Editor’s note: This story is part of a series on the trends that will shape the food and beverage industry in 2023.
While the food system has always been a vital component of climate change, it’s largely been ignored in favor of attention to other sources, such as emissions from factories and vehicles. Until last year, that is.
The 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference, commonly called COP27, featured the first-ever Food Systems Pavilion. And, for the first time, agriculture and food systems took the main stage in discussions about climate change.
Eat Just founder and CEO Josh Tetrick used that conference opportunity to make the case for food as a climate solution.
“You’re not going to solve climate change unless you talk about meat,” he said. “And I know it’s hard to talk about meat because it feels very sensitive when you talk about meat.
“It’s a lot more emotional than talking about not drilling for oil,” Tetrick said, “but you’ve got to talk about [meat] because something has to be done about it.”
Eat Just, which is the only company in the world with regulatory approval to serve cultivated meat, hosted a special tasting of its Good Meat chicken at COP27 last November in Egypt. For people who weren’t completely aware of the connection between animal agriculture and sustainability, Tetrick said the tasting helped them to connect the dots and see both the problem and a potential solution.
Cultivated meat is grown and harvested without traditional animal agriculture. A life cycle analysis of the cultivated meat industry by CE Delft, which was commissioned by the Good Food Institute and European animal rights group GAIA, cultivated meat could cause up to 92% less global warming, 93% less air pollution, use up to 95% less land and 78% less water, compared to conventional beef production.
However, just because the connection between food and sustainability is becoming more familiar to the public, doesn’t mean the problems are close to being solved, said Sheila Voss, vice president of communications at the Good Food Institute, an international organization that promotes the alternative protein space. After all, she said, about a third of all emissions can be attributed to food and agriculture, according to a UN-backed study published in Nature-Food in 2021.
“There’s a far way to go in terms of translating that momentum into actual policies, investments, governments investing in food and ag and alt protein R&D, as well as organizations really prioritizing the solutions of how food and ag can contribute to some of the world’s biggest issues and challenges,” Voss said.
Connecting the dots
Dhanush Dinesh, founder of “think-and-do tank” Clim-Eat, which uses science and policy to bring about policy changes in the food system, is well known for his activism. But he worked in energy and forestry policy before moving into food system advocacy.
“Many times, the pressure on forests is because of land expansion as a result of agriculture expansion,” Dinesh said. “I saw that from the forestry side, and I thought, ‘OK, I need to understand the other side to connect the dots.’”
Dinesh, who attended COP27, said more education is needed to help people understand the complex role that food plays in sustainability. Where do you start making changes? Where do you need to stop? How can you implement solutions that work worldwide with different cultures, behaviors and economic systems?
“It’s a lot more emotional than talking about not drilling for oil, but you’ve got to talk about [meat] because something has to be done about it.”
CEO, Eat Just
Eat Just’s Tetrick said that even among more educated urban and affluent consumers, there is still a low level of awareness about the connection between animal agriculture and the environment. Many people would say that animal agriculture isn’t great for the environment, but they may not know the basics of why.
“That doesn’t mean that they’re going to switch to something else, unless that something else ultimately is better in really important ways for their lives,” Tetrick said. “...And they believe it to be better from a health perspective or a taste perspective or a cost perspective or all three of them.”
While organizations and companies, including Eat Just, have worked to raise awareness of the food and sustainability connection, a major world event a year ago sharpened that focus across the world: The war in Ukraine.
The severe reduction in wheat and sunflower ingredients usually exported from Ukraine led to high prices and shortages around the globe, which in turn led more people to think about how the food system can be more sustainable and resilient, said Helena Wright, policy director at the FAIRR Initiative, an investor network focused on environmental, social and governance risks in the food sector.
“Investors are trying to reduce the risks through their whole portfolio, including the companies that they invest in, and that’s a really effective lever of change in terms of them being the shareholders of companies,” Wright said. “And then in some cases, we do see companies in the private sector getting ahead of regulation. They’re trying to get ahead of where policy is, where regulation might change in future. And a lot of companies are also global, so if a regulation or policy comes in one place, it will affect the company’s whole supply chain globally as well.”
Getting on the menu
Making a difference at COP27 wasn’t one of Clim-Eat’s policy objectives when the organization started about a year ago, Dinesh said. As he has seen for years, the huge international bureaucratic process tends to move slowly and isn’t always effective.
Dinesh started Clim-Eat as a result of his disappointment in outcomes for food sustainability policy and awareness at COP26 in 2021. The result, according to a recap from the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Development, was an agreement on the need for a transition to more sustainable food systems – without any roadmap.
The COP27 presidency asked Clim-Eat for advisory assistance on the topics of food and agriculture, Dinesh said. Several other food organizations sought out Clim-Eat to convene a Food Systems Pavilion. Suddenly COP27 became the first of the large-scale international policymaking climate conferences in which the sustainability of the food system had a place in the spotlight.
“It’s been a big leap forward, I would say, in terms of putting food out there,” Dinesh said. “It's interesting, because I keep going into COPs, and there are some people working on food and we all know each other, you know, but this is a time when other sectors, other people, were thinking about food, and looking at food, and thinking about it as a sector which is important.”
Voss said the Good Food Institute also observed COP26 in 2021 and wondered why food did not play a more central role in the discussions or potential solutions. GFI joined the coalition of organizations co-hosting the food pavilion last year.
At COP27 and other global climate conferences, the consensus has been that countries around the world need to cut emissions in half by 2030. Voss said that there are some realities about the food system that seemed to resonate among conference delegates, such as choosing plant-based alternatives to animal food products could help reach those emissions targets within seven years.
COP27’s Food Systems Pavilion was located next to pavilions devoted to nature and water, Voss said. All three worked together to show how they were interconnected. For example, GFI partnered the Nature Conservancy and the World Resources Institute on panel discussions to show how they can work together to become a better sustainability solution. After all, Voss said, those traditional conservation groups are using the same statistics and have the same end goal as GFI.
“Investors are trying to reduce the risks through their whole portfolio, including the companies that they invest in, and that’s a really effective lever of change in terms of them being the shareholders of companies.”
Policy director, FAIRR Initiative
Besides Eat Just’s meat tasting, the Food Systems Pavilion also featured other companies demonstrating how the food system connects with sustainability. Gabriel Levesque-Tremblay, co-founder and chief technical officer of cultivated wagyu beef company Orbillion Bio, participated in a panel discussion to talk about cultivated meat with Aleph Farms CEO Didier Toubia.
Levesque-Tremblay said that many people at COP27 seemed to know basic information about cultivated meat, such as what it is and the way it was created. “I was surprised how little they needed education on that. They knew,” he said. “What they wanted to know [was] what the relation is between food and climate. That was unclear for some.”
In Levesque-Tremblay’s panel, a lot of the questions came from people asking whether cultivated meat is targeting traditional farming. On the video, they appear somewhat hostile toward cultivated meat.
But Levesque-Tremblay said he didn’t take away any negativity about wagyu beef. Orbillion Bio positions itself as a more sustainable option to high-end beef, not an entity that will put the cattle industry out of business.
“I felt like people have so much curiosity towards it,” Levesque-Tremblay said. “And at the end of the day, food is a choice, right? You will always be able to eat whatever you want on the market if it's available.”
A personal politics ‘hot potato’
Jan Dutkiewicz, a policy fellow at Harvard Law School, said the scholarly research on the connections between food and sustainability in the last decade have made it impossible to keep this discussion off the table.
On a policy level, Dutkiewicz said, people have historically been reticent to engage with food. “People treat it as a bit of a hot potato,” he said. “You can acknowledge that it’s a problem, but then you want to pass it on, rather than dwell on it because it’s a politically unpopular thing to deal with.”
Dutkiewicz said it’s easy to point a finger at faceless entities that are seen as sustainability issues — oil companies, fracking operations, car companies — and say they are problematic. It’s also easy to look at Big Food and say companies are making choices that are detrimental.
“Drill down into the fact that we need major production level changes, that we may need dietary changes, or changes to what’s available on supermarket shelves or the choice architecture within institutional food settings, and so on and so forth,” Dutkiewicz said. “Once it gets personal, I think it starts being politically tricky.”
That makes it difficult to discuss, Dutkiewicz said. People essentially cast their vote for different ranges of food products three times a day. Food isn’t just about what people prefer; it comes with questions around health, the way it is produced and access.
“The more you’re talking about what people might perceive as personal sacrifice, the more difficult it gets — which is why, be it meat, or sugar or fat are so difficult to talk about, or legislate, or whatnot,” Dutkiewicz said.
Eat Just’s Tetrick said the company, which makes plant-based Just Egg, the top-selling egg substitute in the U.S., has done policy work behind the scenes for years to get around personal politics. The company, he said, welcomes leaders — governors, senators, department and ministry heads — to show not just what Eat Just can do in terms of food, but what the company can do for governments.
“I want a senator from X state to understand what making meat and eggs is, without requiring an animal,” he said. “How that actually can mean thousands, tens of thousands of jobs in their particular state.
“I want a minister or a prime minister of a country to understand that investing lots of energy in building a new meat infrastructure is good for food security,” Tetrick continued. “It’s really important to build that kind of resiliency. It’s a way to develop their economy.”
“The more you’re talking about what people might perceive as personal sacrifice, the more difficult it gets — which is why, be it meat, or sugar or fat are so difficult to talk about, or legislate, or whatnot.”
Policy fellow, Harvard Law School
Too often plant-based food is polarized in the political discussion as a radical leftist idea. But Just Egg is made in a factory in Appleton, Minnesota, located in a Republican district with residents who voted for Donald Trump for president.
They “don't really care about whether it’s a vegan egg or not,” Tetrick said. “They care [about] are we providing jobs? Are we providing equity or are we providing insurance? Are we bringing energy to the town? …If more and more alternative proteins from plant-based to cultivated can show those kinds of results, I think that really does help to activate policymakers, sometimes more than then than these other things.”
Taking the next step
While many participants at COP27 discussed the food system, Dutkiewicz said that food being “on the agenda” by itself doesn’t mean much. There were no sweeping policies or commitments that came out of the conference to make a big change.
“It’s more just that a lot of ideas got in front of people,” Dutkiewicz said. “And what’s done with that is unclear.”
The new spotlight on sustainability issues in food and beverage on its own can only do so much. The annual Coller FAIRR’s Protein Producer Index, released last month, showed the food system has a long way to go in terms of responding to sustainability issues.
Only 14% of the largest protein companies in the world are disclosing all of their emissions — from both animal and feed farming — and companies are unprepared to adapt to biodiversity targets. More than half of all companies — 55% — are ranked “high risk” in the index.
While these results are not necessarily promising, Wright said they have been getting better during the last five years FAIRR has produced the index report. She expects the results will continue to improve this year based on the larger focus on sustainability and several nations starting to call for emissions disclosures.
In its five-year agricultural plan released in late 2021, China listed cultivated meat, plant-based eggs and recombinant proteins as priorities for the country’s future social and economic development. Through its “30 by 30” goal — producing 30% of all food locally by 2030 — Singapore has supported the alternative protein industry.
Israel’s government declared food tech with an emphasis on alternative proteins as one of its five national priorities. In the U.S., where government policy generally has stayed away from endorsing alternative proteins, President Biden signed an executive order last year making biotechnology a national priority in a variety of fields, including food.
“I think it’s also clear that it’s an all-hands-on-deck [issue],” Voss said. “It’s not going to be solved by one magic sector. It’s not gonna be solved by government, or just by private sector or just by the civil society. It has to be all those.”
Too often, Voss said, new technology and alternative proteins have been pitted against the incumbent industry. Instead the policy approach should be similar to how energy transition policy has been approached. Those who work in traditional food could become incentivized to become more sustainable in their practices — changing the crops they grow, learning more about technology to make protein production better for the environment, working toward creating more sustainable jobs in food production.
“That’s how GFI is trying to engage and trying to convene and trying to get policies that actually really help this transition in a really smart way,” Voss said.
Non-governmental policy groups, scientists, researchers and companies big and small that participate in the space also can help drive change. Dinesh said that is why there were more than 200 organizations at the Food Systems Pavilion at COP27: They all had potential solutions to parts of the larger problem.
"It’s an all-hands-on-deck [issue]. It’s not going to be solved by one magic sector. It’s not gonna be solved by government, or just by private sector or just by the civil society. It has to be all those.”
Vice president of communications, Good Food Institute
“That’s kind of showing that things can be done differently. We’re doing it,” Dinesh said. “From an advocacy perspective, it kind of changes your narrative, because if you just keep saying, ‘This is important,’ for the last 10 years, at some point, someone's asking, ‘But so what?’”
Last year, the Good Food Institute published a report looking at the state of national policies dealing with alternative proteins across the globe. The organization produced the report for information’s sake but also to stoke some competition, Voss said. If countries can see what others have done in a clear and concise report, it may spur them to do more in the name of global competitiveness and food security.
The international developments toward more alternative-protein-friendly policies and continued exposure for food and agriculture give Voss reason to be optimistic.
“I definitely think that the seeds that were planted — pun intended — in 2022, and even in the years leading up to that,” she said, “I think 2023 will absolutely see many of those seeds start to germinate and break through the surface.”