Finland could be a leading innovation hub for cellular agriculture and alternative protein development – but success won’t come without taking risks

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Our food system is undergoing a transformation. Some estimates suggest that the world’s protein needs will double by 2050, and to stay within the planetary boundaries, food production and consumption must radically change. Solutions for making conventional meat production more efficient are almost exhausted, and the next inevitable step is to transition to a planetary plate model and fill most of the plate with alternative proteins.

“Alternative proteins” is a generic term for non-animal-based proteins, such as plant-based meat and milk substitutes. The term also encompasses lesser-known cellular agriculture, where cells of fungi or microbes are cultivated in nutrient solutions in bioreactors. Finland’s challenging conditions for traditional agriculture are actually favorable for cellular agriculture. The cool climate, water resources, investments in renewable energy, and large production facilities of the forest industry and their by-products have contributed to the emergence of highly competitive innovations in Finland. We have pioneering start-ups like Solar Foods, Onego Bio, and Enifer. And we have a long-standing tradition in this – the mycoprotein PEKILO®, derived from fungi, was developed by Finnish forest engineers in the 1960s, with its industrial production for feed use starting a decade before the most well-known mycoprotein, Quorn, appeared on shelves in the UK.

Why has Finland produced so many successful innovations in cellular agriculture? In addition to favorable conditions, Finland has had persistent research in food technology and industrial biotechnology at VTT (Technical Research Centre of Finland) and universities. Additionally, entities such as Business Finland, several domestic venture capital funds, and the state-owned investment company Tesi have been significant supporters and financiers of cellular agriculture startup companies in recent years. We also have forward-thinking food industry companies that have invested in R&D instead of trying to hinder progress. Among these, companies like Paulig, Fazer, and Valio have embraced development.

However, the journey from idea to mass production in cellular agriculture is still long. Bringing a novel food product to market can take several years and cost millions of euros. New companies require significantly more financial and production support than what the public and private sectors can currently offer. We need more large companies from various stages of the food chain to join in developing food industry innovations, as well as systematic efforts to attract international investors and funds. Startup funding has decreased globally, but there are many major players in food innovation investment worldwide, and their attention should be increasingly directed towards the Nordics.

Additionally, the support system for food production needs a remodel. It’s completely unsustainable that, due to distorted support structures, it costs more to bring protein directly from the field to the table than to produce a kilo of beef. In Europe, direct subsidies account for about 50% of cattle producers’ income, and the entry of alternative products into the market is hindered by extensive lobbying, reminiscent of Big Tobacco’s playbook. Startups are at the forefront of innovation, bringing much needed sustainable solutions to food production – they deserve a level playing field.

Finland has the expertise to be at the forefront of cellular agriculture and the opportunity to be a leading country in the field; it just takes courage to take risks and change the system. The Earth can’t afford to wait decades.

Joosu Kuivanen, COO & Co-founder
Henna Paasovaara, HR & communications coordinator

The story was originally published in Talouselämä.