Alternative Proteins won’t Save the Earth
Alternative proteins have long been considered a key solution to emissions-intensive food systems and have attracted billions of dollars in investment over the past few years, but a new report says they “can’t save the earth.”
While cell-cultured and plant-based meats, as well as sophisticated livestock aquaculture, promise to deliver healthier, more sustainable and greener products, but the evidence for these claims is extremely limited and speculative, marketing hype around protein shortages and livestock production issues, misleading and simplistic.
The nonprofit IPES-Food is funded by charitable funds, including former Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s 11th Hour Project, but refuses to raise money from governments and corporations. The group points out that the fact that we are now very dependent on industrialized monoculture production systems and energy-intensive processes to produce access to key food ingredients could jeopardize the livelihoods of millions of food producers.
The report hopes to expand the discussion around high-protein foods, but avoid an overemphasis on protein. One of the report’s lead authors, Phil Howard, an associate professor in Michigan State University’s Department of Community Sustainability, said protein is just one nutrient, but not a nutrient that is severely deficient in the world’s population.
However, proponents of alternative proteins say existing data suggest alternative proteins have had a “significant positive impact” on the planet. For example, David Welch, co-founder and chief scientific officer of food tech venture capital firm Synthesis Capital, points out that when combined with renewable energy, energy-intensive technologies like cell-cultured meat are still an improvement over traditional chicken, land use A 63% reduction, a 29% reduction in air pollution and a 17% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
Current status of traditional protein production is not a good option
In its report, IPES-Food acknowledges that the status quo of traditional animal protein production systems is simply not a good option. Undoubtedly, the sustainability challenges we face cannot be addressed as livestock systems continue to occupy nearly 80 percent of the world’s cropland; therefore, intensive livestock systems that rely on fodder crops must be drastically scaled back.
However, the debate surrounding livestock, especially meat, lacks discrimination, ignoring regional and contextual differences in production systems. This could prompt policymakers to “shift from inaction to misguided action” and take a one-size-fits-all approach rather than addressing the underlying problem.
According to the latest study by the United Nations, production, processing, transportation, consumption and food waste in the world are currently responsible for nearly one-third of man-made greenhouse gas emissions and climate warming, with deforestation and ruminant burping and farting being the two largest sources. .
With the help of documentaries, such as those on regenerative agriculture and fisheries, which brought these issues to the fore last year, the debate around agriculture, meat and protein has entered the mainstream. However, sustainability challenges to meat are often condensed into a single dimension, greenhouse gas emissions (CO2 or methane), while ignoring other key sustainability challenges such as biodiversity loss, chemical pollution, land degradation, livelihoods Stress, hunger and micronutrient deficiencies, etc.
In the hands of several big consortia?
Globally, annual meat consumption has increased over the past 20 years, in part due to population growth and economic prosperity. However, meat consumption remains the highest among high-income countries, according to Oxford University’s Our World in Data project.
If 54 wealthy countries switch to more plant-based diets, the world will see a “double dividend” in carbon emissions, not just an annual reduction, an international team of researchers said in a January 2022 paper in the journal Nature Foods. 61% of emissions, and it would also release an area the size of the European Union to sequester carbon. The paper does not address the advantages of cell-cultured meat or plant-based meat.
However, the report notes that highly processed alternative protein products that attempt to mimic the taste and texture of meat are a very problematic way to change dietary patterns. In this way, there is actually a tendency and emphasis on meat and meat substitutes, but it is driving people further away from a varied and lightly processed diet. Many of the claims in alternative proteins are worded to facilitate technical fixes without fundamental consideration of how the food is produced, and how it varies from region to region.
Therefore, the report argues that such approaches will only exacerbate current problems, rather than address the political and economic factors that caused them in the first place.
IPES-Food also warned that the bulk of meat products are supplied by industrial livestock systems, not smallholder farmers. Large multinational corporations with huge market shares and political influence like JBS, Cargill and Tyson Foods are controlling the global meat industry, and they are already acquiring or developing plant-based meat and dairy alternatives, potentially making the current food system perpetuating inequality.
Proponents of alternative protein counter the claims made by the report, pointing out that many of the alternative protein products introduced over the past five years are more sustainable and healthier meat substitutes for heavily processed burgers and chicken nuggets prevalent in Western diets of meat products. The alternative protein industry is still young and is improving efficiency and sustainability. For example, many companies are starting to use a more diverse selection of ingredients, from soy to fungal protein, and even bacteria that can produce protein by consuming carbon dioxide alone. The industry is moving away from reliance on monoculture crops such as soybeans and wheat.
Plus, healthy skepticism about big meat companies getting involved in the alternative protein industry is a good thing, but overall, alternative protein proponents see it as a positive trend. Because these international multinationals have sufficient scale, supply chains, and access to end consumers, they can accelerate the transition to more sustainable protein supplies.
IPES-Food made their recommendations in the report:
Shift the focus from ‘protein transition’ to ‘sustainable food system transition’ and ‘sustainable food policy transition’.
Adjust measures to local conditions and comprehensively consider all aspects of the reform path. Sustainability starts at the regional level, measuring what matters most and where.
Reclaiming public resources from the “big protein” system, realigning innovation paths and public interests, and restarting discussions on related issues.
Let’s be realistic, it’s impossible to save the planet with a single solution of alternative proteins. However, we cannot deny the role of alternative proteins as part of transforming the entire agri-food system. Alternative protein companies exist to satisfy the world’s appetite for “meat” without harming people, animals or the planet, and use this as an opportunity for consumers to try a variety of protein food sources, in plant-based and traditional meats. Provide more options outside the class, thereby subverting the traditional livestock farming system.
Originally published at https://www.tlw.com.