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Should eggs be from hens? The market for man-made eggs


  • Egg production and consumption in the world
  • Artificial egg production techniques
  • Companies producing artificial eggs

 

Eggs form an important part of the human diet all across the world. China is a leading producer and consumer of eggs in the world with 529 billion eggs produced per annum, this is followed by the United States with ~107 billion eggs. Alongside hens, ducks and quails are the other birds that are good sources of eggs, though the overall percentage is less. The per capita consumption of eggs is persistently rising in both these nations and in other parts of the world.

Apparently, do people really think on the sources of eggs or from which bird these are coming from? It is less likely since most people tend to assume that they are consuming eggs laid by hens. While individuals do not give a thought on this aspect in the contemporary world, we are entering into a scenario wherein not all eggs in a market are coming from birds.

Now with the advancement of research in biotechnology, it is possible to create eggs which are not sourced from birds but from the chemical synthesis in laboratories. In chemical terms egg is a protein and with some biochemical reactions, one can create exactly the same composition to make an egg. One can call this egg, a vegan egg, fake egg or artificial egg.

The first fake egg was introduced in the market by Follow Your Heart (2015) in the form of a powdered egg substitute made from algae. Thereafter, a number of start-ups came up with their version of artificial eggs. Spero, a Silicon Valley start-up is making eggs using pumpkin seeds. Clara Foods and Just Egg are the two renowned start-ups that have been successful in raising a good amount of funding from venture capitalists. Clara Foods was founded by Isha Datar, David Anchel and Arturo Elizondo (2015) in the Silicon Valley after their business plan ‘New Harvest Egg Project’ made a mark during the event hosted by IndieBio and received USD 50k and lab space for experimentation. Clara Foods got USD 1.75 million in seed funding and USD 15 million in Series A funding (2015). The company produces egg white from yeast by inserting egg white protein genes into the yeast cells and allowing the yeast to grow using sugar. Clare Foods received USD 20 million in Series B funding (2019). The firm now plans to both improve its products through more research and development and further commercialise this by increasing its distribution network. Just Egg, another Silicon Valley start-up, founded by Josh Tetrick is processing egg white using mung beans protein. Just Egg is now planning to expand by setting up processing plants at more than 10 locations across the globe. The company is planning to launch in China. It is also aiming to foray into the cultured meat business. Products of these companies are now available on the shelves of the major supermarkets in the United States such as Safeway and Albertsons.

Additionally, these companies are established by entrepreneurs and are funded by venture capitalists. What exactly are these entrepreneurs and investors betting upon? Will households choose to have these cultured eggs that are not originating from birds? People in the United States and China have been eating eggs from hens for generations and all of a sudden, they now have an option to eat eggs that are surprisingly vegan. It is obvious that people will have genuine concerns regarding taste, nutritional value, quality and possible health hazards associated with these eggs. In addition to being directly consumed, eggs are also widely used in bakery products. It is possible that these vegan eggs may replace conventional eggs in bakeries if there isn’t a change in the taste of the final product drastically. The other possible target segment for these artificial eggs could be the consumers, who consume eggs mainly as a source of protein and not for the taste. For example, individuals who consume a regular quota of eggs for muscle building or during their convalescence period may not be reluctant to consume vegan eggs. However, the most pertinent question that arises is whether these eggs will be available in the market at a price cheaper than the conventional eggs? Presently, the cost of production for processed eggs is higher than the cost of production for conventional eggs, owing to the lower scale of production for the former in both the United States and the Asia Pacific. Therefore, companies will have to bear losses if they wish to compete with conventional egg producers on price. But, it looks possible at least during the initial years through extended support from venture capitalists and other investors until the time this product reaches acceptability in markets and economies of scale.

Furthermore, from the perspective of companies, the utmost suitable target segment that is most likely to consume these products is that of vegans. According to the Gallup survey, 3% of the Americans identify themselves as vegans and 5% of the Americans are vegetarians. The vegan and vegetarian population in the United States is expected to increase, though at a very slow rate. Vegetarianism and veganism are most prevalent among Americans, who identify themselves as politically liberal. Further, 11% of the liberals are vegetarians and 5% of these are vegans. Interestingly, the sales of plant-based alternatives to animal-based foods grew by 17% (2018) even when the total food sales in the United States grew by only 2%. Separately, the market for vegan products in China is seen to be growing at a CAGR of 17.2% (2015 to 2020), whereas growth during the same period in the United Arab Emirates and Australia is expected to be 10% and 9%, respectively. Positively, the vegans and vegetarians might also be willing to pay a premium for these eggs and companies may not have to compete with conventional eggs on the pricing front if they target and market only to vegans initially. The animal welfare organisations now advocate the consumption of meat from companies that give emphasis on sustainability and the ones that ensure maximum animal welfare in their farms. In the process, there has been a growth of the market for cage-free eggs and meat, wherein the animals are not trapped in farms. There can also be a transformation to the plant-based eggs by people if they are convinced that none of their basic preferences is compromised.

In conclusion, most of the companies that have ventured into plant-based egg production are currently based out of the United States. Going forward, they will have to find markets in other countries where the vegan population is high or is expected to rise. The most suitable market for these companies can be India, which is the third largest producer of eggs and also has the highest vegetarian population in the world. The overall scenario for this product looks rosy, though the real test would be in terms of acceptability from the broader market as a whole and the core associated aspects regarding the desired protein and other vitamin content, taste and pricing as equated to the already available options. Companies are also experimenting on creating plant-based meat and there may be options for plant-based meat too in the near future.

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