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Food’s future is more complicated than the current alternative protein debate

A major new report by IPES-Food, The Politics of Protein: Examining claims about livestock, fish, ‘alternative proteins’ and sustainability, sheds light on misleading generalisations that dominate public discussion about meat and protein, and warns of the risks of falling for meat techno-fixes.

With the climate crisis and threats to food security mounting, meat and protein are firmly in the spotlight.

Big meat, dairy and seafood companies are fast rolling out a range of technologies – such as plant-based alternatives, lab-grown meat, and precision livestock and fish-farming – with the backing of governments worldwide.

But IPES-Food warns that a number of misleading claims dominate public discussion about meat and protein, leading to a disproportionate focus on ‘protein’, a systematic failure to account for differences between production systems and world regions — and ultimately to the wrong solutions.

There are no silver-bullet-style ways to solve the issues, despite the way that the alternative protein sector is often framed, it asserts.

Changes are necessary to ensure the future of the planet and humanity, the report says. A narrow focus on alternative proteins misses the big picture, and policy reform should look both at what’s better for the environment and what consumers can and will adopt. Reforms need to start where they could do the most good — such as increasing biodiversity or access to better nutrition — and not necessarily cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

And Big Food should not be allowed to set the agenda by dominating the current food system and deep investments into rising alternative protein companies, according to the report.

Sustainability is one of the bigger buzzwords in the food business now, with most companies releasing detailed plans about how they will reduce waste and pollution. Few companies address areas like biodiversity and equitable access to nutrition in these plans. insights:

The report from IPES-Food has a major theme: There are many definitions of the term “sustainable.” While it most often means “better for the environment” when it comes to food and beverage, this report brings up the other definitions of the term and how they need to apply to the industry.

By trying to set a simplistic agenda for the future of food — alternative proteins looking to replace meat and animal-derived products, or lowering emissions above all — the nuance of how to truly make the food system sustainable gets a bit lost, the report says.

The current framework to talk about how to set the course for food’s future results in buzzwords or claims that can be deceptive at best. There is no single rising food tech that can by itself change the course of the food system, according to the report.

“As new policy frameworks emerge, and meat and protein continue to rise up the agenda, it remains critical to move beyond misleading claims,” the report says. “If not, there is a risk that general inaction is replaced with misguided action, that precious opportunities to reinvest in food systems are wasted on pathways that are disruptive but not transformative, and that public good is confused with private good.”

IPES-Food is an abbreviation for the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems, a Belgium-based group made of experts from 16 countries across five continents.

The group studies large-scale improvements to the food and agricultural system across the world, and offers a nonpartisan take. IPES-Food has not really focused on food tech in previous studies, but it has taken aim at corporate consolidation.

Consolidation in the meat industry has been in the news recently. Court cases accusing beef, chicken and pork companies of colluding to fix prices have been advancing in the last few years. President Joe Biden announced in January that his administration is giving small meat processors $1-billion to increase competition in the sector because the four largest producers have worked together to ensure prices would continue to rise.

IPES-Food’s report points out that these issues may be extending into the alternative protein sector. Venture firms affiliated with Big Food have invested in many food tech startups. 

Tyson, for example, is an investor in cultured meat companies Future Meat Technologies and Upside Foods, previously known as Memphis Meats. Cargill has also invested in Upside Foods, as well as cultured meat companies Wildtype and Aleph Farms. In plant-based foods, Field Roast and Lightlife are owned by meat producer Maple Leaf Foods, and Sweet Earth is owned by Nestlé.

This kind of corporate participation, the report says, allows the bigger companies to skew the debate and policies, putting too much power over food’s future into the hands of corporations.

For those who want to see either alternative proteins or traditional animal agriculture declared a “winner,” this report does not deliver. It brings up positive and negative aspects of both forms of protein. Yes, alternative proteins may cut down on animal agriculture, but the inputs may require more potentially harmful commodity crop farming, and processing those ingredients adds to the industrial food complex.

And yes, eating meat has been a societal tradition, but those traditions can change based on shifting cultural norms or moves brought about by marketing.

The issue of the future of food is complicated, the report reiterates, and policy decisions to meet the challenges that lie ahead cannot forget that fact.


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