Is protein diversification the next clean energy for the net-zero economy?

At the UN Food System Pre-Summit next week, representatives from the worlds of science, business, policy, healthcare and farming will launch a new set of commitments to deliver progress on the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are a road map for creating healthier, more sustainable and equitable food systems. Currently, the world’s food system is grappling with an unsustainable climate and nature footprint. Increasing meat and dairy demand would make the goals of the Paris Agreement impossible to achieve, and by 2060, business as usual growth in meat and dairy production is projected to take up the entire budget of emissions under a 1.5C scenario.

Nature-based solutions are actions to restore natural ecosystems. These solutions have the potential to reduce emissions by more than a third of what is needed to stabilise warming to below 2 °C by 2030. Looking at the land footprint of plant protein compared to meat, shifting to more sustainable diets could be considered the ultimate “nature-based solution”.

The protein problem

When it comes to meeting protein demand, animal agriculture is a relatively inefficient way to feed growing populations. For every 100 calories fed to animals, only 17-30 calories are produced as meat. Yet over 70% of the world’s farm animals are now factory farmed, including an estimated 99% of US farm animals. These animals are often fed from crops we could have eaten ourselves (including soy, wheat, oats, barley, or rice).

In terms of addressing food security, the pandemic revealed that current meat supply chains are not robust enough against global shocks. During the pandemic, many US processing facilities were forced to close or reduce their capacity due to outbreaks, social distancing requirements and labour shortages. Sustainable protein options could provide the security that allows us to avoid a food crisis given the soaring protein demand around the world.

The sustainable solution

As Lord Stern at LSE recently recommended to the G7, a transition into alternative protein production will be a crucial way to ease pressure on critical natural resources. Plant-based meat production causes 30-90% less greenhouse gas emissions, uses 72-99% less water, and results in 51-91% less nutrient pollution in aquatic systems. It also puts less pressure on land meaning there could be a chance to restore ecosystems and reverse the loss of global biodiversity. Yet so far, most of the growth in plant-based products has been driven by grassroots consumer demand without much engagement from government. A policy pathway for protein transition is urgently needed to take advantage of this great opportunity for climate risk mitigation and the protection of nature.

There are also huge benefits for human health. Over-consumption of meat is linked to coronary heart disease, diabetes and colon cancer. In some cases, plant-based diets have been used to reverse Type 2 Diabetes. This year, COVID19 has also brought sharp focus on the risks from animal agriculture.  Research from FAIRR shows that animal agriculture is at risk of fostering future pandemics, so diversifying away from animal proteins helps avoid pandemics caused by zoonotic diseases.

Despite these serious health and environmental opportunities, a key obstacle to be overcome is the public resistance to dietary guidance, and being ‘told what to eat’. We’re now seeing an emphasis on freedom of choice, as shown in the UK Government’s recent National Food Strategy, which places the onus on businesses and not on individuals.

Sustainable protein: the next ‘clean energy’ boom?

Just like clean energy, private investment in sustainable protein is growing.

Sustainable proteins are on track to become the next ‘renewable energy’ as they provide both a solution to the climate crisis and contribute towards economic growth. Just like renewable energy, which could result in a net 55% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, plant-based proteins produce 70 times less greenhouse gas emissions than an equivalent amount of beef and use 150 times less land. And similar to job creation in the clean energy sector, the UK’s alternative protein industry has the potential to create up to 10,000 new manufacturing jobs, as well as retain 6,500 farming jobs.  

The UK’s National Food Strategy was a leap forward in offering a managed policy pathway for protein transition. Investors want to see more policymakers outlining a framework for seizing the opportunities presented by sustainable protein as a nature-based solution to climate change, and a way of addressing the health and risks connected with animal agriculture. It’s only a matter of time before the transition is also recognised by G7 leaders as a priority “nature-based solution”.

Helena Wright, policy director at FAIRR

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