Protein: better alternatives for animals, people and planet?

The rise in popularity of the Veganuary movement is evidence of a growing trend for meat and dairy-free diets. 

Perry Rudd, Head of Ethical Research, Rathbone Greenbank Investments

Motivation for these alternative choices might stem from the desire to reduce animal exploitation, diminish environmental impact, or minimise health risks. But individual choice aside, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to meet the protein needs of a growing global population through animal‑based foods, particularly among the aspiring middle classes in emerging economies.

Global trends

With consumption levels of meat-derived protein in wealthier countries already exceeding recommended intakes (most Americans consume more than 1.5 times the average daily requirement), people in developing countries are striving to emulate the ‘Western’ diet.

Meanwhile, the scientific community is addressing the joint threat of widespread malnutrition and the damaging effects that the overuse of land, water and energy for agriculture are having on our climate. Should the world’s population reach the predicted 9.8 billion in 2050, demand for animal-based food is expected to increase by 80% from 2006 levels, with beef increasing by 95%. This rise in demand will be driven particularly by China and Brazil.

Environmental impacts

In May 2018, scientists behind the most comprehensive analysis to date of the damaging impacts of farming declared that avoiding meat and dairy products was the single biggest thing an individual could do to help reduce environmental harm. The report, published in the journal Science, identified this solution as being significantly more effective than reducing air travel or buying an electric car.

Beef production requires 20-times more land and emits 20-times more greenhouse

gas emissions per unit of edible protein than plant-based sources such as beans, peas and lentils. Indeed, if the world’s cattle were a nation, they would rank third in terms of greenhouse gas emissions behind China and the US.

Health impacts

As well as the personal health benefits of reducing red meat and dairy consumption, there are concerns about the impacts of industrial meat production on wider consumer health. Transmissible bacterial infections, such as salmonella and campylobacter from contaminated poultry, can quickly spread through large farms, while intensive livestock

production has been implicated in a series of global health scares. It’s estimated that the 2014-15 bird flu outbreak in the US led to the cull of 42 million chickens, costing the economy almost $3.3 billion.

Antibiotic resistance (see pages 4-5) is also a key risk with intensive livestock rearing reliant on routine doses of antibiotics to prevent diseases. Indeed, the overuse and misuse of antibiotics in cattle farming (accounting for 75% of all antibiotics sold in the US and around 55% in the EU) has contributed to the development of antimicrobial resistance.

Dietary changes

There were over 250,000 signatories to the 2019 Veganuary campaign. Established practices such as vegetarianism and veganism have recently been joined by flexitarianism, a semi-vegetarian dietary trend that favours a largely plant-based diet with the occasional inclusion of meat.

According to Waitrose, a third of UK consumers say they have deliberately reduced the amount of meat they eat or removed it from their diet entirely. One in eight Britons are vegetarian or vegan and a further 21% say they are flexitarian.

Beyond plants: alternative sources of protein

— Sales of meat alternative Quorn rose 12% in the first half of 2018; the company is set to spend £7 million in research and development this financial year.

— In November 2018, Beyond Meat, a Californian producer of plant-based meat substitutes, announced it was attempting to raise $100 million on the back of rapidly growing interest in vegan foods.

— Tesco, Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and Iceland are all expected to launch (or have launched) ‘bleeding vegan burgers’, inspired by California-based Impossible Foods, which has managed to replicate the taste and nutritional benefits of beef with plant-based products.

— Mealworm protein for animal feed is already supported extensively, with companies such as Beta Hatch having successfully raised initial funding of $2.1 million.

New technology

Current discussions around protein sources are dominated by news of start-ups offering synthetically produced alternatives in the form of lab-grown meat and fish. Advocates for cellular agriculture argue that the process is more efficient in terms of land, water and energy consumption.

— Dutch company Mosa Meat has already raised $8.8 million to commercialise its lab-grown meat, aiming to reduce the cost of its synthetically-grown beef burger to $10 per unit by 2021 (the 2013 prototype cost $330,000 to produce).

— San Francisco-based Just is developing lab-grown foie gras, while California’s Finless Foods is researching cellular agriculture for a range of luxury seafood.

— Along with Bill Gates, Tyson Foods Venture Capital has invested in Memphis Meats, a lab-grown meat producer in the US.

To date, little is known about the environmental impact of lab-grown protein, but it’s argued that with enough time and capital, technology will improve and the effects of economies of scale will allow cellular agriculture to become energy, cost and time-efficient. The time and money being invested in researching protein alternatives nevertheless indicates a growing number of options that businesses will have to commercialise healthier and lower-impact sources of protein.

We are grateful to our intern, Charlie Meyrick, for his work in researching this topic.