The trajectory of our current food system needs a course correction. As it stands today, you may be surprised to learn that global food production and consumption habits contribute roughly one-third of total greenhouse gas emissions, and could preclude our ability to achieve major climate change targets. In fact, current agricultural practices are not only accelerating climate change, but also harming biodiversity, animal welfare, and human health. Rearing animals, rather than crops for human food is an especially inefficient use of valuable natural resources with outsized environmental impacts, yet looking into the future, our global appetite for meat is set to continue to grow. Without change to our current food production methods, we’re only going to see these issues escalate.
Enter XPRIZE, a non-profit that helps to accelerate emerging technologies through incentivized prizes. In December 2020, XPRIZE launched “Feed the Next Billion” a multi-year challenge to jump-start the development of food products that aim to take animals out of the meat production equation by instead using plants, cells, or microorganisms. This challenge incentivizes teams to produce chicken breast or fish fillet alternative products that replicate or outperform conventional chicken and fish in: access, environmental sustainability, animal welfare, nutrition, as well as taste and texture. These “alternative protein” products could help support a transition to a more sustainable food system and healthier planet.
As the XPRIZE Feed The Next Billion teams look to scale their alternative protein technologies and the production of alternative protein products increases globally, a multitude of questions concerning how these products will influence local and global economies have come into focus. What jobs will be created by this sector, and what jobs are likely to disappear as workplaces transition to support the establishment of a new food supply chain? Moreover, how might alternative protein product manufacturing contribute to the development of a food system that valorizes human, environmental, and animal welfare?
ALTERNATIVE PROTEIN JOB CREATION AT EACH STAGE OF THE SUPPLY CHAIN
To anticipate the job creation potential of the sector, each stage of the food supply chain warrants consideration. Some supply chain job opportunities may also be specific to alternative protein product technology (i.e. plant-based, fermentation, cultivated, or hybrid), product development, manufacturing, or distribution approach that individual teams or companies employ.
UPSTREAM JOB CREATION OPPORTUNITIES
Research and Development (R&D)
R&D activities to create novel alternative protein products require the cross-disciplinary collaboration of scientists from a multitude of fields. Scientists with expertise in cell-biology, bioprocess engineering, tissue engineering, food science, and related fields can usefully leverage their background to inform the development of alternative protein products. Certain alternative protein technological approaches may rely more heavily on the expertise of employees from a specific technical background. For example, while a deep understanding of cell biology is important to teams designing cultivated meat products such as the sushi-grade salmon Wildtype is pioneering, the development of plant-based products may not require any expertise in cell biology. Instead, teams such as New School Foods are leaning into recruiting food material scientists who understand how physical and chemical properties of plant-based food ingredients can be leveraged to enhance the taste and textural appeal of their whole cut plant-based seafood alternative products.
Raw Material and Ingredient Sourcing
For the ingredients needed to manufacture plant-based products, and to fuel the growth of cells used in fermented and cultivated meat products, it will be necessary to source ingredients such as corn and soy from existing industrial supply chains in the near term to rapidly scale production. However, many of these inputs, especially the primary protein and oil sources commonly used in plant-based meat products, could soon face supply chain bottlenecks. To address these potential bottlenecks, teams may lean into strategically diversifying the crops utilized in production. Alternative supply chains for less utilized crops, such as mung bean and lupin, may create novel opportunities for farmers to become engaged in plant-based agriculture as industry demand increases.
The diversification of input supply chains could present additional environmental or economic opportunities depending on the geography and type of crop or microorganism used in production. For example, the cell-based seafood XPRIZE finalist team Umami Meats is researching the potential to use amino acids, sugars, and bioactive proteins from algae in its product development. Similarly, Profillet, a team leveraging fermentation technologies, is investigating the potential to utilize byproducts such as brewer’s spent grain from adjacent food industries in their fish analogue products.
To develop cultivated meat products, cells must be originally sourced from a living animal through a minimally invasive tissue sampling procedure before being replicated in a fermentation system. To provide a genetic material source for cultivated meat processes, some employment opportunities could arise for ranchers, farmers, animal sanctuary owners, or others in animal rearing professions to maintain a small herd of animals. Companies interested in commercializing cultivated meat products that incorporate cells from exotic species may alternatively form relationships with government officials, zoologists, or wildlife conservationists to develop cell sourcing protocols.
DOWNSTREAM JOB CREATION OPPORTUNITIES
Production and Manufacturing
Individuals with experience in commercializing novel products from food manufacturing, food safety, and bioprocess engineering sectors will be critical to scaling the manufacturing of alternative protein products to commercial levels of production. Once production protocols are established and regulatory reviews of new manufacturing plants are completed, day-to-day operations could offer additional employment opportunities for frontline staff (such as plant operators and supervisors) in the food manufacturing sector. A recent report predicts that 19 million net jobs could be created in plant-based agriculture in Latin America and the Caribbean by 2030 through a transition to net-zero emissions, the majority of which could directly or indirectly support the alternative meat industry. Speculative estimates of cultivated meat production employment opportunities suggest as many as 5,000-15,500 jobs could be created per 500k tons of cultivated meat produced, which is roughly the same number of production jobs currently made available by conventional meat industry. Current industry trends suggest that alternative protein companies likely will continue to pursue the pathway of partnering or integrating with established food production companies to leverage their existing production infrastructure and networks.
B2B Applications of Secondary Products
Additional employment opportunities in adjacent food and non-food industries may be created by business-to-business (B2B) applications of secondary products generated in processes to create alternative protein products. For example, non-protein crop residuals such as the pea starch generated in the process of isolating pea protein for plant-based alternative products could be used as a carbon source for fermentation processes or made viable in other food related applications. Production methods that use fermentation processes to isolate a specific ingredient of interest could also present new economic opportunities to monetize the co-product created in the fermentation process. Examples include the egg white producing precision fermentation start-up Onego Bio that is exploring the application of its co-product in leather formulations, and the animal-free dairy company Perfect Day that has explored potential applications of its co-product in pet food.
In the final stage of the supply chain, the employment opportunities created through alternative protein product distribution channels will depend on the strategies retail or food service companies pursue to introduce their products to consumers. Plant-based products have become widely accessible in many countries through existing retail distribution channels, and job opportunities at fermentation, hybrid, and cultivated meat companies may increase as companies form strategic partnerships with food service and retail providers.
Marketing and Food and Beverage
Consumer acceptance of alternative protein products is essential to ensuring the long-term success of the industry. To this end, marketing and food and beverage hospitality industries could play a vital role in heightening the consumer appeal of dishes containing alternative protein products in a variety of food consumption settings. Chefs and other stakeholders engaged in food preparation could help enable the cultural assimilation of products into local cuisines by developing dishes that appeal to a range of taste palettes.
HIGH-LEVEL ALTERNATIVE PROTEIN JOB CREATION CONSIDERATIONS
Beyond opportunities specific to the stage of the supply chain, the job creation potential of the industry also depends on a few preeminent considerations. These considerations include: whether companies pursue vertical or horizontal integration, if products are produced and distributed through centralized or decentralized models of production, the degree to which production technologies are made accessible for technology transfer to engage novel stakeholders in production, the geographic location of input sourcing and manufacturing, and the extent to which manufacturing relies on automation. For instance, production in locations with higher wages and working condition standards could experience a strong push to automate (thereby ultimately resulting in limited employment opportunities), whereas job creation could be higher in locations with lower labor costs, but potentially at the expense of working conditions standards.
These factors could also influence welfare and environmental impacts associated with the increased production of alternative protein products. For example, the early stage start-up Mogale Meat Co, University of KwaZulu-Natal and Tshwane University of Technology, are competing in XPRIZE Feed the Next Billion under the Team Name: MeatOurFuture. Mogale Meat Co is prototyping a modular plug-and-play production plant concept that would turn shipping containers into clean rooms with the ambition of developing an end-to-end production model that could enable the finetuning of production quantities to meet fluctuating demand in small communities throughout Africa. Similarly, unprecedented research grants for development efforts such as the recent $4.76 million grant awarded to Nature’s Fynd could prompt important technical advances for the development of smaller and more productive manufacturing units that enable community-based alternative protein production.
TRANSITIONING THE JOB MARKET TO SUPPORT ALTERNATIVE PROTEIN MANUFACTURING
Public Sector Support
Governments and nonprofits could play a critical role in building a new workforce by drawing attention to the availability of new jobs in the alternative protein supply chain and increasing funding for universities to promote relevant research opportunities in a range of fields. Some workers in the food supply chain may be interested in transitioning to employment in the alternative protein supply chain if provided with the appropriate resources to make a financially viable transition. To support workers interested in transitioning to new employment opportunities, governments could develop job retraining programs and offer funding within national research systems to increase training for industry career opportunities. Current examples of such initiatives include the Cultivated Meat Center of Excellence in the United States and the Protein Industries Canada's Super Cluster Strategy, which are developing outreach, extension, and education services to equip individuals with scientific and manufacturing expertise to enter the industry.
Additional forms of policy support could have a range of effects that might influence both job creation and the food system impacts associated with the expansion of alternative meat production. For example, safety and environmental standards could affect the manufacturing and operation protocols that companies adopt, tax breaks and subsidies could motivate companies to strategically locate their manufacturing in receptive regulatory environments, and domestic sourcing initiatives such as Plant Based Food Initiative could incentivize companies to source ingredients domestically.
Structured Stakeholder Dialogues
Generating opportunities for structured dialogues that include all stakeholders directly or indirectly impacted by the expansion of the alternative meat supply chain will be important to ensuring the best possible outcomes that could be created in a transition to increased alternative meat production. These dialogues, which would be best facilitated by independent third-parties, could help all stakeholders identify challenges that could arise and facilitate the co-creation of solutions to mitigate such outcomes. To be impactful, stakeholders convening across sectors would need to be open to listening, engaging in dialogue, and shifting elements of their work. Stakeholders pioneering alternative protein technologies, such as the XPRIZE finalist teams, should incorporate consumer feedback in their product development processes to ensure that their products are accessible to all and appealing to a variety of consumer palettes. Focusing on driving the potential bigger impact of the alternative protein industry and clearly communicating the range of potential benefits that the expansion of the sector could bring to all stakeholders, including consumers, could help foster widespread public support.
Cutting-edge alternative protein technologies could establish a new food supply chain that delivers significant environmental, economic, human health, and welfare benefits. Jobs that could be created through a widespread transition towards alternative meat products may share some similarities with existing food and manufacturing sector roles, but could also introduce opportunities for high paying career opportunities in scientific and technical fields, alternative farmer employment opportunities, and the potential for safer and more humane working environments in food production and manufacturing workplaces. Governments and nonprofits could play a critical role in minimizing job loss in the animal agriculture sector and maximizing the alternative protein industry’s job creation potential to stimulate local and global economies. Engaging stakeholders across sectors in structured dialogues at this early stage of the industry’s development could help direct resources and engagement to maximize the beneficial societal outcomes of increased alternative meat production and consumption.
The author would like to thank Dr. Paul Bartels, Daniel Blaustein-Rejto, Dr. Garret Broad, Chris Bryson, Joalien Katerinic, Mihir Pershad, and Paul Shapiro for generously contributing their time and expertise to help inform the development of this blogpost.