Anyone talking about the transitions that await us in the future quickly thinks of the energy transition and the circular economy. But much more is needed to shift to a more sustainable world. One example is the protein transition: sustainable food supply that includes the production and consumption of proteins. We are happy to explain why this is necessary.
Why a protein transition?
This century, the total world population will continue to grow, which also means that global food production will grow to continue to able to meet the food demand. This increase may exacerbate current problems, such as deforestation for agricultural lands (and subsequent loss of biodiversity), climate change (greenhouse gas emissions), nutrient problems (nitrogen crisis), irrigation water (water stress), soil health and so on. Therefore, there is an increasing focus on making our current food system more sustainable. Indeed, one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to food systems. The largest contributors to this are food production (39%) and land use (32%). Of all food categories, eggs, milk and meat products (together accounting for 83% of emissions) have the greatest environmental impact, but they also contain a lot of protein, which is an important nutrient for us alongside carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals. The impact is so large because the animals that produce these proteins need protein themselves. The figure below shows what percentage of fed protein (through animal feed) is effectively converted into animal protein products. The remainder is lost. The protein transition was created to find protein-rich alternatives for the proteins needed by animals on the one hand, and to make human consumption of animal proteins more sustainable on the other.
The transition to sustainable proteins
Consumers currently eat more protein from animal sources (e.g., meat, dairy, egg and fish) than from plant sources (e.g., cereals, nuts and legumes). Between 2007 and 2011, the ratio of animal to vegetable protein was about 60:40 respectively. From a health and environmental perspective, it is better to reduce the proportion of protein from animal sources and instead eat more protein from plant sources. This ratio should change to 40:60. In addition, total protein consumption per person should also decrease by about 10 – 15% (Transition Agenda Circular Economy -Biomass and Food). This objective is also endorsed by the National Protein Strategy, the Food Transition Coalition and the Nutrition Center. In the current disk of five, a 50:50 ratio for the year 2025 is used as an intermediate step. In addition to consuming protein, protein production is also relevant. This production is not only about proteins that are directly consumed, but also proteins that serve as animal feed and thus indirectly contribute to the production of animal proteins. The associated environmental impact and possible transport distances when proteins are imported also contribute to this. There are opportunities for improving the cultivation of protein-containing crops but also animal feed for livestock. Actions mentioned for crops include nature-inclusive agriculture and livestock farming, circular agriculture and local production sites. In addition, efforts can be made to add value to bio(residual) flows, so that these flows can still be used as components for animal feed, for example. Alternative sources of protein such as algae, duckweed and insects are also being considered and may help with the demand for more sustainable forms of protein in the future. The National Protein Strategy is a good illustration of where the Dutch government should focus its efforts in order for the protein transition to take place.