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I don’t eat meat anymore, but I used to rely on it as my main source of protein. Many other people still do. But meat is also responsible for roughly twice the global greenhouse gas emissions as plant-based food and more nitrogen pollution than Earth can handle, as well as being a leading driver of illegal deforestation.
So where else can we get our protein, without livestock’s environmental hangover? A host of alternative proteins are competing, from plant-based ones (currently mostly wheat, soy or pea-based options) and “lab-grown” meat to insects and microbes that make animal proteins.
A food strategy commissioned by the UK government said last year that the country should develop alternative proteins. Today, alternative meat is worth just 1 per cent of the global meat industry, but some experts think it could reach 10 per cent by 2029.
This week’s Fix the Planet takes a closer look at some of the options and the potential pitfalls in the transition to alternative proteins.
Do we really need to shift to alternative proteins?
It’s worth saying that, in the UK at least, most people eat more protein than they need, about 50 per cent more on average than guidelines recommend. So we don’t need a completely like-for-like replacement for protein from meat. But looking beyond today to a world of 9 billion people in 2050 , Wendy Russell at University of Aberdeen, UK, says the status quo would require 465 billion kilograms of meat. That isn’t feasible in terms of land and water use, she says, let alone carbon emissions. “We really do need to change our diet,” says Russell.
Which alternatives are ready?
“There is no shortage of ideas around how we can get alternatives to meat,” says Guy Poppy at the University of Southampton, UK. You may have seen that lab-grown meat is on sale in Singapore. However, it’s the only place in the world where it’s been approved for sale so far, the nuggets cost about $23 for four and the bulk of them is made from plant protein. The UK regulator, the Food Standards Agency (FSA), says it has no applications lodged to sell lab-grown meat. Scaling up production of lab-grown meat remains hard.
By comparison, food with plant-based protein has proliferated, from the soy and wheat-based “facon” and other products now sold in supermarkets to the soy-based “bleeding” burgers of Impossible Foods. Insects are also on the agenda, with two applications placed with the FSA in the UK and the EU recently green-lighting yellow mealworms. Then there are companies pursuing other routes, such as UK-Dutch company Deep Branch, which plans to use carbon dioxide, microbes and fermentation to make animal feed that is lower carbon and uses less water than conventional feed. The firm is finishing a new facility, based in the Netherlands, in the next few weeks.
What about more far-out stuff?
One prospect is using gorse, a plant that is widespread in parts of the UK, especially Scotland. “Gorse is a really interesting plant because it’s actively being removed; people are using large amounts of herbicide and burning it back,” says Russell. “We know it was fed to cattle in the past. We do think protein from gorse could be used as animal food.” If protein isolates from gorse were shown to be safe, they could be considered for human food in the future too, she says. “It’s not off the cards.” Hemp also holds future promise as protein for humans, says Russell, who notes that several Scottish farmers have recently replaced cattle with growing hemp instead.
In the UK, no edible insects are currently approved for consumption, apart from a German cheese mite. However, there are two applications being reviewed by the FSA. Responding to criticism that UK regulations are holding back progress, Robin May at the FSA says: “We are really keen to do everything we can to get industry to get those products moving forward. The key point is they have to be safe and they have to approved.” I’ve also written before about stuff further down the line, such as the idea of a “Quorn of mussels” turning bivalves into more attractive food, such as a burger (you can read more on that idea in a recent peer-reviewed paper).
What are the potential downsides?
Arguably, the biggest one is that environmental gains from alternative proteins will be at the cost of people’s health, if processed alternative products add too much fat, salt and sugar. “In the rush forward, will plant-based proteins be the junk food of the future?” says Poppy. Ian Givens at the University of Reading, UK, says environmental benefits might be better considered in the context of the nutrition that meat alternatives offer. “I do wonder whether the way environmental impacts of food are currently judged should be more aligned to the nutritional contributions food makes,” he says. For example, with milk, perhaps environmental cost could be measured per milligram of calcium, he says.
How do we label products effectively?
“It’s extremely complicated,” says May. But he adds: “There is a real place for eco labelling.” The trickiness is in the science behind the labels – measuring emissions, how land for food production might alternatively be used, how products are shipped and so on. The difficulty also lies in how people use the labels: May says the average person spends just 6 to 7 seconds looking at a product when they’re shopping. For that reason, he thinks a traffic light scheme, akin to nutrition labelling, might work best. While the idea is a “a very active topic of discussion” between the FSA, food firms and government departments, May says there are no eco label plans “with a hard date” yet.
Thanks to everyone who responded to last week’s newsletter on things to watch in 2022 with their own suggestions. One reader pointed out that on floating wind, which I mentioned, a major demonstration project off the coast of Norway is due to be installed by the end of March. Another pointed me to this great list of 2022 prospects, including the proliferation of car-free cities and falling renewable costs. And one subscriber rightly noted that I’d missed out geoengineering, which could be back on the agenda if a pilot project in Sweden that was postponed last year goes ahead in mid-2022 as its backers hope.
As always, I can’t respond to every one of your emails but I do read them all, so keep them coming, and please do share Fix the Planet with a friend if you think they’d enjoy it.
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