The “future of protein” conversation has been, and will continue to be, a hot topic in agrifood tech. Investors have poured capital into the space, and media, both popular and industry specific, continue to cover it in great depth. And it’s a fascinating conversation – as we work together to ensure that everyone in the world gains and maintains access to adequate nutrition, we have to focus extra attention to one of the more complex components of our food system – animal protein.
However, an unreasonable proportion of this conversation, particularly on the animal protein side, has been dedicated to labels.
Animal protein is here to stay
I’m both excited by the prospect of cell-cultured and plant-based meats, and wary of the hype surrounding them. I don’t believe that “alternative proteins” are going to displace animal protein. My suspicion is that alternative proteins will be additive products that enable a continued focus on protein being a significant component of Western diets. When aquaculture emerged, it was largely assumed that farming fish would reduce pressures on the existing reliance upon fisheries. It didn’t – it actually might have contributed to an increased demand (for more, check out Stefano Longo’s “Aquacultures and the displacements of fisheries captures.” Furthermore, the UN’s FAO projects global meat consumption to continue to increase (and yes, they assume a decreased consumption in developed countries). Wealthy people in some metropolitan cities might decrease their animal protein consumption, but in the grand scheme of things, the impact that could have on animal protein demand will be less than the increase due to population increase.
In addition to the reality of population driven demand growth, from a purely climatic standpoint, it would be disastrous to eliminate animal production. I could write a few articles about that point, but I wouldn’t do as good a job as this post by WWF’s Carlos Saviani or the many studies published by American Farmland Trust, or this recent piece by AgFunder’s Lauren Manning. We need to preserve grassland and pastureland, and demand for animal protein can be a driver of economic value for the preservation of such land.
Confusion is not the reason for consumer action
Consumers aren’t confused between plant-based burgers and hamburgers, and they’re not mistaking dairy products for plant-based dairy products. They’re not buying these alternative protein products out of confusion – the “problem,” at least from the perspective of an animal product industry that would prefer to not lose any market share, is much deeper than that. Consumers are seeking solutions to address a fundamental lack of belief in the current animal production systems. Reasons range from environmental-concerns to health concerns to ethical and religious constraints. Those who avoid animals out of ethics and religion are something that can be largely left to the side here. Those consumers are more than entitled to buy and eat in accordance with their beliefs.