Planting the Seeds of Change: Evaluating Barriers of Alternative Protein in the GCC
The concept of alternative protein, particularly plant-based meat, has a rich history that dates back centuries. However, recent global concerns about sustainability, food security, and the environmental and health impacts of industrial animal agriculture have accelerated the development of alternative protein sources. This innovation surge has given rise to a diverse array of alternative proteins, ranging from plant-based to fermentation-based and cell-based proteins.
While the adoption of alternative proteins has been a growing trend worldwide, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region has also been gradually embracing this movement. This article explores the current landscape of alternative protein in the GCC, highlighting the region's opportunities and challenges, and shedding light on how it is still lagging international markets.
Types of Alternative Protein Developments
The alternative protein landscape comprises various categories, including plant-based meat, fermentation-based protein, cell-based protein, and insect-based protein. Each category offers distinct advantages and faces unique challenges.
Drivers of Alternative Protein in the GCC
There are compelling reasons to anticipate the development of alternative protein in the GCC region.
Agriculture and Food Production. GCC countries, including the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia (KSA), face unique challenges in the realm of agriculture and food production. These challenges include limited arable land (0.5% in the UAE), decreasing agricultural areas due to desertification and soil degradation, and severe water scarcity.
Supply Chain Dependence. The region is vulnerable to global food commodity price fluctuations and supply chain disruptions, as witnessed during trade wars, lockdowns, and geopolitical tensions, with both countries being net food importers, rely on imports for 85% of their consumption.
Entry to Market. The growing population with substantial purchasing power makes the GCC an ideal market for alternative protein products. Manufacturers have adopted effective product introduction strategies, initially targeting the food service sector to generate consumer excitement and drive retail sales.
Production Cost. The availability of affordable energy sources makes it an attractive destination for sustainable alternative protein production. The UAE and KSA electricity rates are $0.08/kWh and $0.05/kWh, respectively, compared to $0.42/kWh in Germany. Moreover, the government is proactively diversifying its energy mix to include renewable sources.
Health Impact. The region's high meat consumption has raised awareness about the health impacts of meat consumption, prompting consumers to seek healthier alternatives. Increasingly aware of the health consequences of meat consumption, consumers are opting for healthier alternatives.
Government and Financial Incentives. GCC governments actively support sustainable food production and foster innovation in the alternative protein sector through various initiatives and investments. Strategic government incentives such as KEZAD's manufacturing hub, KAUST's financing and innovation research, and FoodTech Valley's aim to revolutionize food systems offer the GCC a unique opportunity to leapfrog technology and establish a robust presence in the global alternative protein market.
The GCC's Journey in Alternative Protein
Mirroring global trends, the Gulf’s alt-protein sector has focused on plant-based options. Different players are shaping the future of the sector regionally.
Global giants such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have also entered the Gulf market, targeting retailers, distributors, and restaurants. These have garnered a growing fanbase but face the challenges of maintaining competitive pricing and tailoring their products to local tastes.
Homegrown startups Switch foods and Arlene have localized plant-based meat products to cater to regional cuisines, while Furahaa in KSA is carving its niche by developing plant-based meat products that resonate with local consumers. Abu Dhabi’s sovereign fund ADQ, led a funding round in Aleph Farms, a start-up that created the world’s first lab-grown steak, with plans to open a manufacturing facility and supply its products in the regional market.
Local food incumbents have also launched meat-free alternatives, Al Islami Foods, one of the biggest food distributors in the Arab world, introduced its plant-based burger. IFFCO,a major player in the food industry, has launched THRYVE, a brand that offers a variety of plant-based meat alternatives. Healthy Farm Eatery, a subsidiary of the Albatha Group, has invested in a range of healthy and sustainable food options, including plant-based choices, to meet the evolving preferences of consumers in the UAE. The UAE’s KGroup signed an agreement with the U.S.-based company Change Foods to set up a precision fermentation facility for the development of protein"casein" found in dairy.
Various factors shape the adoption of alternative proteins in the region, and concerns about product quality, pricing, and texture are also shared among global players in this space.
Lack of Commercialization. Cost is a significant obstacle to the widespread adoption of plant-based alternatives among consumers. To make plant-based foods more affordable and attain economies of scale, it is imperative to enhance ingredient sourcing and plant-based meat products' manufacturing capacity. At present, all protein sources are procured internationally. While progress in manufacturing capacity has achieved price parity for some plant-based alternatives, further advancements in protein sourcing, ingredient and formulation optimization, and end-product manufacturing methods are required to attain cost parity for other technological advancements in alternative proteins.
Consumer Acceptance. Beyond cost, challenges related to taste and texture pose barriers to consumers' widespread adoption of non-animal proteins. In cultures with a strong meat-centric focus, it can be challenging to gain consumer acceptance, as individuals often prioritize familiar tastes and textures. While cellular proteins promise to mimic the taste and texture of traditional meat, consumers in the region may exhibit caution in embracing this innovative technology due to concerns about health and safety. However, the region's demographics, characterized by a substantial youth population, indicate a generation of conscious consumers increasingly concerned about health, climate change, and animal welfare. These consumers are more likely to be open to adopting alternative protein options.
Competition and Funding. Startups compete with global giants and established players prepared to invest substantial sums in research and development to retain their market dominance. This challenges smaller firms to find market entry strategies beyond taste to ensure durability and relevance.In the Gulf region, there is a concerted effort to expedite the advancement of alternative proteins by leapfrogging technology and offering incentives to startups for localized production. As production scales up, alternative protein production costs are steadily diminishing, rendering these products increasingly competitive within the market.
At present, start-ups are not the predominant players in the Gulf’s alternative protein market, as substantial capital is required to develop alternative proteins, considering the essential infrastructure and extensive research and development efforts. Ensuring cost-effective production is crucial to profitability while maintaining competitive pricing for end consumers. Startups may need to subsidize costs to attract consumers until production costs become more economical, often necessitating multiple funding rounds.
Evolving Regulation. Alt-protein startups encounter regulatory hurdles due to their significant implications for human health, encompassing challenges in labeling, safety standards, and approval processes, both on a global and regional scale. In the predominantly Muslim Gulf region, there exists uncertainty regarding the certification of various types of alt-proteins asHalal. While plant-based analogs generally face fewer issues, cultivated and fermented products involve cells derived from animals. Currently, there is no definitive guidance from any regulatory body regarding the classification of these products. The ambiguity and lack of clarity in regulatory frameworks could pose future entry barriers for these products.
In the GCC region, alternative agriculture methods are poised to play a pivotal role in addressing challenges related to food security, sustainability, and health. While the region has made significant strides in adopting alternative protein products, there are still hurdles to overcome, such as competitive pricing, local taste preferences, funding, and commercialization strategies.
As the GCC continues to invest in sustainable food production and consumer awareness grows, the region's alternative food sector will likely gain momentum over the next decade. With its unique advantages, including competitive energy prices, robust food market, incentives available, and opportunity to leapfrog, the GCC is well-positioned to become a global hub for food innovation, contributing to a more sustainable and secure future.