In beef-loving Argentina, meat substitutes are gaining ground
In parallel to a continued growth in global meat consumption, alternative proteins have made a notable rise in recent years, in a market stimulated by the demand of younger generations concerned about meat’s environmental, nutritional and animal welfare impacts.
In Argentina, one of the world’s leading food producers and a country famed for its affinity with beef, this market has also expanded of late, with an increasing cast of companies working on the production of meat analogues. Though these alternatives have historically been small-scale and peripheral, both locally and globally, they are now coming in from the margins and promise to play an increasingly prominent role in the global diet.
The estimated value of the global meat substitutes market by 2027
“Meat analogue” – more commonly talked of as mock meat, vegan meat, meat substitutes or alternative meat, among other names – is the industry’s broad term for foods without meat proteins that attempt to imitate the characteristics of meat, both in sensory and nutritional aspects. These products have different origins: some from a combination of plant-based ingredients, others made in the laboratory, known as cultured meats.
“A new paradigm has emerged around the environmental impact of meat consumption, in which technologies have emerged to help replace animal-based proteins,” said Fernando Vilella, director of the bioeconomics programme at the University of Buenos Aires.
Interest in alternative proteins has accelerated in the last decade, leading to changes among global food manufacturers. From Nestlé – which in 2021 announced that it will enter the cultured meat market – to the diversifying portfolios of Brazilian meat giants Marfrig, JBS and Minerva Foods, the private sector seems to be following an unstoppable trend. It is estimated that the global market for meat substitutes will reach US$4 billion by 2027, up from US$1.9 billion in 2021. Businesses in Argentina want in on the meat-free pie, too.
First steps in Argentina
One of the pioneering companies in Argentina is Frizata, which currently sells a range of frozen products direct to consumers in Buenos Aires, Rosario and Córdoba. In 2019, it launched FriBurger, a soy-based patty that, among other ingredients, also uses beetroot, onion and yeast extract to achieve a meat-like flavouring and texture. They have since expanded their product range and reach, into Brazil, Chile and the United States. Adolfo Rouillon, a co-owner of the company, tells Diálogo Chino that the company is now doing a healthy trade, and last July closed a US$5 million investment round.
Though business has grown quickly, Rouillón acknowledged that the market in which they participate still represents “a very small percentage” of total food consumption.
The transition to new consumption patterns is occurring at the same time as animal protein intake continues to grow globally. But over the next decade, global consulting firm McKinsey & Company predicts, there will be a slowdown of up to 50% in the growth rate of meat consumption – not least because “plant-based proteins and synthetic meat are increasingly competing for share of protein consumption in select markets, spurred especially by consumers’ concerns over the environmental impact of livestock production,” its report says.
Transition to biotech innovations
After a “first generation” of plant-based food manufacturers emerged in Argentina, new ventures have recently arrived that incorporate biotech innovations into their production processes. Among this cohort, a standout is Ergo BioScience, a company from Santa Fe province, that seeks to produce the proteins usually found in meat, using carrots.
Why carrots? Because these vegetables are capable of producing myoglobin and casein, two key proteins involved in generating the flavour, aroma, colour and texture of foods of animal origin. Using bioreactors – containers in which there are controlled conditions that allow the development of a specific reaction – these proteins can be obtained in large volumes, and are then mixed with other vegetable ingredients to create plant-based foods that reproduce sensory and nutritional aspects of meat.
Another member of this new generation of experiments is Moolec, a UK-based company that operates an Argentine arm. They also focus on alternative production of proteins. Their process does not run through bioreactors but the plants themselves, which are genetically altered to become protein “factories”.
Another start-up entering the fray is Tomorrow Foods, which recently launched an “innovation centre” in Buenos Aires, with the aim of formulating and developing ingredients and plant-based solutions for the food and beverage industry.
“What we see is that our market is going to grow exponentially. The trend is here,” said Guillermo Lentini, one of the company’s founders, which launched its first plant protein burger in 2020. “It was very well received, and sales are growing month by month,” the entrepreneur explained.
On the cutting edge: cultured meat
Alongside these experiments is the emerging industry for cultured meat, which is produced entirely in a laboratory. This does not involve plants that mimic the properties of animal protein, but the application of cell culture techniques to develop a substitute for traditional meat production.
The first Latin American exponent in the field is the Buenos Aired-based startup Bio Ingeniería en la Fabricación de Elaborados – in English, Bioengineering in the Manufacture of Processed Products, with the playful acronym of BIFE. Last July, the firm held a first tasting, which was presented as a new step towards “the sustainable production of food products of animal origin, from cell cultures that do not require animal slaughter”, its website says.
Much like the real thing, the production of cultured meat begins in the field, but with the collection of a small sample of animal tissue. This is then taken to the laboratory, where a particular type of cell is isolated, which after a cultivation process, ends up generating new animal tissue.
The consumer is the great challenge: first we must come up with a tasty product that resembles traditional meat
In a video presented at the tasting, BIFE assured that this type of development has wide-ranging advantages in terms of health, the environment and sustainability, as compared to traditional meat production, it claims, 45% more energy is saved, greenhouse gas emissions are reduced by 96% and 96% less water is used.
BIFE’s Laura Correa explained that after the tasting, efforts are now focused on “lowering processing costs and generating a large-scale farming system”, which could happen in the next five years. “For us, the consumer is the great challenge, so first we have to come up with a good, tasty product that resembles traditional meat,” she added.
According to those consulted, animal protein will continue to dominate the market in the coming years. However, all indications are that there is a place on the table for plant-based and tissue-culture analogues, in line with consumers’ growing and changing concerns about traditional meat.
Livestock farming in Argentina faces the challenge of seeking a more sustainable horizon in the face of increasing criticism of its negative effects on the environment, mainly in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and the loss of forests due to the expansion of the agricultural frontier.
Argentina’s livestock sector contributes 20.7% of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions, and must play a leading role in the transition to a new food regime. But, alongside this, Argentina’s new wave of start-ups and food tech companies look set to occupy a larger space in the market in the search for more environmentally friendly food systems. Given the nation’s strong cultural associations with meat, particularly beef, the coexistence of the two may be key to achieving such a journey to sustainability.