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Alternative proteins can cut deaths by 5% and food-related greenhouse gas emissions by 25%



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New report sets out benefits of switching from meat to alternatives such as mycoprotein, algae, peas, insects and cultured meat

Meeting the world’s growing demand for protein nutrition through sources of protein other than meat could prevent millions of unnecessary deaths per year and drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, according to new research conducted by the Oxford Martin School for the World Economic Forum.

The report, Alternative Proteins, by the School's Director, Professor Sir Charles Godfray, also finds that the nutritional needs for a future world population of 10 billion can be met sustainably, and with positive health consequences, through a combination of innovative protein sources, improved production systems and changed consumer behaviour.

The report is unique in its focus on both the human health and environmental impacts of meat consumption. For human health, the research finds that switching from beef – the base case of the analysis – to other protein sources could reduce the overall global burden of diet-related deaths by 2.4%, with that number climbing to 5% in high- and upper-middle-income countries. This will be increasingly important given the projected demand for meat from emerging middle classes.

Net health effects of substituting beef with different food types globally and by national income class. HIC: high-income country; UMIC: upper-middle-income country; LMIC: lower-middle-income country; LIC: lower-income country.

At the same time, in terms of environmental impact, 2010 data shows that production of beef alone was responsible for 25% of all food-related greenhouse gas emissions. With demand for protein set to soar, such demand will place huge pressure on the environment. The report finds a striking difference between the greenhouse gas emissions of beef production and other sources of protein. While beef, for example, has an emissions intensity of 23.9 kilograms of CO2 equivalent per 200kcal, beans, insects, wheat and nuts emit 1 kilogram or less CO2 equivalent for the same nutritional value. Other sources such as tofu, pork, alga and chicken produce only 3-6 kilograms CO2 equivalent.

Writing in the report, Professor Godfray said: "Transformation of the food system is essential to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals and to meet the Paris Agreement climate change targets. 

"For the foreseeable future, the meat and alternative‑protein industries will coexist and have the opportunity to complement one other. Both incumbents and new players, and the various stakeholders who are involved throughout the protein supply chains, will gain from a nuanced debate about how to evolve and reshape regional and ultimately global food systems to provide healthy and sustainable diets.

"Only through dialogue and structured collaboration will society be able to transform the protein system, to create a future where safe, sustainable, affordable and healthy protein is provided to all."

The 13 sources of protein analysed in the report include beef, pork and chicken; fruits and vegetables that can be eaten naturally or processed, such as beans and peas; processed non-animal substitutes such as tofu, wheat-gluten products or mycoprotein; and novel products such as cultured meat, insects and alga spirulina.

“It will be impossible to sustainably satisfy the world’s future demand for meat. What this report shows is that it can be possible to produce enough nutrition for 10 billion people and improve people’s health without necessarily giving up meat – even red meat – altogether, through innovation in products, improvements in how we produce beef, pork and chicken, and an effort on the part of the consumer to embrace a more diverse diet,” said Dominic Waughray, Managing Director, World Economic Forum.

While the data highlights the positive joint health and environmental benefits of alternative proteins, it also details the scale of the challenge in building a more sustainable food system. On the technical side, for example, while lab-grown beef is seen by many as a much more environmentally friendly alternative to traditionally-reared beef, the report finds that current production methods are energy intensive. The report notes the possibility of changing this trajectory: as production processes mature and production is scaled up, leveraging renewable energy sourcing and localizing production in cities (much like craft beer is today), the environmental benefits of lab-grown meat could be enhanced significantly.

As important as the technical (and corresponding financial) side of innovation is, a positive story around alternative proteins is also needed to change political thinking. With each of these elements in place, we could be in line for a true transformation. The report calls for transformation in four sectors:

· The food industry, which is called on to invest in new alternative proteins to help scale up production and offer consumers a wider range of options

· The livestock industry, which must work with others (including government) to develop incentives for farmers to adopt more sustainable production processes

· The feedstock industry, where production must shift towards creating inputs for alternative proteins (alongside creating more sustainable feedstock)

· Government and regulators, which must design rules to govern a wave of new alternative proteins to protect the public from health risks and unsubstantiated claims, and to support the various sectors in their transformations

Supporting farmers

Another important message in the report is that alternative protein is only one part of the solution to make food production more sustainable and human lives healthier. For instance, the report also calls for animal feed innovation, such as insects, which present a critical opportunity, particularly for farmers in Europe and North America.

According to a sister analysis prepared by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) for the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2019, Options for the Livestock Sector in Developing and Emerging Economies to 2030 and Beyond, another key part of the protein story is smallholder farmers.

This report highlights that 75% of all livestock-derived foods in Asia and 72% in Africa in 2010 were produced by small farms. These farmers live and work in very different circumstances. For instance, there were approximately 750 million rural poor livestock keepers living on less than $2 income per day in South Asia, East Asia and Pacific and Sub-Saharan Africa.

With 70% or more of their total production costs going to labour and input costs, unique methods of sustainable intensification will be required. Ensuring that farmers can improve their livelihood and better manage their environmental impact of the livestock they keep will be a key factor in achieving a sustainable food system.