Alternative proteins 101
There are three main categories of alternative proteins: plant-based, cultivated, and fermentation-enabled. Just as the world is changing how energy is produced, we need to change how meat is made. Alternative proteins—meat made from plants, cultivated from cells, or via microbial fermentation—can satisfy growing demand, reduce pressure on the planet, and enable sustainable agriculture.
- Plant-based meat looks, tastes, and cooks like conventional meat but is made entirely from plants. A transition to plant-based proteins could slash emissions by 90 percent and reduce the amount of land needed to feed the human population by as much as 75 percent—the equivalent area of North America and Brazil.
- Cultivated meat, sometimes also referred to as “lab-grown” meat, is exactly the same as the beef, pork, chicken, and fish we eat today—but grown directly from animal cells, without antibiotics. When produced with renewable energy, cultivated meat could cut emissions by 92 percent compared to conventional beef.
- Fermentation is a powerful, flexible process for using microorganisms to produce alternative proteins. Used in food production for millennia, fermentation offers several advantages that can further increase the efficiency of the alt protein sector as a whole. A study published last year in Nature found that swapping 20 percent of all beef eaten with microbial proteins could halve global deforestation by 2050.
What do alternative proteins solve for?
We can’t solve some of the biggest challenges facing our world today—from climate change to biodiversity loss to food insecurity—without reimagining how meat is made. Learn how alternative proteins offer a solution to some of the most pressing problems of our time.
Today, agriculture accounts for a third of all global emissions. Animal agriculture alone—including the crops and pastures to feed those animals—accounts for 20 percent of all emissions. A solution? Change how meat is made.
A shift from conventional meat to plant-based meat can result in 90 percent less emissions. When produced with renewable energy, cultivated meat could cut emissions by 92 percent compared to conventional beef.
Making meat without the animal can help us meet our obligations under the Paris Climate Agreement alongside other solutions, like ending our reliance on fossil fuels. But a world without fossil fuels is not enough. A study led by Oxford University found that even if fossil fuel emissions were eliminated immediately, the world cannot stay below 1.5° of warming without making meat differently.
The consensus at COP15 was clear: our global food system is the primary driver of biodiversity loss, with agriculture alone threatening more than 85 percent of the 28,000 species at risk of extinction. According to the UN Environment Programme, we must restore at least a billion hectares of degraded land to meet the Paris Agreement and slow the rate of species extinction. Yet changing how we make meat is not yet prioritized by many who are seeking to protect the world’s biological diversity.
A recent study in the journal Nature documented how substituting just 20 percent of beef with microbial proteins from fermentation could cut deforestation in half by 2050. Alternative seafood can ease the burden on our overfished oceans and help preserve wild fish stocks for the coastal communities that rely on them to survive. By supporting a shift to alternative proteins, biodiversity groups big and small can free up massive amounts of land and water for restoration and recovery.
The inefficient process of cycling crops through animals is one of the key drivers of food insecurity. Today, more than three-quarters of our agricultural land is used to produce meat, dairy, and eggs, yet animal products account for less than a fifth of the global calorie supply. Meanwhile, one-third of all staple crops grown today are fed to farmed animals, while one in nine people around the world is undernourished. Given finite land and water, a growing global population, and crisis-level food security issues, we can no longer afford the inefficiencies and risks of cycling crops through animals to produce protein.
But more efficient ways of producing protein exist that can enhance food security even in land- and water-constrained environments. Alternative proteins play a critical role in a secure food supply that’s equipped to feed a growing world. Alt proteins can be globally scalable and regional—produced by both large companies and by small-scale farmers with indigenous crops adapted to local climates and suited to the needs and tastes of local communities.
According to the UN Environment Programme and the International Livestock Research Institute, increasing demand for meat and today’s unsustainable methods of meat production are two of the seven most likely causes of the next pandemic.
Antibiotic overuse is leading to antibiotic-resistant superbugs that already kill more than a million people a year. Wave after wave of avian flu, swine flu, and other viruses will continue with business-as-usual industrial animal agriculture. High population densities, prolonged heightened stress levels, poor sanitation, and unnatural diets create perfect conditions for viruses to leap from livestock to humans.
A solution? Reduce the world’s reliance on a key driver of antibiotic resistance, new diseases, and pandemics: raising animals for food. Given growing global demand for meat, eggs, and dairy, a large-scale shift to alternative proteins will be central to mitigating the risk of antibiotic resistance and future pandemics while feeding a growing population.
How alternative proteins fit into your climate coverage
Did you know that emissions from conventional animal agriculture are responsible for over 14 percent of global emissions, but earn less than 0.5 percent of the media’s climate coverage?
With just seven years remaining to halve global emissions, in-depth environmental journalism and solutions-focused reporting are more important than ever. Your coverage of alternative proteins as one such solution can make a huge impact. Explore below for inspiration and connect the dots between alternative proteins and some of today’s most pressing challenges.
Why is changing how meat is made not yet prioritized as a global climate solution?
Top climate reports have made it clear that we must rapidly slash emissions in order to meet global climate targets and that business-as-usual agriculture combined with a global population nearing nine billion are throwing us off course. For instance, it will be mathematically impossible to limit global warming to the 1.5°C threshold set by the Paris Climate Agreement unless we cut down on the amount of meat produced via conventional animal agriculture. What’s missing from all these urgent calls to action? Rethinking how meat is made.
- Even if fossil fuels were eliminated overnight, emissions from the food system alone would jeopardize the Paris Agreement target of keeping global temperature rises below 1.5C (source).
- When renewable energy is used in production, cultivated meat can have a lower carbon footprint than the vast majority of today’s conventional meat and farmed seafood production. This remains true even when compared to extremely optimistic scenarios for improvements to conventional meat by 2030. (source).
What is agriculture’s role in the shrinking Colorado River basin?
Nearly 80 percent of total water consumption in the Colorado River basin is used for agriculture, with roughly half of that going toward the production of alfalfa hay for livestock, according to a 2020 study. A shift toward alternative proteins would free up significant land and water resources currently being used to raise animals for traditional meat and dairy.
- Switching from conventional meat to plant-based meat reduces water use by up to 72 percent for chicken, 87 percent for beef, and 81 percent for pork (source.)
- Cultivated meat could use 66 percent less water compared to conventional beef and result in lower environmental impacts in a variety of categories such as air pollution and acidification of soils compared to chicken, pork, and beef.
What is missing from the global food security conversation?
COVID-19, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and extreme drought have brought food insecurity to the forefront of many headlines in recent years. Shifting from industrialized animal agriculture toward alternative proteins is one of the most impactful ways we can strengthen stability and resilience within global food supply chains.
- Consider that the global animal agriculture sector uses one-third of the world’s grain supply, with only a fraction of that being converted into edible protein.
- Most of the calories from that feed will never make it to our plates. Take chicken. Chicken is the most efficient animal at turning crops into meat. Yet it requires nine calories of feed to produce just one calorie of consumable meat. Imagine preparing nine plates of food and throwing eight of them away.
How top media outlets are covering alternative proteins
GFI’s Dr. Liz Specht talks to CNN about the major role alternative proteins play in the future of food.
GFI’s Bruce Friedrich celebrates FDA’s greenlight of GOOD Meat’s cultivated chicken.
GFI’s Dr. Liz Specht talks to National Geographic about algae’s potential in the world of alternative proteins. GFI grant recipient Umaro Foods is also featured.
GFI’s Dr. Liz Specht explains how eating meat made from microbes could stave off half the world’s deforestation — but at a certain point, the land-saving effect is diminished.
GFI’s Bruce Friedrich talks about how alternative meats could mitigate climate change and help prevent the next pandemic, and he responds to criticisms of corporate greenwashing.
Learn how a rising demand for plant-based meats is causing farmers to break into the pulsing category.
Cultivated meat can transform our global food system. Get the latest updates on this game-changing alternative to conventionally produced meat.
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