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I no longer eat meat, but depended on it as my main source of protein. Lots of other people still do it. But meat is also responsible for around twice the global greenhouse gas emissions than plant-based foods and more nitrogen pollution than the Earth can bear, while being one of the main drivers of illegal deforestation.
So where can we get our protein, without the environmental hangover of cattle? A host of alternative proteins compete, from plant proteins (currently mostly wheat, soy, or pea-based options) and “lab-grown” meat to insects and microbes that make animal protein.
A food strategy commissioned by the British government noted last year that the country needed to develop alternative proteins. Today, alternative meat represents only 1% of the global meat industry, but some experts believe it could reach 10% by 2029.
This week’s Fix the Planet takes a closer look at some of the options and potential pitfalls of transitioning to alternative proteins.
Do we really need to switch to alternative proteins?
It’s worth saying that in the UK at least, most people eat more protein than they need, around 50% more on average than the guidelines recommend. So we don’t need a completely identical substitute for meat protein. But looking beyond today to a world of 9 billion people in 2050 , Wendy Russell of the University of Aberdeen, UK, says the status quo would require 465 billion kilograms of meat. It’s not feasible in terms of land and water use, she says, not to mention carbon emissions. “We really need to change our diet,” says Russell.
What alternatives are ready?
“There is no shortage of ideas on how to get alternatives to meat,” says Guy Poppy of the University of Southampton, UK. You may have seen this Lab-grown meat goes on sale in Singapore. However, this is the only place in the world where it has been approved for sale so far, the nuggets cost around $23 for four and the bulk of them are made from plant protein. Britain’s regulator, the Food Standards Agency (FSA), says no applications have been made to sell lab-grown meat. Increasing the production of lab-grown meat remains challenging.
By comparison, plant-based protein foods have proliferated, from soy- and wheat-based “ways” and other products now sold in supermarkets to Impossible Foods’ soy-based “rare” burgers. Insects are also on the agenda, with two applications filed with the FSA in the UK and the The EU recently gave the green light to yellow mealworms. Then there are companies pursuing other paths, such as the Anglo-Dutch company deep branch, which plans to use carbon dioxide, microbes and fermentation to make animal feed that is low in carbon and uses less water than conventional feed. The company is completing a new facility, based in the Netherlands, in the coming weeks.
What about more distant stuff?
One perspective uses gorse, a plant common in parts of the UK, particularly Scotland. “The gorse is a really interesting plant because it is actively eliminated; people use large amounts of herbicides and burn them,” says Russell. “We know it has been fed to cattle in the past. We believe gorse protein could be used as animal feed. If gorse protein isolates prove safe, they could also be considered for human consumption in the future, she says. “It’s not on the cards.” Hemp also shows promise as a 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 except for a German mite. However, two applications are under review by the FSA. Responding to criticism that UK regulations are holding back progress, Robin May of the FSA said: “We are really keen to do everything we can to get the industry to move these products forward. The key point is that they must be safe and they must be trusted. I have also written before about things further down the line, like the idea of a “Mussel Quorn” turning bivalves into more appealing food, like a hamburger (you can read more about this idea in a recent peer-reviewed article).
What are the potential downsides?
Perhaps most importantly, the environmental gains of alternative proteins will come at the expense of people’s health, if processed alternatives add too much fat, salt and sugar. “In the rush, will plant-based proteins be the junk food of the future?” said Poppy. Ian Givens from the University of Reading, UK, says the environmental benefits could be best considered in the context of the nutrition offered by meat alternatives. “I wonder if the way the environmental impacts of food are currently judged shouldn’t be more aligned with the nutritional contributions of food,” he says. For example, with milk, perhaps the environmental cost could be measured per milligram of calcium, he says.
How to effectively label products?
“It’s extremely complicated,” says May. But he adds: “There is a real place for eco-labelling.” The difficulty lies in the science behind the labels – measuring emissions, how land for food production could be alternatively used, how products are shipped, etc. The difficulty also lies in the way people use labels: May says the average person only spends 6-7 seconds looking at a product when shopping. For this reason, he thinks a traffic light system, similar to nutrition labelling, might work better. While the idea is a “very active topic of discussion” between the FSA, food companies and government departments, May says there are no plans for an eco-label yet “with a specific date”.
Thanks to everyone who responded to last week’s newsletter on things to watch for in 2022 with their own suggestions. A reader remarked that on the fluttering wind, which I mentioned, a large demonstration project off Norway should be installed at the end of March. Another told me this big list of prospects 2022, including the proliferation of car-free cities and falling renewable energy costs. And a follower rightly noted that I had missed out on geoengineering, which might come back on the agenda if a pilot project in Sweden which was postponed last year continues in mid-2022 as his supporters hope.
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