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New meat and dairy alternatives will dramatically transform the global food system

A recent UN Environment Programme (UNEP) assessment presents a compelling case for novel alternatives to meat and dairy products as a means to significantly reduce the environmental footprint of the global food system. This is especially pertinent in high- and middle-income countries, where the reliance on low-carbon energy is crucial.

The report, titled “What’s cooking? An assessment of the potential impact of select novel alternatives to conventional animal products“, highlights three main types of alternatives: novel plant-based meats, cultivated meat from animal cells, and protein-rich products derived through rapid fermentation by microorganisms.

Environmental and health benefits

The UNEP report, supported by the Government of Belgium, underscores the substantial potential of these alternatives in reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Additionally, they can aid in mitigating land degradation, deforestation, water and soil pollution, and biodiversity loss.

These alternatives also present a lower risk of zoonotic diseases and anti-microbial resistance, and they address animal welfare concerns more effectively compared to traditional animal products.

The authors of the report posit that these novel alternatives can contribute to a more sustainable, healthier, and humane food system. However, they emphasize that regional differences will play a significant role in their implementation.

The report reviews various policy decisions that could enhance food security, jobs, livelihoods, social and gender equity, and cultural aspects, thus maximizing the benefits of these novel meat and dairy alternatives.

Animal products vs. meat alternatives

Inger Andersen, the Executive Director of UNEP, highlighted the importance of new food alternatives in providing a broader spectrum of consumer choices.

“New food alternatives will offer a broader spectrum of consumer choices,” said Andersen. “Further, such alternatives can also lessen the pressures on agricultural lands and reduce emissions, thereby helping us address the triple planetary crisis – the crisis of climate change, the crisis of biodiversity and nature loss, the crisis of pollution and waste – as well as address the health and environmental consequences of the animal agriculture industry. More government support, as well as open and transparent research, can help unlock the potential of these new technologies for some countries.”

The report sheds light on the negative impacts of conventional animal product production and consumption, especially in high- and middle-income countries. These include environmental degradation and public health concerns such as cardiovascular diseases, certain cancers, obesity, and diabetes. The animal agriculture industry also poses risks of anti-microbial resistance and zoonotic diseases like COVID-19 or Avian Influenza.

Climate change and animal agriculture

Animal agriculture is a significant contributor to climate change, accounting for nearly 60% of food-related GHG emissions and 14-20% of global GHG emissions. This includes emissions from animal GHG, feed production, land use changes, and energy-intensive supply chains.

While these novel alternatives offer benefits in terms of animal welfare and public health improvements, some concerns remain. For instance, many novel plant-based products are highly processed and may contain high levels of salt and saturated fats. The health impacts of cultured meat and fermentation-derived products are still under investigation.

Social and cultural acceptability

The report acknowledges that the success of novel alternatives depends on factors like cost, taste, and social and cultural acceptability. These factors will significantly influence consumer behavior, especially in high- and middle-income countries where animal protein consumption is unsustainably high.

The UNEP report suggests several policy options to guide the food industry towards a healthier and more sustainable future. These include supporting open access research, shifting subsidies, tax rebates, direct financial investments, and loan guarantees favoring novel alternatives to meat. The report also emphasizes the need for equitable and regionally appropriate approaches to food system changes.

Socio-economic implications of meat alternatives

The authors call for open and transparent research to understand the nutritional and socio-economic implications of these alternatives. This includes considering their impact on equity, food security, and the livelihoods of smallholder farmers.

The report does not address meat from wild animals, fish, or other aquatic animals, nor does it assess other food system alternatives like regenerative livestock farms, feed additives, insect farming, reduced meat consumption, or taxing meat. While these alternatives are being pursued, they have yet to achieve significant government support or impact at the desired scale or speed.

In summary, the UNEP report presents a comprehensive analysis of novel alternatives to meat and dairy products, highlighting their potential benefits and challenges. It offers a roadmap for policymakers, industry stakeholders, and consumers to navigate the transition towards a more sustainable and humane food system.

This study is a part of UNEP’s Frontiers series, which focuses on emerging environmental concerns.


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