December 3, 2023

Alternative proteins: Whitehall inertia means UK falling behind China and EU

Britain risks falling behind China and EU in making and selling meat substitutes and other alternative proteins because Whitehall lacks a coherent strategy for their development, a think-tank has said. 

The Social Market Foundation said that alternative proteins – plant-based, fermented and cultivated meat substitutes – can help address climate change, improve animal welfare  and increase consumer choice. Supporting the creation and sale of alternative proteins could also create jobs and open up new export opportunities for the UK. (See Note 1)

Consumers are increasingly keen to eat alternative proteins in place of animal-based meat. Retail sales of plant-based meat in western Europe grew by almost 20% in 2021. The SMF calculated that vegetable and plant-based alternatives were equivalent to 4% of total meat sales in 2021, worth around £1.5bn.

Last year British alternative protein businesses attracted over £150m of capital investment.

But the SMF found that Government departments lack a coherent approach to policies on alternative protein, meaning British productive capacity is likely to lag against other advanced economies. China recently adopted a five-year plan to support cultivated meat, while Denmark and the Netherlands are spending hundreds of millions of euros on research and development. (See Note 2)

In contrast, the SMF said UK alternative protein policy was underdeveloped and underfunded, with responsibility scattered between the Department for the Environment, Food and Agriculture, the Department for Business, and the Cabinet Office.   

The SMF report, entitled Putting British success on the menu was sponsored by Impossible Foods and draws on a roundtable discussion of senior policymakers and officials. The SMF retained editorial independence. 

Experts at the SMF roundtable reported that a lack of overall policy ownership and Whitehall inaction are preventing the UK from developing and implementing a clear strategy on alternative proteins.    

Ministers have failed to grip the issue despite identifying alternative proteins as a post-Brexit “opportunity”, the SMF said. 

The SMF report said: “A failure to act soon risks the UK falling behind international competitors, foregoing opportunities for British businesses, and hindering the transition to greener diets.  Government must do more to catalyse a consumer-led transition in dietary behaviours.” 

The SMF emphasised that alternative proteins are an opportunity to boost consumer choice and warned against measures like meat taxes that restrict what people can buy and eat. 

Instead, the report calls on policymakers to help British businesses in the global race for affordable, healthy and tasty alternatives to animal-based meat, dairy and seafood.

A new UK alternative proteins strategy should be developed by the government within the next 12 months, the think-tank report said. 

“The strategy should adopt a long-term perspective and consider the wide-ranging possibilities and challenges arising from the protein transition,” the SMF said.  

Linus Pardoe, SMF research associate, said: “Sustainable proteins will be a big part of British diets over the coming decade and this is a real opportunity for Britain’s leading food industry, entrepreneurs and scientists to come together to make alternatives affordable, tasty, and healthy. At the moment, the Government isn’t doing enough to light the fires of innovation and drive a consumer-led transition to greener diets.


1. Potential economic gains from alternative protein sector:

  • National Food Strategy – modelling estimates suggest 10,000 new factory jobs (equivalent to 10.5% of total employment in meat processing) and 6,500 jobs secured in agriculture for input production (equivalent to 1.4% of total agricultural employment). A separate study indicates that salaries and work conditions are notably better than for comparative roles in the meat sector.
  • Oxford Economics – between 4,400–8,300 employed in the cultivated meat sector by 2030 (equivalent to 4.6%-8.7% of total current employment in meat processing), with £290-574m in gross value added in nominal terms. 

2. Recent developments in alternative protein policy elsewhere: 

  • Netherlands – an initial €60m government investment to support the development of a cellular agriculture ecosystem.
  • Denmark – $168m earmarked for plant-based R&D, including $100m Plant Fund announced in April 2022, as part of a new climate deal approved by all major political parties 
  • Qatar – state-funded Doha Venture Capital and Qatar Free Zones Authority have partnered with novel food company Eat Just to build a ~$200m commercial facility for cultivated meat products. 
  • China – latest Five-Year Agricultural Plan includes a provision for innovation to support cultivated meat development.

“The Government has pointed to alternative proteins as an archetypal Brexit opportunity. But current inertia in Whitehall risks squandering opportunities for British businesses, offshoring the benefits of sustainable proteins to countries like China, Denmark, and the Netherlands.”

Other recommendations from the report:  

  • The Government should commission an innovation needs assessment for alternative proteins to better understand the scale of R&D required and where money could be spent most effectively.
  • Supermarkets should publicly disclose what proportion of protein sales come from plant-based products, striving to reach 30% by 2030.
  • Reforms to Government Buying Standards for food should leverage the power of the public sector to aid the transition to meat, dairy and seafood alternatives.
  • Improve public data on animal-based protein consumption.