The science of plant-based meat.

Open-access databases linking plant protein structure-function are needed. 

Some companies are building internal databases that contain data on the characteristics and function of proteins from various crops. However, these data are not publicly available.

There is some academic research underway to develop crops as a source of raw materials for plant-based meat. One line of investigation includes breeding crop varieties to possess more abundant and higher quality protein. Another avenue of research involves identifying and utilizing side streams from existing agricultural and food supply chains as a source of plant protein and ingredients.

In March 2020 Benson Hill Biosystems announced the first commercially available ultra-high protein soy varieties. Equinom is another company working to breed plants specifically as protein sources for plant-based meat, egg, and dairy. 

Crop development challenges

Most crops have not been explored for use in plant-based meat.

Very little publicly-available breeding and crop development has focused on optimizing plant protein sources for plant-based meat. The vast majority of crops have not yet been explored for their suitability in plant-based meat applications. In many cases the appropriate raw materials are not available for entrepreneurs or existing plant-based meat companies to test this suitability.

The range of necessary functions for plant-based products is broad. For example, a pea protein ingredient optimized with high solubility for use in plant-based milk may be too soluble to create a fibrous texture in a plant-based meat product. Therefore, a variety of commercially-available pea protein ingredients are needed with solubility, water holding capacity, gelation, and other functional properties tuned to specific end use applications. However, plant-based meat manufacturers currently have limited choice in the sources and variety of plant ingredients that are commercially available. 

The supply of novel, functional plant proteins is too limited. 

When novel proteins are available, their supply is often too limited to be attractive as a primary ingredient for a new line of plant-based meat products. This limited supply can be due to low volume of production or not enough unique suppliers. In addition, the lower volume of production and the relative lack of optimization relative to commodity crops contribute to higher prices per pound for less-common plant proteins. This further disincentivizes their utilization in plant-based meat products.

Finally, growing location and conditions influence crop quality and protein characteristics. This adds variability to the starting materials in the supply chain,  creating inconsistency in the midstream ingredients. This can, in turn, negatively affect the final plant-based meat products. Without in situ and high-throughput screening technologies to quickly and easily characterize the molecular components of crops, it becomes time- and resource-intensive to figure out how well a specific batch of crops will perform as a raw material for plant-based meat.

What comes next for crop development

Plant-based meat production requires optimizing crops for protein content, quality, and function. 

We have an opportunity to improve the efficiency of plant-based meat production by breeding varieties of crops and other organisms that have increased protein content and quality. Strains of multiple high-protein crops should be developed such that they are optimized for plant-based meat applications. A range of breeding techniques can be used to accomplish this, from traditional breeding methods to modern genetic engineering methods.

A wide variety of high-protein beans, seeds, and grasses could serve this purpose for specific types of plant-based meat and seafood. In addition, novel protein sources that are less resource-intensive than terrestrial plants (which require arable land and significant inputs) should be cultivated and commercially grown. These may include sources like microalgae and macroalgae, fungi, and other microbes.

Simultaneously breeding for reduced off-flavors and improved sensory characteristics can increase consumer acceptance of plant-based meat. While it may take time for newly-created cultivars to enter commercial production, a quicker way to add diversity and scale to plant-based meat raw materials is to valorize existing agricultural side streams.

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