More and more people are waking up to the idea that, in order to preserve a future for our children, our eating habits need to change.

According to a recent report by Oxfam, by the middle of this century, the earth’s population will have increased by two billion to seven billion … while agricultural yield will have almost halved since 1990 during the same period.

To put it bluntly, by 2050, there will be just too many people on earth to feed …. unless something changes.

A combination of climate change and flatlining yields on top of a growing carbon footprint means that feeding humanity sustainably is now one of our most pressing tasks.

Plant-based proteins and clean meats are therefore set to become one of the most important main-stream food trends over the coming months, with the substitute meat market expected to exceed £1 billion by 2021.

Already, in the US, we are seeing some incredibly exciting food tech start-ups – growing clean ‘meat’ in laboratories, making creamy scrambled ‘eggs’ from mung beans, creating ‘fish’ that have never even been close to water…

San Francisco-based Clara Foods, for one, has already developed the world’s first animal-free, lab-cultured egg white, which is currently being scaled for the mass market and promises to be on supermarket shelves next year. Driven by the unsustainable demand for eggs (approximately one trillion are consumed globally every year), as well as the shift in consumer preferences towards non-animal protein, scientists have applied modern engineering processes to yeast, sugar and plant-based protein to create an ‘egg white’ that uses far fewer natural resources yet contains all the same characteristics as a chicken-based egg.

Also creating waves across the pond is the aptly named Impossible Burger, the first vegetarian ‘meat’ burger made from genetically engineered soy plant ingredients. Made by Impossible Foods, it is alreadys already available in over 1000 food outlets across America. Developed primarily for meat lovers, Impossible™ delivers on all the flavour, aroma and texture of beef without a single cow being involved and absolutely none of the environmental damage caused by industrial farming.

Impossible Foods has additionally produced a meat-free sausage which is currently being trialled by Little Caesars, the third largest pizza chain in the US with some 5,000 outlets.

Meanwhile, Beyond Meat held its IPO on May 2, listing on NASDAQ at a valuation near $1.5 billion. Their stock price surged 163%, the largest first day pop in the US since 2000.

Founded in 2009 by vegan Ethan Brown, Beyond Meat manufactures plant-based meat alternatives such as the Beyond Burger. Like Impossible Foods, their products are not marketed solely at vegans and vegetarians. They hope to appeal to the broader market of meat-lovers, encouraging consumers to try an alternative that is better for the environment. With distribution in the US and Europe, they are aiming to capture a portion of the $1.4 trillion global market for meat – and plan to expand and open manufacturing facilities in Europe in 2020.

Beyond Meat’s success will undoubtedly prompt large food manufacturers such as Conagra Brands inc, Kraft Heinz Co and Kellogg Co to follow suit and develop plant-based meat alternatives. Tyson Foods already announced on May 7 that it will be bringing a plant-based protein to market in 2019.

But plant-based meat alternatives are not the only growing trend in protein. Several clean meat startups have been raising funds as well, with $50 million in capital investment in cell-based meats in 2018. Unlike plant-based meat, clean meat does not rely on plant proteins. Instead, it uses extracted animal cells and grows meat in tissue cultures within labs. This also removes the need for animal slaughter and has been lauded by some groups as a viable alternative to livestock farming.

In addition to beef and chicken manufacturers, companies such as Finless Foods and BlueNalu are engineering lab-grown fish. The fish flesh is cultured in the lab, without growing brains, organs, skin or bones. In addition to removing the need for slaughter, lab-grown fish is also free from toxins such as mercury, micro plastics and parasites.

Cell-based fish companies do not see themselves as a direct replacement, but rather a third alternative to wild caught and farmed fish. This may mean that the growth of cell-based alternatives increases consumer demand for fish overall, rather than decreasing reliance on wild caught fish.

While the new meat/fish alternatives are clearly making waves, there are still some open questions about the industry. It is unclear, for example, how regulation may play a role in the future. Currently the FDA regulates in the US – but this could change as tissue culture development becomes a more prominent method.

There are also skeptics who question the impact the industry can have on the environment. Researchers at the University of Oxford have raised concerns that lab-cultured protein may not reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Cattle farming has a huge impact on global warming due to the release of methane and other gases – but these do eventually dissipate after a period of around 12 years. And, conversely, powering a lab for cell culturing requires energy expenditures which emit a different greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide. Unlike methane, carbon dioxide accumulates over millennia which may mean worse effects in the long term.

 While these questions remain unresolved, what is clear is that the market demand for alternative protein products is growing dramatically, and companies and investors are responding.