Transforming Food Systems: Role of Novel Protein Alternatives

Published on 12th December 2023

Novel alternatives to conventionally produced animal products such as meat and dairy could slow the triple planetary crisis – the crisis of climate change, the crisis of nature and biodiversity loss and the crisis of pollution and waste.

What and how we eat impacts planetary, human, and animal health. Food systems contribute over 30 per cent of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, with animal agriculture being a major player. We see the conversion of nature, through damaging processes such as deforestation to rear livestock and grow feed, pollution of soil and water, and risks of zoonotic diseases and antimicrobial resistance. There are also human health concerns about over-consumption of red and processed meat. These problems and more are all captured in the One Health approach, which treats the improvement of human, animal, plant and ecosystem health as one linked challenge.

Nobody is saying that animal products are bad, but it is well understood that switching to a more diverse diet would benefit people, nature, the climate and animals themselves. To see this understanding in action, look no further than this COP, where two-thirds of the food being served is plant-based.

So, we must look at our options, which is what this report does by exploring novel plant-based meats, cultivated meat from animal cells and alternatives produced through rapid fermentation. The assessment shows that these products could address a number of issues I already outlined, particularly in high- and middle-income countries. There are caveats. There are gaps in understanding of the full nutritional benefits and drawbacks. Evidence on cultured meat and fermentation is limited. Cost, taste and social acceptability will have a big say on whether these products are accepted or not.

We would also need to ensure a just transition. A lot of people rely on animal products for their nutritional needs, their livelihoods and many people cannot afford more expensive, if more sustainable, products. Policymakers will have to take steps to safeguard food security, jobs, livelihoods, social and gender equity, and culture. Many of these steps and policies are outlined in the report.

The bottom line is that our food systems must be transformed to provide everyone with a healthy, nutritious diet while not harming the planet – which they have been failing to do. More government support, internationally agreed safety standards, supportive trade policies and collaboration on open access research can help unlock the potential of these novel foods for some countries and speed up the transformation we need to reduce the impacts of animal agriculture.

By Inger Andersen

Executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme

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