Planet Protein



Nourishment Network met with Mark Driscoll, Associate Director, Sustainable nutrition & Food systems at Forum for the Future. Mark is responsible for delivering a series of projects to address problems in our global food system and is Project Director for the ‘Protein Challenge 2040’ initiative. We talked to him about meat, protein, sustainability and the challenges facing the global food system.


NN -Exactly how damaging is meat production to the environment? In environmental terms, is there an argument for a future where we abandon it altogether? 

There is no doubt that meat production and consumption is one of the most significant drivers of environmental and land-use change. The issue here is not meat per se – it’s the sheer quantities being produced, driven by our own desire for meat and changing diets in the developing world, especially in parts of China and the Indian sub-continent.

The production of animal protein and the plants which are produced to feed animals is a key driver of land use and deforestation for agriculture. We live in a crazy world where 50% of the plant based proteins that are grown globally (wheat, soya, corn etc.) are  fed to animals. The shift towards such massive industrialised farming systems not only takes up huge tracts of land, but also results in massive waste, pollution, soil degradation and greenhouse gas emissions. There are a lot of facts and figures around that illustrate this impact – according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the livestock sector represents about 14.5% of all human-induced emissions. In addition, as issues such as water stress become more prominent in certain parts of the world, we can’t under-estimate the significant amounts of water that are required to produce meat. Producing 1kg of animal protein often requires 100x more water than 1kg of grain protein. Then, of course, there are huge animal welfare issues, not forgetting the human health implications that result from an overuse of antibiotics within intensive livestock production systems.

The answer to addressing these issues lies not in abandoning meat production altogether. In my view, it lies in the need for all of us to reduce the quantities of meat produced, whilst continuing to improve the sustainability of those animals we do eat. Put simply, it’s about getting us all to increase the proportion of plant based proteins in our diets, whilst ensuring we tackle the animal feed issue (reducing our dependency on soya based feed systems for livestock and fishmeal for farmed fish).

We also need to recognise that whilst we absolutely need to modify levels of meat consumption, meat production can have environmental and nutritional benefits. Some extensive pasture based livestock systems can provide biodiversity benefits, and in parts of the developing world where there are significant issues around malnutrition, livestock production systems can provide solutions.

NN – We will always need protein in our diets, but there are obvious challenges about how we can meet the needs of an ever growing population. Are we doing enough to innovate around this challenge? Is the UK and Europe a little behind the curve? What examples of innovation and best practise could we learn from?

Over the last 5 years I think the need to work on sustainable diets and food waste, alongside the need for continued efficiencies in agricultural production, has risen up the agendas of business and governments. However, with a few notable exceptions, there is a big disconnect between the theory and the actions required.

Much more government and private sector investment needs to be pumped into innovation on a number of fronts. As people move towards more flexitarian diets, we should be investing in the development of new plant based products which will meet future demand. Retailers and food manufacturers need to be exploring ways of encouraging consumers to eat more plant based products. This should include putting more plant based proteins in their products. For example, they could be reducing the amount of meat and replacing it with plant protein in composite products, such as lasagne or other ready meals.

In many respects, despite continued high levels of meat consumption in America, many US companies and investors are leading the way. Take the ‘Impossible Burger’ for example, where investors and business collaborated in the development of a burger made from plants including wheat, coconut oil, and potatoes – but a burger that tastes, smells and bleeds like a beef burger.

In Europe we should be exploring other innovative opportunities, looking at more sustainable animal feed systems such as soya, which we import from the other side of the globe.  Developing and investing in new sources of animal feed, such as insects for poultry, algae for farmed fish or leguminous based feed sources for ruminants, will be critical in the future. 

NN – What impact is Brexit likely to have? Will it require us to have a more visionary approach to the future of farming? 

At this stage it’s hard to say what the impacts of Brexit will be on the UK food and farming economy. There are high levels of uncertainty, particularly around access to labour within the horticultural industry. In all likelihood, the current direct payments subsidy based system to farmers is likely to end in its current form. Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for food and farming, has recently indicated that it could be replaced by a system whereby farmers would need to demonstrate some kind of environmental improvements.

I do think Brexit provides a real opportunity for a new vision and joined up long term strategy for the Future of Food and farming. The urgency of the food security and sustainability challenges required a much more joined up approach between governments, businesses and civil society organisations. We need a vision in which sustainability is at its heart and in which we make better land-use planning decisions within the UK.  

To what degree are arguments about the relative benefits of flexatarian, vegetarian, or vegan diets simple the product of the privileged position we have, living in a developed economy. How does the protein challenge differ in the developing world? Is there a future for livestock farming there?

The big question is, how we can provide nine billion people enough protein in a way which is affordable, healthy and good for the environment? This is one of the key challenges of the 21st century and it is a one that the Protein Challenge 2040 initiative is trying to address. In order to do this we believe that a ‘systemic’ approach, which means addressing multiple areas at the same time, is needed to reach the scale of impact we need.

Whether we live within the developed or developing world we know, based on the analysis and data we have used, that societies will need to eat more plants in order to benefit both human and planetary health. It’s only in the last few decades that many parts of the developing world have moved towards more resource intensive meat based diets. In India for example, there still are more vegetarians than the rest of the world put together, driven more by religious and cultural beliefs than any other factor.

The Protein Challenge has identified a number of projects which recognise these different cultural, geographic and religious practices and the need to address both over-consumption of protein in the predominantly developed world and under-consumption in parts of the developing world. As well as focussing on projects that encourage more plant based consumption, we have identified a number of initiatives which address some of the challenges in the developing world context. One of these is sustainable aquaculture – a potentially huge source of sustainable and healthy protein, that could address protein deficiencies in parts of South West Asia and Africa.