What you need to know about new animal-source food alternatives

What do these alternatives taste like?

In recent years, many companies and governments around the globe have invested billions of dollars to develop and market these alternatives to be as close to animal meats. The plant-based meat retail market reached US$5.6 billion globally in 2021. Some of these products have a similar appearance, smell and texture to conventional meat. However, not all consumers are convinced about the taste.

Why do we need alternatives to animal meat and dairy?

The global population is growing with eight billion people in the world today. Global demand for meat is expected to grow by 50 per cent by 2050. While meat from animals provides important nutrients, its production is a major driver of a range of environmental issues such as greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, biodiversity loss and pollution. Production on such a scale has also raised concerns about animal welfare.

How does the production of conventional meat contribute to climate change?

The science is clear: the production of conventional meat and dairy, especially in industrial and intensive systems in middle- and high-income countries, negatively impacts people and the planet. Livestock (including feed, direct emissions, land-use change and supply chains) accounts for nearly two-thirds of greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector, greatly exacerbating the climate crisis.

How can novel alternatives to animal meat and dairy be better for the environment?

Further research is needed but initial studies suggest that alternatives to animal-source foods have the potential to be better for the environment and human health, especially if they are produced using low-carbon energy. The report shows that when compared to conventional beef, pork or chicken, plant-based protein products would require up to 97 per cent less land and 30-50 per cent less energy to produce. They would also emit far fewer greenhouse gases – up to 90 per cent less compared to conventional beef. Cultivated beef would require up to 99 per cent less land than conventional beef, while food derived from fermentation would require up to 90 per cent less land. If renewable energy, with the most carbon efficient production techniques, is solely used in the production of cultivated meat, its carbon footprint could be up to 40 times smaller than that of conventional sources of meat.

What does a sustainable food future look like?

Novel alternatives to conventional sources of meat and diary, when supported by open and transparent science and effective and equitable policies, can lead us towards sustainable, healthier food systems. The report reviews actions that policymakers can consider to promote open access research, safeguard food security, jobs, livelihoods, social and gender equity to help maximize the beneficial outcomes of novel meat and dairy alternatives while avoiding potential negative health and social impacts.

What are the barriers to these alternative sources of protein?

Cost, taste, and social and cultural acceptability are key barriers. For these alternatives to be produced in an environmentally sustainable way and scaled-up production, low-carbon energy sources are vital.

What are the socio-economic impacts of a shift to these alternatives?

The animal agriculture industry is currently a critical part of the global economy. It is vital to the livelihoods of rural households, especially in developing countries, and provides healthy and protein-rich food for millions of people. It also holds an important social and cultural value around the world. Radically transforming this industry should be done equitably, with a just transition for the millions of people who benefit from the current food system, in terms of employment, income and food security.

What is the future of these alternatives to conventional meat and dairy?

More research into the environmental, social and health impacts of novel alternatives is needed. Policymakers can support open access research to help evaluate these technologies and their potential impacts, while ensuring that any transition away from conventional animal agriculture systems is fair and does not undermine food security or deepen inequality. In addition, investment in alternatives to meat and dairy from animals, as well as internationally agreed upon trade policies and food safety standards are needed among other policies.

The 28th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP28) is being held from 30 November to 12 December 2023 in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, to drive action on tackling climate change, reducing emissions and halting global warming. This year, COP28 will discuss the results from the first-ever global stocktake, assessing progress toward achieving the ambition of the Paris Agreement to limit the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. You can follow live COP28 updates on UNEP’s climate action feed here.

By hadem