Alternative proteins have been touted as a key answer to greening emissions-heavy food systems and attracted billions in investment over the past years, but a new report published today warns they “will not save the planet”.
Cultured and plant-based meats and precision livestock and fish farming promise healthier, more sustainable, and more environmentally-friendly products, but the evidence for these claims is “limited and speculative” and is based on marketing hype as well as misleading and simplistic assertions around protein shortage and livestock production, according to The Politics of Protein, by the Brussels-based International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food).
In fact, many rely on energy-intensive processes to produce key additives, source ingredients from industrial monoculture systems and could jeopardise the livelihoods of millions of food producers, added the non-profit, which is funded by philanthropic foundations, including former Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s 11th Hour Project, but refuses financing from governments and corporations.
“We hope this report broadens the conversations around higher protein foods and moves the discussions away from an overemphasis on protein. Protein is just one nutrient, and one that few people in the world are lacking,” Phil Howard, the report’s lead author and associate professor at Michigan State University, told AFN.
Supporters of alternative proteins, however, said the available data show they provide “significant positive impacts” on the planet.
David Welch, co-founder and chief scientific officer of Synthesis Capital, a food tech-focused VC fund, points to a recent life cycle assessment, which showed that when combined with renewable energy sources, more energy-intensive technologies such as cultivated meat production are still an improvement over conventional chicken, reducing land use by 63%, air pollution by 29%, and greenhouse gas emissions by 17%.
Status quo “not an option”
In its report, IPES-Food acknowledges “the status quo in animal production systems is simply not an option”.
“It is now beyond doubt that the sustainability challenges we face cannot be met while livestock systems continue to occupy nearly 80% of global farmland. Intensive livestock systems relying on feed crops must be dramatically scaled back,” it adds.
Yet the debate around livestock, particularly meat, lacks nuance and ignores context and important differences in production systems and differences in world regions, it says. That risks pushing policymakers to “move from inaction to misguided actions” and a one-size-fits-all approach that does not address underlying problems, Howard added.
The way the world currently produces, processes, transports, consumes and discards food is responsible for nearly a third of total manmade greenhouse gas emissions which are heating up the planet, with deforestation and ruminant burps being two of the largest sources, according to the United Nations’ latest study.
Last year’s Food Systems Summit brought these issues to the fore, and debates around farming, meat and protein have moved into the mainstream, with Netflix documentaries such as Kiss The Ground, about regenerative agriculture, and Seaspiracy, about unsustainable fishing, winning awards and gaining millions of views.
In the hands of a few?
Globally, annual meat consumption has increased over the past two decades, fuelled in part by population growth and rising prosperity. Yet consumption remains the highest among high-income countries, according to the Our World In Data project at the University of Oxford.
If 54 rich countries switch to more plant-based diets, the world would see a carbon “double dividend” by reducing emissions by 61% annually and free up an area the size of the European Union to capture carbon, according to a January 2022 paper in Nature Food by an international team of researchers. The paper did not touch on the merits of cell-based or plant-based meat products.
For Howard, the latest report’s lead author, however, alternative proteins, “particularly highly processed versions that try to mimic the taste and texture of meat are a very problematic approach to shifting dietary patterns”.
“They tend to reinforce a center of the plate diet, which emphasizes either meat or meat substitute, and therefore steers people away from more diverse and less processed diets. Many of these claims are worded in a way that promotes technological fixes. These approaches will only reinforce current problems, without addressing the political and economic factors that created them in the first place,” he added.
But many alternative protein products launched over the last five years are more sustainable and healthy replacements of processed animal products such as burgers and nuggets prevalent in standard western diets, said Synthesis’ Welch.
“The majority of these conventional animal products are supplied by the industrial livestock industry, not small hold farmers in the global south.”
The industry is still young and is improving in efficiency and sustainability: companies are beginning to use a much more diverse selection of starting materials, from legumes to fungal proteins and even CO2-consuming bacteria and are moving away from a reliance on monoculture crops such as soy and wheat, Welch added.
IPES-Food also warns that vast multinational firms such as JBS, Cargill, and Tyson, with huge market share and political clout that control the global meat industry have acquired or developed plant-based meat and dairy substitutes and thus could perpetuate the inequalities of the current food systems.
Welch is more optimistic.
“I think it’s good to have some healthy skepticism of big meat’s involvement in the alternative protein industry but overall I believe it’s a positive trend because they have the scale, supply chain, and access to the end consumer, which will accelerate the transition to a more sustainable protein supply,” he said.
Krijn de Food, CEO and co-founder of Dutch cultured meat company Meatable, said the company was set up “to satisfy the world’s appetite for meat without harming people, animals, or the planet” and with a “vision to disrupt the traditional meat ecosystem and provide additional choices for consumers, alongside both plant-based and traditional meat options.”