Protein is an essential source of nutrition and there is a growing demand for it, forecasted to increase by 78% in 2050. As the protein system in the food and beverage industry involves both consumption and production, it becomes necessary to conduct these two processes within planetary boundaries.
However, as the traditional meat industry is a high-energy, high-resource type, negative impacts on the nitrogen cycle balance, water quality and biodiversity are to be expected. For instance, about 64% of fisheries in Southeast Asia are at a medium to high risk of overfishing. The region will be the fastest growing importer of soybeans for animal feed by 2022, which can lead to increased land deforestation.
One that’s been gaining a lot of global attention is the amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) the meat industry is emitting and in effect, harming the planet. From Asia alone, 5.4 billion tonnes of GHG emissions were recorded in 2050.
This is why more attention is being given to alternative sources of protein in order to meet the needs of the growing population. And it seems like nations are taking even more notice as there is a boom in investments in this particular segment as of late. In Southeast Asia, vegan and vegetarian plant-based product launches increased by 400% from 2016 to 2020.
Because of the emergence of this disruptive innovation and the growing number of players getting involved, it’s estimated to reach price parity with the traditional meat industry in 3 to 5 years.
Additionally, financial systems are recognising the opportunity in the segment, especially as there’s ongoing pressure to decarbonise operations and portfolios. It’s an attractive investment as there’s not much scrutiny in terms of Environmental Social and Governance (ESG) indicators as plant-based and alternative protein are already regarded as carbon-friendly.
Local governments are also beginning to take notice and some have begun the necessary steps in terms of national campaigns and regulations. The Singapore Food Agency recently launched its 30 by 30 goal that involves strengthening the country’s food security, which includes investments in a diverse range of food sources.
Critical kick-off point
While this is an exciting time for the alternative protein industry, the types of production models that will be created are critical to how the segment can continue to meet its sustainability goals. “There is an opportunity here to really deliver systems change—create a protein system that is truly socially just and ecologically safe for humanity, if we design it with systemic goals in mind,” according to Sumi Dhanarajan from Forum for the Future.
These initiatives and future investments must support a protein system that is regenerative. It isn’t all about extracting, but rather restoring, replenishing and regenerating the source of these new proteins.
Only then can the alternative protein segment become resilient and truly sustainable and provide a positive value for society. “This is a critical moment to create the future we need and want for the protein system in Southeast Asia,” Sumi adds.
Exploring social impacts
There are aspects of the alternative protein industry that are often overlooked as the general public is hyperfocused on the sustainability benefits. These have to also be considered in order for the segment to be truly good for the planet as it touts itself to be.
As processes involved in alternative protein and cultivated meat are moving away from actual food production, there is a question of whether farmers and other traditional players are losing their source of livelihood. Local food production is a natural safety net in times of disruption and informal food systems like the wet market and small stores have been providing affordable, accessible and nutritious food.
There’s also the issue of land acquisition and making sure that it is done ethically, and doesn’t infringe on human rights. Businesses have to ensure that production is not a health hazard, while providing decent working conditions to the workers in plants and facilities.
Another aspect to look at is pricing of the alternative protein goods, given the technology that’s available today and the tight patent rules it is operating in. When these are not available at an affordable price point, social and financial gaps will emerge, making the innovation inaccessible to certain segments of the population.
All these must be taken into consideration as the alternative industry continues to move forward and accelerate. Proactive steps must be done in order to address these concerns and mitigate the negative impacts these can potentially create.
One way to solve the livelihood issue is to decentralise the system wherein smallholder farmers become the custodians of food cultures. To boost local livelihoods, companies can tap indigenous farmers to cultivate plant-based alternatives. Utilise local culture and traditional knowledge, and diversify the food systems in the region too. A similar campaign is one by Green Rebel Foods from Indonesia, who are working directly with farmers to source key ingredients.
Industry leaders must also encourage regenerative agricultural practices and plant-based economics, taking charge of replenishing and restoring degraded land and ocean ecosystem health. Another key practice is reforestation, which can also help mitigate the effects of typhoons.
Becoming a protein visionary
All these proactive action steps come from a protein visionary mindset. Right now, the majority seem to be acting like protein engineers who focus on decarbonising the protein system to address food security and scaling low-carbon protein sources. For Sumi, “The challenge there is that, with a strong focus on high productivity, commoditised production and supply models, they risk exacerbating issues.”
On the other hand, a protein visionary is one that considers the entire gamut of ecological and social impacts. They look into the root causes and find solutions that target these through redesigning and future-proofing the system so it’s ready for any major global disruptions.
Building resilience and adaptability are top concerns, and doing so requires looking at systems holistically, rather than in parts.
The alternative protein industry is part of a broader system that’s currently gaining a lot of momentum and energy. The transition from traditional meat production to this innovative form should not be shallow and just tackle sustainability.
Different stakeholders must collaborate in ensuring that unprecedented problems are not created as sustainability goals are being vigorously met. Sumi believes that we must “bring in new norms and behaviours that take us towards a future fit protein system for the region.”
With insights from Sumi Dhanarajan, APAC Associate Director at Forum for the Future.