Examining alternatives to conventional meat, dairy and egg products

Dr Alexandra Sexton, Dr Jamie Lorimer and Dr Tara Garnett

Recent years have seen animal agriculture come under increasing scrutiny across scientific, policy and public spheres. Links to chronic diseases, environmental impacts, food safety concerns and animal welfare issues are amongst the many reasons that have brought livestock farming into the spotlight and have increased demand, particularly in higher-income nations, for alternatives to conventional meat, dairy and egg products.

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This research examines a particular range of alternative products that have emerged over the last decade and are being promoted as more sustainable, ethical and healthy counterparts to conventionally-sourced animal products. Sometimes referred to collectively as ‘alt-proteins’, this movement encompasses edible insects, a new generation of plant-based products, and a group of ventures known as ‘cellular agriculture’ – so-called due to their use of tissue culture techniques and genetic modification of yeast cells to grow meat, dairy and other animal-based products outside (i.e. in-vitro) the animal body.

A defining feature of this latest alt-protein activity is the concentration of their development within the high-tech geographies and political economies of Silicon Valley, CA, the home of globally-renowned Big Tech companies such as Google, Apple and Facebook. Many of the alt-protein ventures have consequently launched through the funding streams and business models of tech start-ups, with many raising multi-billion dollar valuations and sporting investor portfolios with some of the biggest names in Big Tech and global business, such as Bill Gates, Vinod Khosla, Sergey Brin and Richard Branson.

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Drawing on work across human geography, critical food studies and STS, this research explores the political economic, cultural and geographical implications that the latest alt-protein activity poses to food production and consumption, both in the present and over the coming decades. The project will involve a critical analysis of the promissory narratives being used to promote these products, with the aim of further understanding the different stakeholders involved in the sector, the various publics they are targeting, and how notions of 'good food' and specifically 'good protein' are being constructed and contested.

We will also conduct an historical analysis that aims to contextualise the recent alt-proteins within the broader histories and political economies of global food security. Furthermore, this research will examine the specific opportunities and challenges the recent alt-proteins pose to the specific context of food and farming in the UK, with a particular focus on livelihoods, rural geographies and competing visions of a post-Brexit agriculture.