If plant-based and cultivated meat are to supply the global demand for meat, research white spaces—unanswered questions and unmet technological needs—must be filled. Thanks to incredibly generous donors, GFI’s science and technology team is partnering with external experts to fund 21 research projects—eight focused on cultivated meat and 13 focused on plant-based meat—through our Competitive Research Grant Program. These projects will take place in nine different countries across four continents. This contribution of $4 million in research funding will enable us to bridge key gaps in alternative protein research.
Our 2020 grantees are leading biochemists, tissue engineers, computational modeling experts, plant geneticists, and food scientists who are addressing crucial white space opportunities in alternative proteins. Individually, each of their projects aims to improve the sensory characteristics, cost, or scale of plant-based or cultivated meat. When we view our 2020 grantees' research projects as a cohort, four common themes emerge. These themes highlight the ways researchers are tackling the crucial technical bottlenecks facing the plant-based and cultivated meat industries.
Scientists are repurposing existing technologies to produce meat without the animal. One example is extrusion, a technology originally used to make metal pipes. Over the years, various types of extrusion and extrusion equipment have been developed. With the advent of high-moisture extrusion and twin-screw extruders, this technology led to the creation of fibrous plant-based meat products. Researchers are now exploring whether other technologies and manufacturing methods could improve plant-based and cultivated meat.
Alternative proteins offer an opportunity to diversify our global protein supply and make food production much more efficient. But is being more efficient than our current food production good enough? We don’t think so. And neither do many of our 2020 grantees. These researchers aren’t just focused on figuring out how to make plant-based and cultivated meat. They’re also figuring out how to improve scale, utilize side streams, optimize inputs, develop algorithms, create computational models, and monitor the manufacturing processes in real time. The knowledge, data sets, and tools that result from these research projects will help alternative protein scientists and companies waste less time and resources and lower costs.
Creating a satisfactory meat-like texture is among the most important white space opportunities for alternative proteins. Some researchers are focused on developing new manufacturing technologies to biomimic animal meat using plant ingredients. Others are identifying new ways to mix plant ingredients to create a fibrous texture. (Hint: It’s not only about picking one right protein!) And for cultivated meat, determining how to incorporate fat and scaffolding materials is a necessary step toward creating the right texture. Importantly, it’s not a one-size-fits-all situation, as the texture of fish differs from that of chicken, and a ground meat product differs greatly in texture from a whole-cut meat product.
We talk about plant-based meat and cultivated meat as separate types of alternative proteins. But the boundaries between them are blurring. Plant ingredients and agricultural side streams are being explored as feedstocks and inputs for cultivated meat. Scaffolding and structuring methods first conceptualized for tissue engineering may have a place in plant-based meat manufacturing. We are already witnessing how collaborations between plant-based meat researchers and cultivated meat researchers—not to mention traditional meat scientists and alternative protein scientists—lead to new ideas and solutions that broadly benefit the alternative protein landscape.
These themes highlight the ways researchers are tackling the crucial technical bottlenecks facing the plant-based and cultivated meat industries. By providing open-access results, the research projects funded through GFI’s Competitive Research Grant Program will help address key industry questions and build the foundation of the global alternative protein field. We are proud to partner with these leading innovators to accelerate the creation of a sustainable, healthy, and just food system.
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Interested in learning more about the projects GFI’s Competitive Research Grants Program is funding? Click here to read individual project descriptions.