Last week’s UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) in New York was heralded as a new dawn for the future of food. It saw countries announce the actions they would take to contribute to a global transformation of food systems, which are currently responsible for 80% of biodiversity loss, and a third of global greenhouse gas emissions.
The summit, it was said, was just the start for this new movement, which is actively compiling game changing innovations designed to help fix broken food systems.
And there are a lot of solutions out there pitching for investment. One is alternative proteins, which are growing in popularity with the public, as people seek more meat free options.
The full potential of alternative proteins to drive down emissions depends heavily on continued research.Erin Rees Clayton, GFI
The Good Food Institute (GFI) is one of the biggest champions of alt proteins and advocates for it at the highest levels. In 2020 it released three reports which indicated that the breakthrough year for alternative proteins had finally arrived. And this month GFI said more US funding is needed to maintain this momentum, as the amount of public investment, it says, fails to reflect alt protein’s potential as a climate solution. GFI points to the figure of $27 billion, the level of public investment in clean energy R&D last year, comparing it the $55 million alt protein received.
GFI wants the funding gap to be bridged for a solution it says ’causes up to 92% less global warming than conventional meat production’. To get the ball rolling it has announced new grants totalling $5 million that will go to catalysing ‘open-access research that can bring alt proteins to the masses and help meet global climate targets’.
“Cutting emissions from food production is crucial to limiting climate change, and alternative proteins are the sleeper solution to creating the rapid change we need to meet this moment,” said Bruce Friedrich, GFI founder. “Alternative proteins are the one food-based climate solution that scales and, with government support, can decarbonise global food production. Governments should invest significantly and now in alternative proteins as a key part of climate strategy that simultaneously addresses the increasing risk of pandemics, antibiotic resistance, and food insecurity.”
While many are open to meat-free alternatives there are plenty who remain carnivores to the core. For them, cell agriculture could offer something different.
“Cell agriculture is the field of producing animal products like meat, dairy and even products like leather, directly from cells instead of raising animals for these exact same products,” said Ahmed Khan, the co-founder and member of the board of directors of Cellular Agriculture Canada, on a recent episode of Inside Ideas.
The innovation uses computer science, biopharma, food science, and tissue engineering to produce meat and dairy products using animal cells, or genetically modified yeast.
Explaining more about the science behind it, Ahmed said: “Instead of raising, let’s say – a cow, from birth for the meat, dairy and leather, you take cells and train those cells to produce the same products. One of the products that can be made through cell agriculture is meat. The way that works is you take a biopsy, a small injection from an animal, say a cow, and from that biopsy there are cells in that called stem cells, and those are cells that have the ability to divide into more cells, as well as specialising and differentiating – becoming different types of cells, like muscle cells and fat cells and other types of cells you find in meat products. Those stem cells are then put into a nutrient formulation called the cell culture media and, at scale – the stems cells and the cell culture media are placed in a large bio-reactor, and the output of that would be a cell-cultured meat product or what I call cell-based meat.”
For Ahmed, better communication is the key to unlocking its potential.
“From studies done in the past – if you explain to the public the ‘why’ – from the environmental and sustainability aspects, that this requires less resources than conventional animal agriculture for the same products, as well as the potential public health implications of the clean and sterile environment of using cells directly, people can understand why. It’s all about that communication, and radical transparency to make sure that people understand their food system. Context is everything and with food it matters so much more.”
Alt proteins, and cultured meat – admittedly a rather unappetising name, are some of the solutions innovators are pitching loudly. And science, public engagement, and policy, some of the key elements brought together at the UNFSS, need to examine the best ideas out there and increase funding for the most promising.