Alternative proteins are critical to building a more sustainable food system, as the way meat is produced today is inefficient and not environmentally friendly, says Bruce Friedrich of the Good Food Institute at the Pinduoduo Food Systems Forum.
The global community faces the challenge of feeding a growing population with declining resources. Fresh thinking and innovation will be required to overcome this planetary challenge. As China’s largest agriculture platform, Pinduoduo has made it a mission to enable more technology to modernize agriculture.
Pinduoduo organized the two-day online forum, which took place on July 14-15, where global experts including the UN envoy to the Food Systems Summit, Dr. Agnes Kalibata, shared their perspectives and knowledge on how to chart a new path toward a more sustainable and resilient global agri-food system.
Animal agriculture has been identified as a major contributor to global warming due to its intensive use of land, water, and livestock greenhouse gas emissions. Alternative proteins are increasingly being held out as one of the solutions in addressing the interlinked issues of environmental degradation, disease, social conflicts, hunger, and malnutrition.
According to Friedrich, who is executive director of the Good Food Institute, a non-profit group in Washington, DC, that promotes awareness of plant-based meat, there are at least three significant costs associated with the way that meat is produced today, namely the environmental cost, global poverty and malnutrition, and global health.
“The way that we produce meat today is extraordinarily inefficient,” he said, citing estimates from the World Resources Institute that it takes nine calories fed to a chicken to get one calorie from the animal’s flesh at slaughter. Raising animals requires massive resources to grow crops for livestock and is “a horrible way” to feed close to 10 billion people by 2050, he said.
Global health is also at risk from the way that animal agriculture is practiced. More than 70% of antibiotics produced globally are fed to farm animals, which then go into the human food chain, leading to potential antibiotic resistance and increasing the risk of a pandemic.
Convincing people to eat less meat is not working in Europe and North America, where food education is most advanced. “It is very hard to imagine how it can suddenly start working elsewhere,” said Friedrich. Plant-based and cell-based meat can greatly reduce the risks of antibiotic resistance, he added.
According to Friedrich, one solution to the global “meat problem” is promoting alternative proteins. Burgers made by plant-based meat startups Impossible Meat and Beyond Meat produce about 10% of the greenhouse gas emissions and reduce water usage by as much as 99% compared with standard beef burgers, said Friedrich.
“Because it [alternative protein production] is so much more efficient as it scales, it should cost less,” he said. “This is now, while these products are in their infancy and as the products scale up, these numbers should get better and better.”
To be sure, not everyone is convinced that plant-based meat alternatives are all that healthy. Richard Hoffman, an associate lecturer in nutritional biochemistry at the University of Hertfordshire, said in an essay published on The Conversation, “Although many of these products claim to be made primarily from plants, they aren’t all that different to other ultra-processed food products.”
“The newness of plant-based burgers and other meat alternatives means that there hasn’t yet been time to see if these new ultra-processed foods also come with similar health costs” like those associated with other ultra-processed foods, he wrote.
David Yeung, the founder of Green Monday Holdings and plant-based meat company OmniFoods, says moving people from eating processed meats to plant-based alternatives already represents “a big upgrade” in terms of health benefits.
For many consumers who are not prepared to eat “organic kale,” plant-based meats are a good intermediate step to a healthier and more environmentally sustainable diet, he said at a panel discussing nutrition and the environment at the Pinduoduo Food Systems Forum.
Professor Jeyakumar Henry, a senior advisor to the Singapore Institute of Food and Biotechnology Innovation, said on the same panel that he expected the list of ingredients in plant-based meats to shrink dramatically in the next year or two given the rapid advances in food science.
Investors have stepped up their bets on plant-based food startups as technology reduces production costs and consumers show increasing interest in alternatives to meat. According to data from AgFunder, investment in innovative food startups – a category which includes those working on plant-based protein and cultured meat – doubled to $2.3 billion last year, while the number of deals rose 60% to 362.
“The world is on fire,” said Friedrich of the Good Food Institute. “We need all hands on deck to put it out.”
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