Food security: Getting to the meat of the matter
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Food security: Getting to the meat of the matter

With the global population forecast to top 9.6 billion by 2050, the biggest long-term challenge facing the world today is how to sustainably feed the planet’s dramatically increasing population, especially for the poorest and at a time when environmental issues are challenging established agricultural methods. How can sustainable technologies meet this challenge head on?

When tuning in for a discussion of how to feed the world in a more sustainable and environmentally friendly way, the audience of the 2021 Credit Suisse Asian Investment Conference (AIC) was not expecting to hear one of the speakers espouse the benefits of oil.

But for Krijn De Nood, CEO of cultivated protein company Meatable, the successes and problems of oil are similar to those of the traditional meat market.

“Oil is a fantastic product. There’s nothing wrong with oil as a functional product, it’s just that we know it’s killing our planet. It’s the same with meat. From a market perspective, it’s a huge success story,” he explained.

But a huge success story that is creating significant environmental issues with 28% of greenhouse gas emissions attributed to food production and consumption. The need to improve food security as the world heads towards a population of around 10 billion by 2050 is also a major challenge.

As Marisa Drew, Credit Suisse’s Chief Sustainability Officer and Global Head of the Sustainability Strategy, Advisory & Finance Group pointed out, “the way we produce, consume and waste food is not sustainable.” 

One way forward for the future of food then is alternative meat of which cultivated or lab-grown proteins is a fast growing investment opportunity (see chart).

All hail the Lion City

While the majority of the companies developing cultivated proteins are based in Europe and the US, Asia is viewed as a fertile region for the product, especially given obstacles created by regulations and lobbying groups in the West.

Singapore in particular has been singled out for being ahead of the pack, becoming the first country to approve lab-grown meat in December 2020. 

“When countries are innovative like Singapore, and suffer from food security like Singapore, they are at the front of opening up their markets to this novel food concept,” said Jim Mellon, Director of Agronomics, an investment company that focuses on clean meat. 

Singapore has set a target of self-producing 30% of its nutritional needs by 2030. Given that it only has 1% of land available for food production, it’s clear why Singapore has been quick to spot the opportunities and why companies are keen to reach its consumers.

“Definitely Asia is very interesting,” agreed De Nood. “I think all cultivated meat companies are looking at Singapore. It is a relatively small market and so the regulatory environment is a factor. It’s also one of the reasons that for our first product we decided to go with pork.” 

Asian investments need cultivating

Yet while Asian consumers are important targets for cultivated meat companies, the region is producing fewer opportunities for investors, according to Mellon, who made the business case for any Asia entrepreneurs looking to launch into this sector.

“The key centers for innovation in this space are the US, Israel and Holland…but there are very few companies in Asia. This is an industry that is ripe for innovation – there is plenty of room, plenty of things people can be doing.

“I really hope that encouragement takes place in what is the world’s biggest population center and really, in many ways, it’s the biggest center of innovation.” 

What’s the best way to tackle global poverty?

Food security is certainly an issue for the world’s poorest, with the World Bank estimating that the Covid-19 pandemic will drive an increase in extreme global poverty for the first time in 20 years. 

For Esther Duflo, co-winner of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences and Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Poverty Alleviation and Development Economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who has spent her career devising strategies to alleviate global poverty, the pandemic shows how fragile the gains made in recent decades are. However, the Nobel Laureate does not believe it’s inevitable that poorer countries will get left further behind. “It will depend in part on what the world decides to do now,” she said. Decisions on making sure developing countries get access to vaccinations and the investment needed to restart their economies will be critical in the weeks and months ahead. 

Professor Duflo’s research specializes in breaking down issues related to global poverty into smaller more manageable questions. While she does not doubt that governments recognize the need to act, the problem comes from their ability to put effective policies in place.

“Policymakers tend to see the big problems but then forget the details. The error we keep making again and again is to start addressing the details only when we are absolutely faced with them.”

That’s why, if the global community is going to successfully tackle problems such as food security and global poverty, it’s time to get to the meat of the matter.