The University of California, Davis, is leading the establishment of a new Integrative Center for Alternative Meat and Protein, or iCAMP. The center will work toward large-scale commercialization and technological advancement of alternative proteins, including cultivated meat (from animal cells grown in large fermentors), plant- and fungal-based foods, and innovative hybrids that combine conventional meat products with alternative proteins.
Bringing together leading researchers and academic institutions, industry professionals, advocacy groups and food innovators, the center aims to make the global food system more sustainable.
On Thursday, Jan. 17, iCAMP launched with an Innovation Day at the UC Davis Robert Mondavi Center for Wine and Food Science. Scientists, program leads and partners shared research and collaborations to advance food innovation in alternative meat and proteins.
The world’s demand for meat is expected to increase 50% to 100% over the next 25 years, said Center Director David Block. As a major source of global greenhouse gas emissions, meat production contributes meaningfully to climate change.
“Expansion of conventional animal agriculture is unlikely to be able to meet demand at a reasonable price,” said Block, who is also a professor in the chemical engineering and viticulture and enology departments. “We have to come up with alternatives and create additional sustainable food sources.”
Gaps in alternative protein research
iCAMP will research ways to enhance consumer acceptance of and preference for alternative proteins, whether cultivated meat, plant- or fungal-based proteins. This deeper understanding will allow researchers and companies to develop products that are highly desirable to consumers of different backgrounds and interests, whether they are focused on taste, nutrition, shelf life and stability, cooking properties, cost or other factors.
However, iCAMP researchers understand that alternative meats continue to face challenges. For instance, plant-based proteins can have displeasing flavors that may have to be covered up or issues with mouthfeel that require fats, which can be unhealthy. To reach price parity with conventional meat, cultivated meat production would need to be scaled up to volumes never attempted in growing animal cells.
While the FDA approved the sale of cultivated chicken last year, the product has a long way to go before it hits supermarket shelves.
“We are not to the point where the product is anywhere near the cost of conventional meat,” said Block. “Widespread distribution of affordable products is likely to take 10 to 15 years.”
Block also leads the UC Davis Cultivated Meat Consortium, an interdisciplinary group of scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs and educators developing technologies to grow animal cells more efficiently for less cost. Block added that the consortium, the first academic group to receive federal funding for cultivated meat research, will now become an integral part of iCAMP.
Collaborative research and workforce development
UC Davis is uniquely positioned to lead iCAMP with experts in fields that include food science, sensory science, biotechnology, nutrition, animal science, plant sciences and agricultural economics. But UC Davis will collaborate with other research institutions and organizations, including UCLA, the University of Maryland Baltimore County, the USDA, Solano Community College and the Culinary Institute of America.
The initiative will also focus on workforce development, including classes and continuing education for students and professionals to help the industry grow. Industry partners will play a key role, helping direct and finance research projects. By actively fostering partnerships and encouraging the exchange of knowledge, the center aims to catalyze the development of breakthrough technologies, driving down production costs, enhancing scalability, and ultimately making alternative proteins more accessible to consumers worldwide.
iCAMP researchers are also working with industry and regional developers to create a more complete ecosystem of business incubators, pilot facilities, and contract manufacturers focused on food tech. They are planning innovative ways to connect with the public, from food policy seminars to introducing consumers to new meat products in on-campus dining halls and beyond.
The California legislature provided $5 million for research into alternative proteins in 2022 at three University of California campuses — UC Davis, UCLA and UC Berkeley. Some of UC Davis’ $1.67 million share will be used to start the new Integrative Center for Alternative Meat and Protein.