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What’s the beef with alternative proteins?

What’s the beef with alternative proteins?

Something extraordinary is happening in the world of energy. 

After at least 400,000 years of burning carbon for its energy (and cooking) needs, a combination of clean energy policies and market dynamics is helping the world power past burning. 

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For the first time ever, the EU generated more electricity from wind and solar than gas last year. 

Across the world, cheap wind and solar energy are driving fossil fuels out of the power mix, and electric vehicles and heat pumps are destroying demand for oil and gas from some of the most energy-hungry applications.

The world of food may be about to experience a similar transformation, and not a moment too soon. 

Scientists warn that there’s no chance to limit global warming to 1.5ºC without major changes to what we eat and how we produce it.

Industrial animal agriculture plays an outsized role in driving emissions in the food sector. 

Over a third (36%) of emissions linked to consumption in the EU comes from the food we eat, with animal products accounting for 70% of that impact, most of it coming from industrial animal farming. 

Moreover, meat and dairy production are the single largest source of methane emissions in the EU. 

With projections showing meat production in Europe to keep growing until 2030, urgent and effective interventions in the meat sector are necessary to reach net zero by 2050.

Major technological advancements in plant-based, fermentation-derived and cultivated meats, collectively known as alternative proteins (APs), are now offering an additional option to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with meat production by up to 90% and reduce land use by up to 95% — the livestock sector takes up over 70% of Europe’s farmland.

The biggest climate bang for the buck

Alternative proteins open up an opportunity to forego the most intensive, large-scale livestock farming because they are like-for-like products that rival industrial meat in taste, price, nutrition, and convenience. 

Alongside pulses, legumes and whole grains, APs can provide an alternative to industrial meat production as demand for protein soars in coming years. 

Nature-friendly farmers should welcome this new technology, not least because the more alternative proteins that are consumed, the more space there will be for less intensive, smaller-scale farming and the wilder habitats that are essential for any sustainable farming system. 

High uptake of alternative proteins would free up enough land to meet Europe’s 25% organic farming target while meeting its goal of climate neutrality.

A store clerk shows plant based products at a supermarket chain in Brussels, October 2020AP Photo/Francisco Seco

In fact, high uptake of alternative proteins would free up enough land to meet Europe’s 25% organic farming target while meeting its goal of climate neutrality. 

Moreover, given how consolidated the meat and dairy industries are, publicly-supported and well-regulated alternative protein production has the potential to redistribute power among farmers and decrease monopolies in food systems.

Investments in plant-based meat provide the biggest climate bang for the buck. Each euro invested in improving and scaling up the production of APs results in 14 times more emissions savings than clean power. 

However, private and public investments in alternative proteins (€4.6 billion and €920 million respectively) are still tiny compared to the approximately €1.56 trillion that goes to clean energy annually.

A major risk to climate change and nature protection efforts

More worryingly than the low levels of investment is the fact that the promising AP technology is at risk of getting entangled in the more extreme manifestations of the emotionally charged politics of food, land and identity. 

Italy’s far-right government, supported by the influential farm lobby Coldiretti, has recently moved to ban cultivated meat («artificial food» as they call it) and «meat terms» for plant-based products as part of an effort to «safeguard domestic production from the attacks of multinational companies». 

Several other countries have since made similar moves, and are now taking the debate to the EU’s Agriculture Ministerial gathering in Brussels this week.

By promoting plant-based and alternative proteins, we can potentially avoid many of the projected 390,000 deaths per year in the EU due to the excessive use of antibiotics in farmed animals.

A chef prepares a lab-grown steak during a presentation in Jaffa, January 2019AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov

As a result of this, APs are joining the ranks of solar panels, windmills, batteries, EVs and heat pumps, a set of technologies that have come to symbolise the success of the European Green Deal but also turned into a lightning rod for the far-right and their strategy of fueling culture wars and promoting conspiracy theories to gain power. 

Unlike these other energy-related tech, APs are still at a much earlier stage of development, both in terms of maturity of the technology and market penetration. 

Thus, APs are more vulnerable to their growth being stymied at the moment, posing major risks for EU efforts to fight climate change and protect nature.

Even with a modest global market share of 11% by 2035, APs would save 850 million tonnes of CO2 by 2030, equivalent to 95% of global aviation emissions. Moreover, scaling up AP production has the potential to generate up to 83 million jobs and create nearly €645bn worth of economic activity by 2050 worldwide.

In addition to creating jobs, the emerging sector comes with significant benefits for public health. By promoting plant-based and alternative proteins, we can potentially avoid many of the projected 390,000 deaths per year in the EU due to the excessive use of antibiotics in farmed animals. 

Additionally, industrial livestock is a key driver of zoonotic diseases like COVID-19, while red and processed meat consumption is a leading risk factor for colorectal cancer, diabetes and heart attacks. A shift to plant-based diets can help reduce costs for healthcare systems associated with these diseases.

Alternative proteins need help to play their part

The reliance on crops for feeding animals has far-reaching implications for food security too. 

Two-thirds of all cereals consumed in the EU don’t end up on the plates of Europeans but in the bellies of cows, pigs and chickens, driving up grain prices and pushing out smallholders and pastoralists from their land. 

Most soy and cereals for animal feed are imported, increasing the continent’s dependence on foreign land.

Governments of EU member states and the European Commission have mobilised billions of euros and passed legislation to support research, innovation and deployment of renewables and EVs to clean up energy and transport, promote energy security and deliver a just transition. 

As the European Green Deal now enters a critical phase, an equivalent effort is needed to help alternative proteins take off and play their part in delivering EU food and climate security.

Nusa Urbancic is CEO of Changing Markets; Pieter de Pous is Programme Leader of E3G: Dustin Benton is Policy Director at Green Alliance; and Nico Muzi serves as Managing Director of Madre Brava.

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