On the global climate stage, food is finally breaking through
As this year winds down, let’s take a beat and reflect on this: 2023 was the year when leading multinational institutions, the world’s largest climate philanthropists, and hundreds of non-state actors–including businesses, cities, NGOs, Indigenous communities, farmers, and other frontline food system workers called for protein diversification as a key to solving climate, biodiversity, food security, and global health.
That’s something, isn’t it? While huge challenges remain and far more work lies ahead, that’s definitely something.
In 2023, the climate community signaled its growing acknowledgment of basic truths: Just as food directly impacts our individual health and well-being, how we produce our food also impacts the health of our planet. The current food system is responsible for 34 percent of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and animal agriculture alone—including the crops and pastures to feed those animals—accounts for 20 percent of all emissions. Decarbonizing the global economy is scientifically impossible if business-as-usual meat production remains the global default.
Enter alternative proteins
Making meat from plants and cultivating it from cells offers humanity a chance to create a carbon-neutral food system in the face of rising global demand for resource-intensive meat. Compared to conventionally produced proteins, alternative proteins require far less land and water and generate far fewer greenhouse gasses. Plant-based and cultivated meat offers consumers greater choice, enabling people to enjoy the meat they love, but made in far more sustainable, secure, and just ways.
In previous years, a focus on food and food systems in major climate circles was minimal, let alone the integration of alternative proteins into actual programming and meals. In 2023, however, something clicked. Not only is food system transformation beginning to break through as a solution just as essential as the shift to renewable energy, a global protein transition is increasingly being called for by climate leaders around the world.
Here are just a few of the high-impact ways alternative proteins secured the climate spotlight this year
The annual UN Climate Change Conference (COP) brings together government leaders and climate influencers from around the world to discuss issues related to the health of our planet.
In 2022, COP27 was the first convening at which alternative proteins broke through in meaningful ways. Fast forward to this year’s COP28, at which alternative proteins were center-plate solutions served up by some of the world’s most trusted and influential climate champions:
- A landmark U.N. Environment Program report released at COP28 centered on how plant-based foods, cultivated meat, and fermentation-derived products can slash emissions and reduce public health risks. This report highlights the need for public funding and appropriate regulation to ensure alternative proteins reach taste and price parity. Read our summary here.
- COP28 launched with 134 countries signing the first-ever declaration on food systems, committing to embed food in their nationally determined contributions (NDCs). (At the time of this writing, that number is approaching 160.)
- A cross-sector Call to Action representing more than 200 non-state actors, including GFI, put forth a collective vision of solutions that sit at the intersection of food, nature, and climate. This Call to Action stood out from the crowd on two specific fronts: It was informed and shaped by Indigenous communities, farmers, fishers, and others on the frontlines of food production, and includes an explicit mention of “transitioning to more diversified sources of protein” as a priority area and pathway for achieving this vision. Building on this momentum, several high-impact organizations, including GFI, signed a separate Call to Action to implement a cohesive protein transition strategy, calling on companies to significantly increase the availability of plant-based and alternative proteins in their respective portfolios by 2030.
NY Climate Week Sustainability Summit
September was a busy month for GFI as the 2023 Good Food Conference and Climate Week NYC fell within days of each other. We divided and conquered that week, with GFIers on both coasts bringing alternative proteins to the fore.
In New York, alternative proteins earned top billing at several high-profile sessions and events. Our team members engaged with climate leaders throughout the week, including as panelists for the Sustainability Summit hosted by the Danish Consulate General and the INNOV-EAT Expedition co-hosted by Clim-Eat, the Columbia Climate School, Bezos Earth Fund, Bayer, and EAT. Our team also joined an alternative proteins-themed lunch with governments, climate NGOs, and philanthropies co-hosted by the Bezos Earth Fund, the UAE, and the USDA. The lunch featured delicious dishes prepared with GOOD Meat cultivated chicken.
During the “Food and Agriculture as a Solution to the Climate Crisis” session, panelists presented alternative proteins as a key solution to reducing global methane emissions. Richard Duke, Deputy Special Climate Envoy for the U.S. Department of State, added, “There’s certainly opportunity in alternative proteins. American companies are at the forefront of investment in this sector.”
“NY Climate Week was a whirlwind of activity for GFI. One key takeaway: alternative proteins are finally firmly in the mix of climate solutions being discussed by policymakers, corporatations, and NGOs. Now, to make alternative proteins accessible to everyone, it’s urgent that governments and public financial institutions step up and fund scale-up, just as they’ve done for clean energy for over 40 years.”STEPHANIE VON STEIN, DIRECTOR OF INTERNATIONAL ENGAGEMENT
In May, GFI representatives focused on the crucial role of protein diversification in achieving climate targets at the Agriculture Innovation Mission for Climate (AIM for Climate / AIM4C), a joint initiative led by the United States and the United Arab Emirates to drive agricultural innovation for climate change mitigation. At two separate breakout sessions, we made the case for alternative proteins as a climate solution, speaking alongside influential officials like Sanah Baig, Deputy Undersecretary for Research, Education, and Economics at the USDA, and Mark Spencer, the Secretary for Food, Farming and Fisheries of the UK Department of Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs.
Day one set the stage in a big way: The USDA announced a new Science and Research Strategy focused on ramping up agricultural research and emphasizing new biotechnologies and protein sources like plant-based, cultivated, and fermentation-enabled proteins. This strategy paves the way for more innovative breakthroughs for alternative proteins over the next four years and beyond.
During the summit, GFI also worked with the UN Foundation, FAIRR, Climate Advisers, and ClimateWorks Foundation to organize a private Climate and Alternative Protein Dialogue dinner. The packed table of 34 participants, including representatives of multilateral institutions, think tanks, and governments leading the way in alternative protein innovation, engaged in a spirited discussion about governments around the world investing in alternative protein science and innovation.
GFI also played a role in curating an interactive exhibit dedicated to alternative proteins alongside Aleph Farms and the FAIRR Initiative. We showcased plant-based meatballs from Impossible Foods and offered a firsthand experience of the diverse and delicious options made possible by alternative proteins. Our engagement in various sessions, the fruitful discussions at the private dinner, and the captivating exhibit all contributed to advancing the conversation on alternative proteins as a crucial climate solution.
Other breakthrough moments for alternative proteins from around the world
- Startup Innovation Lead Audrey Spence moderated a panel at Verge23, one of the leading climate tech conferences. Amy Chen from Upside Foods, JJ Kass from Tindle, and Mark Warner from Liberation Labs spoke about changes in the alternative protein market and reasons for optimism and continued growth.
- This year’s Breakthrough Agenda Report (a UK government-led climate change endeavor launched at COP26) included a link to a deep-dive chapter on Achieving Agricultural Breakthroughs to which many GFI team members contributed expertise. The report calls on countries to work together to support alternative proteins through forums “informed by expert organizations such as the FAO, Good Food Institute, WRI, and the CGIAR…” At the request of the UK government, GFI will be the official convenor of a subset of the 17 signatory countries concerning advancing alternative protein policies.
- GFI founder and president Bruce Freidrich appeared with Bezos Earth Fund’s Future of Food Director Andy Jarvis on an episode of Outrage + Optimism, a top climate podcast co-hosted by three long-time climate influencers, including former head of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Christiana Figueres. The hosts zeroed in on the role of alternative proteins in climate mitigation efforts, with Figueres remarking that “this is as transformational and has as huge consequences as energy does.”
- Nikkei Asia—a top regional media outlet owned by the world’s largest business newspaper, The Nikkei—published an opinion column by GFI APAC senior communications manager Ryan Huling. The piece spotlights a study by Asia Research and Engagement outlining how rapidly Asian countries must incorporate alternative proteins to hit their climate targets.
- GFI Brazil Policy Specialist Alysson Soares spoke at a public hearing at the Environment and Sustainable Development Committee of the House of Representatives in Brazil about the potential of alternative proteins to mitigate climate degradation and boost the economy. Following the hearing, the Ministry of Health approached GFI Brazil to discuss how alternative proteins can help combat zoonotic diseases.
- The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) released an in-depth report on the strategic importance of alternative proteins. The 4,900-word report calls for more government support for alternative proteins to address food security, global health, climate change, food systems resilience, and global competitiveness. CSIS hosted a launch event that featured former National Security Council official Matt Spence, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace fellow Jon Bateman, Schmidt Futures scientist Genevieve Croft, and GFI founder and president Bruce Friedrich. USDA Deputy Under Secretary Sanah Baig delivered the keynote address, speaking on the vulnerabilities of our protein supply chain and solutions under President Biden’s executive order on “Advancing Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Innovation for a Sustainable, Safe, and Secure American Bioeconomy”.
- The UAE’s Minister of Climate Change and Environment Mariam Almheiri invited GFI Israel CEO Nir Goldstein to join a session at the World Government Summit in Dubai, an annual knowledge exchange between government officials, thought leaders, Executive order on “Advancing Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Innovation for a Sustainable, Safe, and Secure American Bioeconomypolicymakers, and private sector leaders. Ten heads of state and 140 ministers from around the world attended the summit. Nir shared insights regarding the importance of alternative proteins as a major component of addressing food security challenges.
Alternative proteins are to agriculture as renewables are to energy–the future
The fact that food systems are gaining traction in the climate sector is a hopeful signal, but the planet needs more collaboration from us. As global leaders join forces to invest in and accelerate the transition to renewable energy and other climate-forward solutions, a similar level of shared global commitment and collaboration is needed to transition toward far more sustainable, secure, and just ways of producing protein. Meat made from plants and cultivated from cells are agricultural innovations that, with proper levels of public and private support, can dramatically reduce emissions, reduce pandemic and antibiotic-resistance risks, free up massive amounts of land for restoration, and feed more people with fewer resources.
Let’s go all in on this – together.
GFI at work
We are working hard to put alternative proteins on the agenda of climate influencers around the world. That means putting ourselves in the right rooms with the right people and the most up-to-date science. Good data, good science, and good strategy have the biggest impact when they are available to everyone. Over the last year, our team was hard at work developing several resources to make the case of alt proteins as a climate solution.
Data from GFI’s life cycle assessment (LCA) of cultivated meat, conducted by CE Delft, show that, at scale, cultivated meat produced with clean energy offers significant environmental advantages over the most ambitiously sustainable animal agriculture operations.
We published a white paper exploring the climate benefits of accelerating global alternative seafood production.
We also published a white paper exploring the marine biodiversity benefits of accelerating global alternative seafood production.
We published a 75-page sidestream analysis that identifies commodity crop “waste” that can become inputs for alternative protein production, leading to lower costs and better environmental metrics. The report also provides recommendations to policymakers and food producers.
We are so grateful to our community of supporters who make developing these resources for the greater good possible. Together we are helping to put alternative proteins on the roadmap for a brighter food future.