To create a sustainable food future, it's critical that we not only address how we grow our food, but also what we eat.
More than two-thirds of worldwide deforestation can be linked to meat and feed production—and, if we moved away from meat consumption, we could drastically cut global emissions.
So, by shifting our diets to more plant-based and alternative protein sources, we can improve human health while helping to mitigate numerous sustainability challenges, from climate change to water and biodiversity issues.
In the most recent episode of our webinar series Cultivating the Future Through Food, we spoke with leaders working at the forefront of scaling plant-based and alternative meat consumption to shift consumers’ dietary patterns.
This episode featured three cross-sector experts:
- Theresa Lieb is a food systems analyst at GreenBiz, where she curates content and creates a community that make food and agriculture more sustainable, just, nourishing, and resilient. She is responsible for developing food programming for VERGE and also publishes Food Weekly, a newsletter that tracks progress toward a better food system.
- Emma Ignaszewski manages projects at the Good Food Institute (GFI) to catalyze corporate innovation to radically transform the food system. She leads GFI's retail engagement, advising the world's largest retailers on implementing alternative protein strategies.
- Kathelijn van Elk is the Nutrition lead for Global Foods at Unilever. She is responsible for the Foods Nutrition Strategy, which has a strong focus on SDG 2 and 3 and drives more plant-based eating, less salt, and more fortification.
Together, we explored the benefits for people and the planet that can be realized by shifting global diets to more plant-based and alternative protein sources.
We also discussed how to equitably drive dietary shifts at scale in low- and middle-income countries, what strategies and tactics we can use to help consumers shift their behaviors and mindsets, and what the future of food may look like.
Creating a Sustainable Food Future With 3 Dietary Shifts
1. Local, Nutritious Plant-Based Foods Need Preserving and Promoting
Emerging markets may have more limited access to plant-based alternatives to livestock products, but that doesn’t mean people cannot shift their diets.
“You don’t have to have plant-based meat alternatives to eat more plant foods,” explained Kathelijn van Elk of Unilever.
The key rests in preserving and promoting existing local ingredients while simultaneously helping people shift their cultural biases around eating less meat. “There is a cultural status linked to meat consumption,” explained van Elk. “Meat links to income, and the richer you are, the more meat you consume, so it’s not just behavior you have to change, but you also need to change the cultural mindset.” This can be a key challenge worldwide, including in emerging markets.
Theresa Lieb of GreenBiz agreed. “In low- and middle-income countries, it’s about preventing the shift to higher meat consumption. On one hand, it’s about better accessibility to better alternatives, to markets, and pricing. And on the other, it’s what is desirable from a cultural and normative perspective.”
To tackle this challenge, Emma Ignaszewski of the Good Food Institute suggested the food sector take a page from the renewable energy sector.
“Just as we’ve been thinking about leapfrogging emerging energy markets and going straight to renewables, we can think about leapfrogging emerging meat markets to go straight to alternative proteins or plant-based protein,” said Ignaszewski.
To help consumers embrace dietary shifts, Lieb suggested that individuals who hold influential positions like teachers, religious leaders, politicians, and celebrities play a role. “If we can show people that eating plant-based diets, or becoming vegan, or pescatarian, can be desirable and that they can have a great lifestyle without having to follow a high meat consumption diet, then that can go a long way to helping consumers shift their behaviors and beliefs.”
The private sector can also help encourage people to consume more local ingredients by launching programs that support these foods. As van Elk explained, Unilever has a program in Indonesia that promotes a plant-based diet that incorporates more local, available ingredients like green leafy vegetables and tofu.
2. Dietary Shifts Require a Multi-Sector, Multi-Stakeholder Approach
The private sector, policymakers, and other industry leaders need to coordinate efforts to create an enabling environment to increase the production of more plant-based and alternative protein foods, while simultaneously encouraging consumers to adopt dietary shifts.
Panelists focused on the role that government can play via policy and supporting public research. “What will make a big difference [in shifting consumer behavior and increasing plant-based and alternative protein sources] is to look into policy and regulation,” explained Lieb.
“The UN published a study around agricultural subsidies and food policies that found that most don’t support a healthy and sustainable diet. The report found that agricultural support needs to be redesigned because the money is working against affordability of healthy and sustainable foods.”
“Public research and development funds will be an important lever to help emerging markets explore alternative protein solutions,” said Ignaszewski. “Alternative protein research and development saw about $55 million in funding in 2020, while clean energy funding came in at about $27 billion. Public funding of alternative protein would stimulate economic growth, create jobs, provide additional benefits to food safety and security, and it would help light the way toward more climate change solutions which are currently underinvested in compared to their potential impact.”
Chiming in on the private sector side, van Elk noted that companies can take a multi-stakeholder approach by also collaborating across their supply chains. Unilever has a Climate and Nature Fund available for their brands to work with farmers to apply regenerative agriculture principles on specific projects and ingredients like tomatoes.
“On one end, it’s about increasing consumer awareness on what ingredients to use that are healthy, nutritious, and sustainable; and on the other end, it’s about encouraging farmers to grow these crops using regenerative practices and to keep diversifying what they grow, which will also increase accessibility.”
3. New Innovations Will Reshape Our Food Future
Each panelist noted how we are in the early stages of a new food future: One in which plant-based products and alternative protein sources play a more prominent role in consumers’ diets.
“Twenty years from now, I hope to see in our grocery carts on a regular basis cultivated salmon, plant-based shrimp made with seaweed protein, a plant-based burger that’s juicy because it contains animal-free but genuine cultivated beef fat, a 3D-printed steak, cheese made with genuine dairy casein so it can stretch and melt, and meat made with ingredients that microbes pull from the air,” said Ignaszewski. “Most of these products have prototypes that exist today, so what we need to do now is to invest the time and energy into scaling these ideas.”
At Unilever, van Elk said the company sees plant-based foods playing a significant role in the future of food. Unilever, through its brand Knorr (a German food and beverage company) has partnered with the WWF-UK to create the Future 50 Foods Report, featuring 50 nutritious plant-based ingredients along with recipes to help consumers learn how to cook with these food sources.
In addition to more familiar foods like lentils, quinoa, and nuts, the Future 50 Foods Report includes many lesser-known yet highly nutritious, and climate-resilient ingredients including seaweed.
And for meat lovers, there is still room for some—albeit significantly less—consumption of sustainably-produced meat.
Moving Forward With Dietary Shifts For The Planet
Actors across sectors are reimagining what we eat. More companies—including large retailers and food service companies—are developing plant-based products or product lines, or are investing in alternative protein companies.
For the sake of our environment’s future, dietary shifts are required. That means less meat consumption and an expansion in plant-based and alternative protein sources around the world.
Shifting consumption patterns, options, behaviors, and beliefs around what we eat will require partnership, innovation, and substantial investment. But, through this work, we can help shape a more sustainable food system—one that is healthier for people and our planet.