food sustainability

Protein sources for 9 billion people

As we’ve looked at over the last few weeks, increasing global meat production so that everyone on earth can eat a Western style diet is not going to be possible – not with meat as we know it. We don’t have the land, water, or most importantly – the carbon budget. Neither should we want to universalize the Western diet, not with our levels of obesity and heart disease. So we need to find solutions.

Meat isn’t just a matter of taste preference. It’s an important part of nutrition as well, and for many people it has become the primary source of protein. Another way of looking at global meat production in a growing population is to ask how we could provide the protein needs of 9 billion people.

The Carbon Trust recently did some work on this, and in their report The Case for Protein Diversity, they mention five key sources of protein:

  • livestock products, such as meat, dairy and eggs
  • fish and seafood
  • plant-based protein-rich foods, such as grains, pulses, nuts and seeds
  • meat alternatives, such as tofu and mycoprotein 16
  • future foods, including insect protein, algal protein and lab-grown meat.

Diets vary around the world, and the importance of these sources varies too. In Madagascar the primary protein source for most people was grains and pulses, rice and beans in particular. Those in the coastal regions ate more fish.

In Britain, meat and dairy are the main protein sources, although apparently we have quite a varied diet by international standards.

These differences mean that the ideal future diet is going to go in different directions. The Malagasy diet could benefit from a little more dairy, for calcium, and the poorest could eat more meat. In Britain we generally eat too much meat, especially the processed kind in the form of sausages, ham and bacon, which are high in salt. But nutritionists tell us we don’t eat enough fish, or pulses and seeds.

So diets will swing in different directions, and there is no one perfect sustainable diet. What we do know is the environmental impacts of protein sources, and to meet global needs we will need to diversify. Lets run through those five sources again:

  • Red meat and dairy are the worst offenders, ecologically speaking, and consumption will need to come down in the West to allow others to increase the amounts they eat. Chicken and pork are better, if we can deal with animal welfare issues. With the same caveat, eggs offer a good solution too.
  • Overfishing is common in many parts of the world, and we may not be able to sustainably increase global fish harvesting. Ocean farming is a promising avenue for future protein though, especially if it is integrated with the production of sea vegetables. Increasing our protein consumption from fish may depend on new techniques in farming rather than wild catch.
  • Pulses, nuts and wholegrains used to be the primary source of protein for many of us, and continues to be for millions. It ought to be an area for increased substitution in Britain, as we try and curb our national love of processed meats. Unfortunately it’s a tricky sell. In my experience, those used to eating meat regularly feel cheated somehow without a meaty centerpiece ingredient. Perhaps we’ll move in this direction through snacking foods or lunch options, rather than the main meal.
  • Hence the need for meat alternatives, which are more widely available and acceptable than ever. There’s a risk of deforestation for soy plantations, but if this can be done sustainably then there’s plenty of room for growth here. There’s an appetite for innovation too, as foods like tofu and quorn haven’t quite captured the imagination. As a massively oversubscribed crowdfunding campaign for The Vegetarian Butcher showed last year, there is unmet demand for alternatives. And who knows, we might even get over the idea of wanting our meat substitutes to look like meat one of these days.
  • Most radical are the theoretical protein sources of cultured animal products, insect protein and so on. These are on their way, and it’s a matter of branding and perception more than anything else. Nobody ever wanted to tuck into chunks of fungal mycoprotein, after all, until Quorn came along. It will take a while for these to come through, so they may turn out to be a longer term solution, if at all.

We may not be able to expand the Western meat habit to the whole world, even if we wanted to. But we should be able to meet the protein needs of 9 billion people.

For Britain, it will mean less of the most environmentally damaging foods, a greater variety of protein sources, and some creative work on developing and promoting alternatives. It’s a big ask. As the Carbon Trust report states, “for most British people today food choices are deeply embedded within habit, culture and tradition, which do not change easily.” How we encourage change in our diets will have to be another post.

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