Smart protein for a more resilient food system

Fittingly for a year in which Covid-19 wreaks havoc on global health and economic systems, governments and influential institutions are thinking harder than ever about what resilience means in a post-pandemic world. The World Economic Forum’s 51st annual gathering in Davos will focus on rebuilding a more sustainable world through a ‘Great Reset’, with planetary health and climate change top of the agenda. United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres threw his weight behind the Forum, underlining the imperative for “more equal, inclusive and sustainable economies and societies that are more resilient in the face of pandemics, climate change and the many other global changes we face”. It’s a clarion call similar to many we’ve heard before, and particularly one we’ve heard plenty of times this month, from World Environment Day (5 June) through World Oceans Day (8 June), and now on International Climate Change Day. Rebuilding a greener, more sustainable world is clearly top of mind, and WEF’s bringing its considerable convening power with corporations and governments to bear is a huge cause for optimism. But will it be enough?

One area that’s received particular attention in recent years as an unaddressed ‘white space’ in global climate investment has been the food supply, and more particularly, the supply of protein from animals. The large-scale farming, hunting, and slaughter of animals have been highlighted by UN Food & Agriculture Organisation scientists as “one of the top two or three causes of the world’s most pressing environmental problems”. Chickens release 40-60 times more carbon dioxide per calorie of protein than lentils. Over 70% of arable land globally is used to graze or feed animals, steadily encroaching on irreplaceable ecosystems like the Amazon rainforest. No matter which way you look at it, our commitment to staving off climate change and affecting a global reset should incorporate a transition or at least a diversification away from animal protein.

That transition is coming, and the early signs are promising. Companies like Beyond Meat and JUST, which pioneered the concepts of plant-based meat and plant-based eggs respectively, are demonstrating the game-changing gains from remaking legacy animal-sourced foods, without animals.

Beyond Meat’s Ethan Brown switched careers from renewable energy to remaking meat when he realised that protein was a woefully neglected but equally important problem. He drew on research at the University of Missouri and built on the idea that everything in animal meat — amino acids, lipids, minerals — can be sourced from plants. Ten years later, Beyond Meat went public on the New York Stock Exchange — the most successful IPO in decades. Along the way, that success also drew in the major gatekeepers of taste — by the end of 2019, nine out of the top ten US meat producers had invested in or started their own line of plant-based meats. Most encouragingly, Beyond Meat was doing what it had set out to do — demonstrating a model to fix the planet. Their Beyond Burger has the taste, smell, sizzle, and cultural cachet of a legacy beef burger made from cows — but if we swapped just one of the three beef burgers Americans eat every week for the Beyond Burger, it would have benefits equivalent to taking 12.2 million cars off the road, or powering 2.3 million additional homes.

Meanwhile, JUST’s plant-based egg is making waves for all the right reasons too, and is built on a foundation Indians know and love — the mung bean. The San Francisco-based company has championed the idea of harnessing the world’s incredible ‘toolkit’ of plants for nearly a decade, with hugely promising results. Like plant-based meats, their eggs are made entirely from plant ingredients but perform like their animalderived counterparts. As of May 2020, JUST has sold the equivalent of more than 40 million eggs, with a vastly reduced environmental impact — 98% less water, 93% smaller carbon footprint, and 86% less land.

 The early success of plant-based foods is part of a broader swath of ‘smart protein’ companies remaking meat, eggs, and dairy in vastly more sustainable ways — from plants, cultivating steaks directly from animal cells without the need to grow and slaughter the animal, and even using our ancient planetary co-inhabitants like algae and fungi. With the smart protein ecosystem taking off globally, the possibility of building a food system more resilient to climate and pandemic risk has never been more within our grasp. But if the Great Reset is to be successful, we need far more attention and investment dedicated to smart protein. The Great Reset is just beginning — we have the opportunity and the duty to ensure it encompasses perhaps the most neglected problems of all.

Varun Deshpande is Director of The Good Food Institute. Copy edited: Ambika Hiranandani

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