Why do we need alternative sources of protein?

A collection of foods including fish, meat, eggs, cheese, vegetables, nuts and beans

Image by photka /stock.adobe.com Source

Protein-rich diets are placing meat consumption at the centre of a global controversy. In many countries, especially in the West, individuals are consuming protein at levels that exceed our daily nutritional requirements, and most of it comes from animals.[1] While we can’t deny the importance of meat and dairy products as sources of high-quality protein and essential nutrients, their intensive production comes at a high environmental cost.[2,3]

In fact, to sustain our current diets, global food systems are over-exploiting the earth’s limited supplies of fresh water, disrupting fertile lands and destroying entire forests. It is estimated that nearly 60% of the world’s ecosystems are already degraded or used unsustainably. Livestock production methods are considered one of the main drivers of environmental damage, including climate change and biodiversity loss.[4]

Now, imagine having to produce 70% more food than we do today with fewer natural resources available. That is the predicted scenario for 2050 as the world’s population is expected to grow by 34%. With global diets anticipated to become more like those of Western countries, a question arises. Can our current food systems meet future demands for food and protein in a sustainable way? [5] The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) defines sustainable diets as ‘diets with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations’. This means two things:

  • Firstly, our systems need to produce food that is both nutritious and safe in quantities sufficient to feed the entire globe.

  • Secondly, it must be done in ways that will allow the earth’s limited resources to sustain food production in the future. [6]

Ensuring the future of global food security will require changes in the way we produce our food as well as in what we eat. Increased consumption of protein-rich plants, such as soy and legumes, could be part of the solution, but more intriguing options may also appear on supermarket shelves. Plant-based meat substitutes (also known as meat analogues), insects, algae, and lab-grown meat are claimed to be as nutritious as meat, but their production could use the earth’s natural resources more sustainably. Some people think these products should become the mainstream sources of protein in our diets, while others believe they can only have a complementary role in our food systems. [7,8]

Can these alternative sources of protein truly compete with meat and dairy and win us over? Or will their acceptance be challenged by our deep-rooted eating habits?

Share this article:

This article is from the free online course:

Engaging with Controversies in the Food System

EIT Food