Changing The Climate: The Role of Alternative Proteins
“You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.”
– Dr. Jane Goodall
As we go about our daily lives, 45,000 participantsare gathered in Sharm-el-Sheikh, Egypt for the 2022 UN Climate Change Conference, commonly known as COP27. The main goal of this conference is for country heads to accelerate implementation of climate action and follow-up on the pledges and Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) that were made at the previous conference. COP27 will focus on ways to reduce global emissions, build resilience, adapt to climate change and secure technical support and funding, particularly for developing countries.
Climate change is the single biggest existential threat facing humankind today. Global temperatures have risen by 1.1°C as compared to 1850 levels.An increase of 2°C or above could have catastrophic and irreversible implications for the global population. Recognising the urgency of the situation, countries agreed to cut Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels under the Paris Agreement in 2015. Regrettably, a gap analysis published by UN Environment Programme (UNEP) just a week before COP27 stated that there were no longer any viable pathways available to achieve the 1.5°C threshold by 2030. Knowing this crucial piece of information has made the conference even more pivotal.
We currently emit 52.8 gigatons of CO2 Equivalent (GtCO2e) GHG emissions, a number which is predicted to grow to 58 GtCO2e by 2030.This will take us 15 GtCO2e away from the 2°C pathway and 23 GtCO2e away from the 1.5°C pathway. To meet the 1.5°C threshold, a 44% reduction in current emissions will be needed to achieve the targets – a herculean task. Our food system, which emits a third of global emissions, will play a crucial role. Animal agriculture amounts to a significant component at 14.5% of total global emissions, a major culprit in food system emissions. When we compare animal products to their plant-based counterparts, we find that on average, GHG emissions from plant-based products are 30-90% lower than conventional products. Beef and cheese alternatives lead to higher emission reductions as compared to poultry, but the percentage reductions are quite significant across the board.
Plant-based meat currently commands 1.4% of the conventional meat market.Experts predict alternative proteins will command between 7% to 14% of the conventional animal agriculture market share by 2030. With a 7% market share, alternative proteins would contribute to 293 billion Kg of CO2e reduction which is equivalent to approximately 2% of the 15 GtCO2e emission gap identified for the 2°C pathway. At a 14% market share, they would contribute to twice the reduction in emissions. Although these projections are for plant-based meat alternatives and could differ for fermentation and cultivated meat technologies which are yet to come online in a meaningful way, they present a compelling argument to move toward a meatless future. It is no wonder that a report from BCG and Blue Horizon concluded that alternative proteins will save 3x the emissions for each dollar invested compared with the next best alternative (pun intended!).
A Cascading Impact
No other sector has a wider range of implications than animal agriculture, which spans not only climate change but also resource usage (land, water and energy), sustainability (biodiversity, ocean health), human health (antibiotic usage, chronic & zoonotic disease), animal welfare (farm animals, fish), and human livelihood (smallholder farmers, workers in processing plants). This impact can be summarised across three broad areas: environmental, economic and socio-political. As we replace animal agriculture with more sustainable sources of food, we see a cascading impact across these areas.
We stand to reap a range of environmental benefits from reducing our animal product consumption. Producing 1 Kg of beef requires 326.21m2 of land, 1,451 litres of freshwater and emits approximately 27 Kg of CO2e GHG emissions.Producing 1 Kg of pulses (beans and legumes) with similar protein content requires only 15.57m2 of land, 436 litres of freshwater and emits 1.4 Kg of CO2e GHG emissions. The 95% additional land reclaimed as a result of the switch to alternative proteins can then be used to create incremental impact such as reforestation for carbon sequestration and biodiversity preservation. The 1,000 litres of water saved can alleviate the water shortage problem for at least 10-20 people for a day. While 1 Kg of beef and 1 Kg of pulses may differ in terms of nutritional content, plant-based alternatives can be enhanced nutritionally to make them identical or improved versions of their conventional counterparts. Even at this early stage of development, the burgers offered by Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat both already contain lower fat content when compared to conventional beef burgers (of the same weight) and are also free from cholesterol. The environmental footprint of the enhanced alternative product may increase as a result but it is unlikely to move the needle in a meaningful way. Beyond these direct savings, there will be reduction in manure, feed, and animal excreta run-off into waterbodies which will contribute to incremental methane emission reduction on the ocean floor, a gas which is 84x more potent than CO2.
The economic implications of this change are myriad. Two million deaths in 2019 were from causes linked to red meat, processed meat and dairy consumption.It is no surprise, then, that in 2015 the World Health Organization placed processed meats in the same category of cancer risk as asbestos and smoking cigarettes. As a result, if meat consumption is reduced to the recommended daily amounts (14g of red meat, 29g of poultry, and 28g of fish), we would capture $234 billion in environmental benefits and $735 billion in reduced healthcare costs per annum. Furthermore, the meat and dairy industries are recipients of almost $38 billion in subsidies in the U.S. alone. Global estimates state that approximately 22% of all agricultural subsidies are aimed at the meat industry and approximately 10% for the dairy industry. Eliminating these subsidies will increase the price of conventional meat, enabling alternative protein products to attain price parity faster and unlocking new consumer segments as a result.
The socio-political implications of this transformation are no less compelling. Meat consumption patterns across developed and developing countries could not be more different. While the per capita meat consumption in the U.S. is 151 Kg, the same in developing countries such as China and India is 102 Kg and 12 Kg, respectively.The disparity not only exists in the amount of meat but also the type of meat – developing countries invariably consume more white meat with a lower environmental footprint while developed countries prefer red meat such as beef, which has the highest environmental footprint. Thus, to drive change in behaviour, we must examine these dynamics closely. It is hard for countries and consumers dealing with basic survival issues of hunger, poverty and malnutrition on a daily basis to recognise the importance of climate change. The reduction in per capita meat consumption needs to be equitable to account for the these factors. The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) identifies small holder farmers as a key stakeholder and describes their position as being on the frontlines of climate change. Unlike developed countries where most of the meat industry is controlled by large conglomerates and multinationals, in the developing world, an estimated one billion smallholder farmers depend on livestock for food and income. These smallholder farmers are also often engaged in agriculture in addition to employing more sustainable and humane means of livestock rearing. Livestock not only provides food for their families but also helps generate additional income and acts as a crisis buffer. Although a reduction in meat consumption and a transition to alternative proteins carries the risk of displacing the small holder farmers, there remains an opportunity to instead improve their living conditions by incorporating ingredients of local agricultural origins with higher nutritional content. Leveraging on the shift in consumption patterns and focusing on niche, localised crops that might not be readily available elsewhere would also help create a better and more sustainable food system. We must engage smallholder farmers and ensure they are not just a part of, but are a key contributor, to this transition fuelled by the potential of alternative proteins.
A Call To Action
Substituting one kilogram of beef with a plant-based alternative would cut emissions from 36.7 Kg of CO2e to 5.2 Kg of CO2e – the emission reduction equivalent of avoiding 3.5 gallons of gasoline (driving a car for 125 Km).If alternative proteins were to command 7% market share, this would imply a reduction in per capita consumption of meat by 3.3 Kg and of milk by 9.1 litres. This translates into eating 27 fewer meat burgers per annum and cutting down on about one dairy-based coffee per day. By doing so, consumers have the opportunity to make a significant impact across a number of key areas. Alongside meeting the emission reductions mandate, a switch to alternative proteins will contribute towards improving the quality of land and soil, improving human health, contributing to animal welfare and empowering smallholder farmers.
To create sustainable change, we must work at all levels. We cannot just rely on leaders at the COP27 summit to create visionary policy; we must look within our own households, recognising that each choice we make to heal our planet sends a message to our community and food producers that these issues matter to us. Unlike a number of other areas where we may not feel empowered, the food we choose to put into our bodies is entirely in our control. Every meal, every food-related decision can make a difference, and our actions will determine the extent of the impact. It is compelling, then, that it may be one of the most powerful weapons in our arsenal to make the world better.
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