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Sustainable Business 2019

Our taste for meat is endangering our planet: it’s time to switch to alternative proteins


Lisa Sweet

Head of Business Strategy, Centre for Global Public Goods, World Economic Forum

There is hardly a week that goes by without new data becoming available that confirms that our climate or our natural world is changing, possibly irreversibly. While the news is rarely welcome, at least we know better than ever how to reverse the trends. We must make this data count.

The Paris Climate Agreement of 2015 was a triumph of international diplomacy. It was a throwback to the 1980s when an international community – led by a previously skeptical Ronald Reagan – got behind efforts to curb chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and mend the hole in the ozone layer.

Much has changed since 2015 though, with some leaders again focusing on short term rather than long-term priorities. The public, too, struggle to contextualize our climate among the problems they face daily, from inequality to crime.

One huge difference for a healthier, longer life

So, while we remain divided on the seriousness with which we need to address our impending climate catastrophe, I am going to try a new tack. I’m going to highlight one way we can make a huge difference to our sustainability and increase your chances of living a longer, healthier life.

I’m talking about alternative proteins. We all know our food system has a massive influence on our environment, but it also has a massive influence on our health.

In 2010, beef alone was responsible for 25% of all food-related greenhouse gas emissions. With meat demand set to skyrocket in Asia and other emerging regions we need to find a more sustainable way of providing our growing population with protein.

Switching to chicken, pork – even insect – proteins could reduce diet-related deaths

It is possible to provide protein-rich diets for ten billion people. The benefits include drastically reducing carbon emissions, protecting natural ecosystems from further deforestation and land clearance and reducing pressure on water supplies. At the same time, it couldimprove our health and help smallholder farmers make a sustainable living. All this and no one has to give up entirely their love of red meat.

Thanks to some research we conducted with the Oxford Martin School earlier this year for the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos, we were able to make some startling conclusions about the future of food.

Our work was unique in that it sought to establish a linkage between both health and environmental impacts of meat consumption. What we found is that by switching from beef – the base case of the study – to alternative proteins including cultured pork, chicken, all the way down to nuts, insects, beans and, best of all, mycoprotein – the global burden of diet-related deaths could be reduced by 2.4%. This number rises to 5% in high- and upper-middle-income economies where overnutrition is a more common problem.

The alternative protein revolution has started

It is up to us all to help make this switch. Consumers alone can’t do this, but they can play a vital role in helping businesses and governments get behind alternative proteins. We assembled a coalition of leaders from industry, government and civil society in Davos. We got them excited about the agenda based around four key points:

  1. for the food industry to invest in alternative proteins and give consumers more and better tasting choices
  2. for the livestock industry to adopt more sustainable practices
  3. for the feedstock industry to recognise the need for growth in alternative proteins as well as innovating more sustainable feedstock
  4. for governments and regulators to encourage a new wave of alternative proteins and protect the public from potential health risks and unsubstantiated claims

Can we get there? The good news is that many of the world’s largest producers are already on board. In the words of one CEO of a multibillion-dollar food business, “We are moving at tremendous speed to bring innovation, scale and accessibility to provide consumers with sustainable protein options.”

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