Perspective: Sustainable Protein
Ryan Katz-Rosene; Andrew Heffernan; and Anil Arora
Ryan Katz-Rosene is an Associate Professor at the University of Ottawa, based in the School of Political Studies and affiliated with the Institute of Environment. Off campus, Ryan helps out on his family’s regenerative farm near Wakefield, Québec.
Andrew Heffernan is a PhD candidate in Political Science at the University of Ottawa. He is a commissioning editor for E-International Relations, and sits on the boards of directors for the International Studies Association – Canada, and the Environmental Studies Association of Canada.
Anil Arora holds an MSc in Environmental Sustainability from the University of Ottawa, where his research focused on the challenges and opportunities of an environmentally motivated meat tax in Canada for climate change mitigation.
After reading and discussing this text, students should be able to:
- Describe the diverse array of protein-rich foods and the wide range of existing protein production and consumption practices.
- Explain how the context of a specific protein food’s production profoundly shapes its environmental impact.
- Situate contemporary discourses about “protein transition” in relation to three core visions of a sustainable future.
Our world is changing rapidly, and the human relationship with protein—an essential macronutrient in our food—is changing rapidly too. Today, if you buy beef in Europe, there is a decent chance it is from cattle raised in Brazil (or from European cattle fed soy grown in Brazil), a country with troublingly high rates of deforestation. If you purchase almonds, chances are the nuts were grown in California, where drought is putting major strain on the water table. Order a plant-based Beyond Meat burger at a fast food joint in North America, chances are it was put together at a factory in Missouri using protein isolates from peas grown in the Canadian Prairies, where high rates of herbicide and pesticide use are degrading regional grassland ecosystems. Just about all types of protein foods are implicated in various environmental challenges, be it climate change, land and water use, or various forms of pollution.
Protein has become the unwitting focus of a range of agri-food sustainability debates, in part because it comes in many different forms, and the contexts of its production and consumption are so varied. Whereas a century ago, most humans derived their protein from minimally–processed animal, plant, and insect sources produced or gathered in (mostly) localized, traditional agricultural contexts, today the situation is much more complex. Technological innovations have enabled humans to produce proteins that are far more synthesized and processed than straight-up meat, nuts, and legumes; we now have novel products like synthesized plant-based proteins that are combined with other ingredients to look, feel, and taste like meat, as well as animal that are produced without animals at all. Moreover, industrialized farms have increased the distance between food producers and consumers, which, when combined with increasing global trade flows, has created a truly global diet.
In recent years, a number of institutions committed to sustainable development have advocated for a global “protein transition,” which generally entails a shift from diets centred on animal-sourced proteins to diets centred on plant-based proteins, or other “novel” proteins (like cell-cultured meats, insects, etc.). The proposed protein transition is not only a response to the need for an environmentally sustainable food future, but also to the need for a range of interconnected sustainable development objectives implicated by protein production and consumption, including improving food security and tackling malnutrition.
In some wealthy countries there has been a noted trend toward increasing protein intake (in part, as people try to steer away from processed sugars and carbohydrates). The U.S. Dietary Guidelines suggest healthy adults should consume 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight daily, and many in the Global North now consume more than that. As part of the protein transition, therefore, some people call for reductions in protein consumption in countries where it is far above recommended intake values, with corresponding increases in parts of the world where current protein consumption is deficient.
Generally speaking, animal-sourced protein foods are more resource-intensive to produce than plant-sourced or novel proteins: they tend to require more land and water, and result in higher greenhouse gas emissions, per kilogram of protein produced. There is also growing concern and awareness about animal welfare in protein food production. Moreover, much of the nutrition literature suggests that practicing plant-rich diets results in positive health outcomes. Nevertheless, as hinted above, the global protein food system is complex, muddied by different contexts underlying protein production. There are also various definitions of what constitutes “efficient production” and further differences within socio-political and economic priorities regarding the agri-food sector. These differences are influenced by diverse culinary cultures, and even different interpretations of the nutritional value of different protein foods and their common-paired nutrients (the other vitamins, elements, and fats that are embedded in foods besides protein).
In other words, we see a range of perspectives and disagreements around the world about what actually constitutes a “healthy and sustainable diet,” particularly when it comes to the role that protein foods ought to play. As a key example, in 2019, the World Health Organization was compelled to withdraw its support for the well-known EAT-Lancet Commission’s Planetary Health Diet, after some national representatives to the UN argued that the plant-rich diet could negatively affect people’s health and livelihoods.
It is thus not surprising that we often hear contradictory information about the future of sustainable protein. On one end of the spectrum, the livestock industry communicates messages about how they are and introducing new technologies that enable meat and dairy to be produced in environmentally friendly ways. (See this ad from Planet-Smart Dairy.) On the other end, vegetarian and vegan diets have been proposed as solutions to the current climate crisis, leading to promises by food tech start-ups about the marvel of cell-cultured meat, and how it will one day replace the protein we get from animals entirely. (See this video clip from Eater.) Situated somewhere in between, many recent documentaries about speak of the potential to produce protein foods while sequestering carbon and regenerating ecosystems, inspiring consumer interest in pasture-raised, locally sourced, and ethically produced meat. (See the trailer for Kiss the Ground.)
The world of protein is muddied by different contexts, perceptions, and objectives. It thus becomes difficult to say whether a given protein food is necessarily ‘good’ or ‘bad’, because there are so many underlying contextual factors to consider. As an example, beef and dairy are typically identified as a problem for the climate, biodiversity, food security, and health, because ruminants (the suborder of species from which we derive beef and dairy) produce a lot of methane and use up a lot of land relative to other types of food production. As well, red meat contains saturated fats, which have been associated with a higher incidence of cardio–vascular disease (CVD).
Nevertheless, there are also various contexts in which beef or dairy may be understood as useful in the effort to tackle climate change and biodiversity decline, improve food security, and improve health. Some forms of cattle production—for instance, in and in some rational grazing operations—have been shown to have high rates of soil carbon sequestration, and may enable the sharing of food production with biodiversity-rich land. Because ruminants eat grass, they can support food security in marginal lands that are not conducive to crop production. And because ruminant food is relatively nutrient–dense and incorporates high quality , a small quantity of it can pack a significant nutritional punch, which can be especially helpful in areas of the world facing nutritional deficiencies. All this to say, the example of beef and dairy alone points to an underlying complexity that may shape a range of competing perspectives about the most ‘ideal’ future for protein, depending on what parameters are assumed for sustainability in the first place. Here we identify three starkly different visions of the future of sustainable protein.
First, there are those who seek to ‘repair’ the existing problems relating to the protein food system through a variety of approaches grounded in technology and modernization. This vision emphasizes technological solutions at the level of food production, rather than consumption–based solutions seeking to change individual behaviours with food. Proponents of this vision acknowledge that the conventional protein system has some sustainability challenges, but do not feel these problems are insurmountable. Instead, this group sees protein transition as incorporating the best of science and innovation to make our existing socio-cultural practices around protein more sustainable. These include things like using feed additives to minimize methane emissions from livestock, developing genetically modified products for higher–yield protein crops (requiring fewer inputs), as well as various on-farm efficiencies and innovations to minimize the energy and resource inputs. Those in this camp are skeptical of the idea that a majority of the world will willingly embrace plant-based diets. Similarly, they accuse proponents of the local, organic food movement as being eco-romantics, who offer false solutions that cannot feed the world’s growing population. The best way forward, they say, is to push industrial agriculture forward, fixing those parts of the agri-food system that require repair, while overall benefiting from a globalized and highly modernized protein food system.
Another approach seeks to overhaul the protein system in a more comprehensive way. Rather than simply improve upon the efficiency of protein production, those in this group advocate replacing our typical proteins sourced from animals with various forms of plant-based proteins and novel protein products instead. This includes high–protein pulses (such as lentils, beans, and peas) but also synthesized plant-based products such as the plant-based ‘meats’ noted above. Beyond these, some within this camp also support lab grown or cell-cultured meat grown in a lab, without many of the harmful produced on farms raising livestock. Yet another approach that many in this camp support is entomophagy (insect eating) in Western countries, which is already a much more common practice in much of the rest of the world. Those in this school of thought are skeptical of the extent to which “greening” can truly be accomplished in the animal agriculture sector. They argue that a diet featuring a wide array of plant-based proteins is perfectly capable of delivering all the essential amino acids required for human development. A radical reduction in animal agriculture, they say, would free up land, which could in turn support biodiversity and massive amounts of carbon sequestration. Protein transition, then, should accordingly focus primarily on swapping out animal proteins for equivalent alternatives wherever possible.
The third main approach to the protein sustainability problem consists of “restoring” a more holistic balance between humans and the food they eat, particularly in highly industrialized countries. This camp is concerned with the growing gap between people’s plates and the sites of food production. This has led to the over-industrialization of agriculture and the unsustainable, unhealthy diets centred on overly processed, nutritionally void and culturally inappropriate foods that could come from anywhere on the planet. Restore advocates place an emphasis on maximizing biodiversity and natural resilience, and using geographically appropriate methods in food production processes. Such proponents share beliefs around the important role that animals play in biodiverse and complimentary food systems: for instance, poultry and pigs can eat food scraps or insects (helping to reduce agri-food waste and supporting natural pest management), while ruminants can help to fertilize pastures or cropland while providing nutrient-dense meat and dairy. A diet centered on an array of whole, fresh, localized foods is also interpreted as the best way to support the objectives of food security, community development, and balanced nutrition. For proponents of this vision, protein transition is about restoring production and consumption practices to ways that are inherently sustainable: buying locally and seasonally available products and using regenerative techniques that sequester soil and use animals in ways that compliment food production. (See the Future of Protein video project.) Unsurprisingly, this viewpoint is deeply skeptical of the claims made by proponents of cell-cultured meats, arguing that such ‘lab meats’ are unnatural, unnecessary, energy-intensive, and part of a push to further corporatize the food sector.
Discussion and Implications
While there seems to be a concerted effort to embrace some form of “protein transition” within the context of sustainable development, all three pathways characterized above interpret transition in different ways. As we have shown, protein itself conjures up different relations for different people, and so the best pathway forward manifests itself differently in different places and spaces. These competing sets of interests, desires, and contexts are further complexified by the different relationships among people around the world, based on food cultures, historical, and political economic contexts. Food is such a central part of every human’s life, and of every society and culture, that any major shifts raise difficult questions of how, why, and even whether they should be carried out.
So where do these complex challenges and choices leave us? Should we all go vegan? Or is there a benefit to keeping some animals in the food system? Are there benefits to leaving animal foods in the global diet, given the different access to common-paired nutrients and complete, useable proteins? Estimates of the number of people worldwide who are involved in some form of pastoralism or animal husbandry range from 100 to 200 million. What would stopping the production and consumption of animal products mean for them? Furthermore, if we were to start eating entirely lab–grown meat in place of animal-grown meat, would this mean that production would be centred evermore in the hands of a very small number of food producing corporations?
For some, the big question is about how to achieve a nutritionally balanced and tasty vegan diet that still supports local food security. For others it is about defining culturally appropriate meanings for “plant-rich” diets. For others still it is about finding ways to make protein foods as sustainable as possible through efficiency improvements in production—repairing the wheel, not reinventing it. There are yet others who focus on the need to produce food for communities in ways that are resilient and that do not degrade agricultural ecosystems, with animal proteins considered to be an essential part of the larger farm ecosystem strategy.
Overall, we find major benefits to what could be called “”—the idea that all three of the protein pathways identified above are simultaneously progressing at once. Such a multi-headed approach may seem contradictory, but the world of protein is complex, and a diverse set of well-intentioned pathways is one way of making sure we do not put all of our protein–sustainability eggs in one basket! Moreover, a plurality of approaches to protein transition is a better fit for a world featuring an extremely diverse set of preferred practices and objectives on protein, not to mention a world featuring a diverse array of protein-rich foods in the first place.
It is clear that the world faces a great number of challenges in relation to the protein food system. As it stands, growing populations are demanding more food, and specifically more protein, as large numbers of people continue to exit poverty around the world. This has created a multifaceted sustainability crisis that has led to a number of proposed solutions that can be said to fall within three pathways (which we have called repair, replace, and restore). It seems at this point that the world is pursuing all three paths at once, and we see this as both a natural human response as well as a resilient approach that is most likely to achieve the variety of outcomes sought by agri-food decision-makers. It may just be possible to envision a future world in which everyone can have their protein—and eat it too.
- Which vision of a sustainable protein future (‘Repairing Protein’, ‘Replacing protein’, ‘Restoring Protein’), do you find most compelling, and why?
- With some exceptions, most experts agree that the share of animal proteins in the diets of industrialized economies is now too high, and should be reduced for global sustainability. What kinds of policies might help bring about a reduction of animal proteins, and what kinds of challenges might such policies face?
- A considerable number of people around the world are employed in animal protein food production. The FAO, for instance, notes that livestock contributes to the livelihoods of 1.7 billion poor people in developing countries. By contrast, in the U.S. there are more than half a million workers in the meat industry. If we take it as a given that we need to reduce the number of livestock animals around the world to support sustainability, what might this mean for those workers? Do we need to think about transitioning workers from the livestock sector to other sectors (i.e., retraining workers in large meat processing plants; or creating incentives and training to facilitate a switch from livestock rearing to other types of agricultural production)?
- When it becomes available in grocery stores and restaurants, would you be willing to substitute your current meat consumption with cell-cultured meat? If not, what reservations do you have?
The Future of Protein—Small Group Discussion
Watch the Future of Protein video and, working in small groups, consider the direction(s) you see for the future of protein. Is one of the approaches discussed in this chapter more prevalent than others? Is one approach more likely to persist than the others moving forward? Is there room for all three to persist at once? How do you think these pathways will change in the coming decades?
Marketing Protein Foods—Think, Pair, Share
In recent years, food producers and restaurants have shifted their marketing strategies, recognizing that consumers have become more attentive to the broader environmental, social, and ethical consequences of their food choices. Can you recall food advertisements that used terms like ‘sustainable’, ‘grass-fed’, ‘regenerative’, or ‘free-range’ to sell their protein food products? With a partner, discuss how the use of these terms influences your attitudes towards the food products being advertised. How are your experiences/attitudes similar or different? Be prepared to share your insights with the larger group.
Tracking Daily Protein Consumption Journal
Over a week, keep a journal to track the protein-rich foods you eat, being mindful of the factors influencing your decisions and how much information you have about where and how the foods were produced. For your first entry, reflect on the types of protein-rich foods you and your family consume. What types of protein foods (i.e., animal-sourced, plant-sourced, etc.) do you consume the most/the least? What factors typically influence your choices (i.e., price, convenience, taste), both at the grocery store and at restaurants?
Each day, document all the protein-rich foods you eat and answer the following questions:
- How does your protein-rich food consumption compare with the recommended daily intake of protein (in Canada, for instance, it is recommended to consume 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight per day)?
- Did you acquire all the essential amino acids today? What about common paired nutrients (like fibre, vitamin B12, iron, zinc, fats)?
- How did your intake of protein-rich foods influence your intake of common paired nutrients?
- What factors influenced your choice of protein-rich foods today?
- Do you know where and how those protein-rich foods were produced?
At the end of the week, look back through your journal and reflect on your protein-rich food consumption patterns. Did anything surprise you?
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meat produced using by the propogation of animal tissues in a laboratory environment, i.e., without being grown within the body of an animal.
the effort to increase productivity; in food, debate remains about whether industrialized systems of production are more or less efficient than small-scale family farms.
a broad set of policies and practices aimed at restoring and rehabilitating the health of food and farming systems; focuses on topsoil regeneration, increasing biodiversity, and ensuring a well-functioning water cycle.
the integration of livestock grazing operations within various types of forestry practices, in a mutually beneficial way.
foods that contain all the amino acids humans require for good health; animal proteins tend to be complete; plant-based proteins generally are not, although combining different plant-based proteins can be a way to ensure all required amino acids are obtained.
the costs, consequences, or side effects of an economic or prodcution activity that affect unrelated parties (human and non-human species), and which are not taken into account in the prices of the goods or services produced (e.g., the health effects of air pollution caused by food transportation).
farm/garden design and practices that work with nature, allowing for self-contained ecosystems that require no external inputs.
favouring a range of different perspectives on what constitutes the most beneficial role and make-up of protein foods in a healthy and sustainable diet.