Food Tech

How Cargill approaches the evolving world of alt-proteins

The firm is one of the oldest, largest food companies in the US.
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Cargill

· 4 min read

Founded in 1865, Cargill has cemented itself as one of the country’s largest companies and food suppliers. But being a legacy food giant hasn’t stopped Cargill from trying to stay ahead of the technological curve.

In fact, the company—which reported $165 billion in revenue in 2022 and was ranked by Forbes as America’s largest private company in 2021—has invested in the field looking to disrupt conventional meat suppliers: alternative protein. In 2019, Cargill created an alt-protein division and placed Elizabeth Gutschenritter, a 17-year Cargill veteran in charge.

“Cargill is a big ship, and then there are little boats. How do we create little boats around new categories, emerging trends, new technology, and innovation? How can those smaller boats help drive the bigger ship?” Gutschenritter, who was previously head of the company’s retail beef division before becoming managing director of alternative protein, told Emerging Tech Brew.

Protein prototyping

Last year, Cargill CEO David MacLennan said that he expected “some cannibalization” of  Cargill’s traditional meat business to occur as a result of alt-proteins.

But according to Gutschenritter, the company—one of the largest beef processors in the US—sees alt-protein as a complement to conventional meat, not a replacement.

“The vast majority of consumers that are buying plant-based and that could conceivably buy cultivated or otherwise are still eating traditional protein,” Gutschenritter said. “It’s really a story about options.”

Cargill’s alt-protein team, which Gutschenritter told us is “reflective of the size of the category now,” is split between plant-based protein and cellularly cultivated meat. Gutschenritter declined to share how much money the company has invested in its alternative-protein division or its headcount.

She said that the plant-based team is focused on more near-term commercial opportunities, while the cultivated-meat team works on longer-term projects, like investing in startups. For example, Cargill participated in a $400 million Series C funding round for cultivated-meat startup Upside Foods earlier this year, and it has also invested in other startups in the space, like Aleph Farms and Wildtype.

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Cargill has also invested in and partnered with Puris, a major producer of pea protein, including a $100+ million investment. Through a joint venture with the company, Cargill is a key supplier of pea protein to alt-meat company Beyond Meat.

The broader meatspace

Cargill is just one among a broader pool of food giants and startups investing in both plant-based proteins and cultivated meat research, the latter of which is currently only legal to sell in Singapore. Companies like Tyson, Perdue, Unilever, and Nestlé have all also made moves in the alt-protein space.

“[Alt-protein] is still a fairly nascent technology. It’s early days in the space. At first, you were mostly just seeing investments through [legacy food companies’] venture arms, but now you’ve started to see some more M&A activity,” Caroline Bushnell, VP of corporate engagement at the Good Food Institute, told Emerging Tech Brew.

The alt-protein industry as a whole raised over $5 billion in disclosed investment in 2021 alone, per the Good Food Institute.

Bushnell said in the future, the industry could see alt-meat startups partnering with legacy meat companies in hopes of leveraging their connections with retailers and distribution infrastructure, while the startups could “bring some of their IP and tech to the table.”

And for her part, unlike execs at Cargill, Bushnell said alt-protein could outright replace traditional meat one day.

“These products are really designed to be replacements. And as the industry grows and continues to innovate and has tasty, affordable competitive products, I expect we will see more direct displacement,” Bushnell said.

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