- The World Economic Forum released a new report detailing the need for integrating more plant-based protein alternatives into the world’s diet in order to significantly improve human health and environmental sustainability.
- The report notes that meat consumption is growing steadily, especially in developing countries. If the trend continues until 2050, when the world population is expected to top 10 billion, the “pathway is incompatible with keeping global temperatures from rising more than 2 (let alone 1.5) degrees Celsius.”
- The report does not call for a cold turkey halt to meat consumption. Instead it suggests that meat and alternative‑protein industries will coexist and have the opportunity to complement one other while the agriculture sector works to increase the availability of plant-based proteins.
It’s not news that animal husbandry is one of the leading producers of CO2 emissions. Nor is it news that many sustainability advocates and environmentalists are calling for a reduction in meat consumption in order to prevent global warming from accelerating.
What is news is the World Economic Forum’s measured contribution to the debate.
In the report, the WEF noted that the social cost of adopting more plant-based proteins — job stability, cost of the evolution of traditional agricultural practices, and other livelihood transitional costs — must be at the forefront of the discussion. Similarly, the forum notes that the needed change is not going to come from private companies like Impossible Foods. Instead, it is advocating for a joint public-private approach, much like what was implemented for renewable energy more than 20 years ago, in order to roll out large-scale production of plant-based alternatives.
Lab cultured meat is not viewed as a particularly effective alternative. The report notes that currently, producing lab-grown meat is incredibly energy intensive. Thar is not only damaging for the environment, but it also increases the cost of the product — something that could put it out of reach for those with less money.
Instead, the WEF suggests looking to algae, nuts, insects, tofu, jackfruit and beans as protein sources. Not only do these options not include heme — a protein that the report shows is linked to coronary heart disease and stroke risk — but fiber‑rich beans, peas and mycoprotein reduce mortality rates by 5 to 7%, with peas and mycoproteins having the greatest effect.
At the same time, this study recommends cooperation.
“An important conclusion from the report is that for the foreseeable future the meat and protein alternatives industries will coexist and that, as a result, there are great opportunities for synergies," H. Charles Godfray of Oxford University's Oxford Martin School wrote in the report's forward. "Indeed, it is unlikely that alternative proteins will achieve scale unless use is made of the production and marketing expertise of the traditional protein sector.”
This conclusion highlights a new path for the future of the plant protein industry: not as a separate entity, but as another menu item. While the report does boost the merits of the plant protein industry at the expense of meat producers, its suggestion that governments get involved to find alternative positions and roles for ranchers and farmers suggests that there may be a path forward for everyone — carnivore or not.
Still, humans love meat. It is unlikely that the meat industry will disappear entirely, but there is a good chance that it may transform. As more pressure is put on the environment to sustain humanity, alternative menu items to a hamburger or steak may become a more typical discussion.