we could ever do away with something that’s has so much emotional weight, that’s so tied to tradition and culture. So perhaps they could sit somewhere in between, priced competitively so people are willing to gradually move away from meat.

Philipp: Plant-based proteins are still in the earliest phase, to the extent that many products on store shelves today may not be around tomorrow. Take the mobile phone: first generation models were heavy and clunky and people hated using them. Over time, rises in computing power and functionality turned them into must-have gadgets. Something similar could easily happen with plant-based proteins. We have to get to generation two, generation three and so on—the “form factors” have to get better and more in-tune with consumer needs and preferences.

The rise of “plant-based proteins” as a market category is relatively recent, but actual plant-based proteins – beans, lentils and the like – are as old as plants themselves. Why have we seen such an explosion of products and innovations in recent years? 

Annina: It comes back to the growing awareness of sustainability among the public; with climate change and all these issues, people started questioning their meat consumption en masse and demanding better products. Food producers started to feel the heat and have been racing to put new products into the market. But they haven’t yet led to a reduction of meat consumption, because their quality is just not good enough. So more are now trying to create products that really can replace meat, or at least do a better job than what we have in the market now.

Philipp: I agree that it’s a 100% consumer-driven shift. If you look at the market leaders, your Beyond Meats, your Impossible Foods, the technological innovation there is quite limited. Of course, they might disagree, but what we’ve found is that their products involve a similar level of technological sophistication that we’ve seen in pet food for the past half-century. So it was not technology innovation that led to their successes, but the consumer that demanded these types of products.

Are we seeing technological innovation start to play a greater role in the creation of these products? Where do you think technology will lead us? 

Annina: I think we’re starting to see the first hints of this, as people start to realize that the products in this first wave are just not good enough. I think we’re just hearing the very earliest shots of this technological revolution in plant-based protein.

That said, I don’t think this revolution is going to result in any entirely new categories; it’s more about improving processes—fermentation, growing meat cultures in the lab, etc.—that are already well-established. Take our portfolio company Imagindairy, which uses artificial intelligence to increase yield of dairy proteins—it’s these kinds of innovations that we’re banking on.

Philipp: I agree that we’re seeing technology play a larger and larger role, but it’s more on the side of improving efficiency, reducing waste and carbon emissions, getting more bang for the buck and so on. I can’t say for sure that technology won’t lead to some kind of game-changing Frankenfood, but I’m skeptical. Looking five years out, I don’t think we’ll have some completely unrecognizable product.

Annina: I also think these innovations will be paired with increasing awareness; we’re already seeing this with younger generations more concerned about their carbon footprint and more willing to eat plant-based diets. Every year people grow more informed about these issues, which leads to increasing acceptance of these products, which leads the market to respond—it’s really a virtuous cycle that we’re excited to tap into.