Addressing the protein needs of a growing world population will prove difficult, given emissions goals.
Addressing the looming protein challenge in light of an anticipated global population of 10 billion by 2050 is a paramount concern.
Western dietary tendencies, marked by high protein consumption, are untenable if our ambition is to align with the UN Sustainable Development Goals and fulfil the commitments of global climate agreements to reduce methane and carbon emissions.
In recent years, media has highlighted the potential of alternative proteins, encompassing innovations such as plant-based burgers, edible insects, and lab-grown meats.
Their emergence signals a growing recognition of the environmental and health implications tied to conventional animal farming. However, even with such advancements, the path ahead is riddled with complexities.
Our primary challenge is to ensure the burgeoning global populace has access to ample, healthy protein sources that are affordable and eco-friendly.
At its core, the protein issue isn’t just about satiating hunger or meeting dietary needs; it’s intricately tied to our ecosystem, global health metrics, and the livelihood of billions.
According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Division, if current trends persist, there could be a two-fold surge in meat production by 2050.
Such a spike would have profound environmental repercussions. For instance, the agriculture sector (including forestry) currently contributes to an estimated 14.9 per cent of total anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, accelerating climate change.
Moreover, on the health front, there’s an ironic dichotomy. While meat, rich in energy and protein, could potentially address undernutrition, its overconsumption is a contemporary health concern.
In total, 65 per cent of the world’s inhabitants grapple with nutrition-related challenges, either being undernourished or succumbing to obesity and related diseases.
In the socio-economic arena, livestock isn’t just about food; it’s a key livelihood for over a billion people worldwide, further underscoring its multifaceted significance.
The financial dynamics present another layer of complexity. While alternative protein sources epitomise sustainability, their current high relative pricing places them at a disadvantage against traditional meats. This economic disparity disincentivises consumers, who might view them as luxury items, and producers, who remain tethered to more conventional production methods.
Reflecting on the renewable energy sector might offer insights. For example, the transition to solar energy was initially hampered by high costs. But with strategic policy interventions and subsidies, solar module prices plummeted, which spurred adoption. A parallel approach could potentially democratise access to sustainable protein sources.
Cultural contexts and deeply entrenched food traditions further complicate this transition. Global shifts towards alternative proteins will be non-linear, dictated by regional preferences and beliefs. Sole reliance on market dynamics or isolated technological breakthroughs won’t suffice.
The deep-seated cultural reverence and emotional attachment to meat, evident in numerous societies, mandate a holistic approach. Crafting resonant narratives will be indispensable.
As an illustration, China, which has been investing heavily in lab-grown meat technologies, also grapples with food safety concerns. Highlighting the controlled, sterile environments of cultured meat production might assuage such apprehensions and pave the way for its mainstream acceptance.
Collaborative frameworks will undoubtedly be the linchpin in driving this transition. Reflecting on historical precedents, the 1970s Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) offers a blueprint.
Established during a food crisis, CGIAR facilitated the green revolution, adapting regionspecific strategies to boost crop yields. Perhaps the protein challenge calls for a modern day CGIAR equivalent, a global consortium championing protein diversification through research, innovation, and regional strategies.
As the shadow of a 10 billionstrong population looms, the call for a sustainable protein solution grows more urgent. This global endeavour, while daunting, can be addressed through concerted, collaborative efforts, informed strategies, and resonant narratives.
The goal is clear: a future where protein is accessible, affordable, healthy, and in harmony with our planet. This future is likely to include both traditional meat production and alternative plant-based protein production systems solving the protein shortfall in a combined manner.
• Matt Dalgleish is co-founder and director of Episode 3 (EP3)