The International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food) recently released the Politics of Protein report, calling for policymakers and consumers to redirect support from alternative proteins toward local and sustainable food systems.
Alternative proteins include lab- or cultured-meat and fish products, plant-based substitutes, and dairy and egg alternatives. In 2020, the alternative protein market earned US$4.2 billion in sales. By 2025, the report predicts the market will grow six-fold to US$28 billion.
“Both governments and private investors are propping up systems that undermine sustainability, even when they claim it is targeted to support sustainability goals,” Phil Howard, an IPES-Food expert and lead researcher behind the report, tells Food Tank.
While alternative proteins are marketed as healthy and good for the planet, the report states they “risk recreating the same problems of our industrial food system.” Allowing the market to grow would risk corporatization of food systems, exacerbate dependency on fossil fuels, promote processed foods in Western diets, and damage livelihoods of millions of farmers in the global South, according to the report.
“We wanted to call out false solutions and the misleading claims they are based on,” Howard tells Food Tank. “By sounding the alarm, our hope is that governments won’t fall for simplistic silver bullet solutions.”
While many start-ups and academic institutions pioneered the alternative protein movement, the report shows that large agribusinesses dominate today’s market. Companies like Tyson, JBS, and Cargill are acquiring or developing plant-based meats and dairy substitutes to maintain future market share.
In addition, major investment funds and indexes like Vanguard and Black Rock invest in large agribusinesses, contributing to the increasing financialization of food systems.
Many alternative proteins fall into the category of ultra-processed food. Many also contain soy, palm oil, and wheat which depend on industrial monoculture farming and greenhouse gas-intensive processing. The report shares that companies plan to outsource agricultural production from the global South, which would disrupt the livelihoods of millions of farmers.
“Well-meaning consumers of alternative proteins may not realize they’re buying into the same giant meat companies that are operating the biggest of factory farms, contributing to deforestation and forced labor, and slaughtering millions of animals everyday,” the report states.
According to IPES-Food, large agribusinesses use greenwashing in their marketing schemes to mislead consumers into believing products are healthy and sustainable. The organization also identifies a “protein obsession” in media, characterized by a spike in web searches for research on protein and sustainability. Companies capitalize on this trend by arguing against livestock farming, making speculative claims based on unsubstantiated studies.
“We’re hoping to redirect policy support towards the really transformative changes that are needed in our food systems – towards agroecological production systems, and food environments that make the healthy, sustainable choice the easiest choice,” Howard tells Food Tank.
Howard explains that while consumers can drive supply and demand through purchases, “purchases are just one tool for achieving food system changes, and a limited tool because its power is concentrated in the hands of more affluent groups.”
“We need more comprehensive food policies, and we need more voices at the table, including groups who are rarely heard, such as pastoralists, artisanal fishers, Indigenous peoples and food insecure groups.”
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Photo Courtesy of Daniel Quiceno M, Unsplash