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The Future of Sustainable Protein is… Complicated

The Future of Sustainable Protein is… Complicated
2014 Veggie Pride Parade in New York City. Parade, rally, expo, two dozen speakers, 35 exhibitors, food, music, and a soapbox testimonial station. See www.veggieprideparade.org/Photo by Alan Rice

“The Paleoketoveganmacrofasting Diet: Stop the Madness!!!” This was the amusing title of a recent presentation by Dr. Shawn Arent, a kinesiology professor at Rutgers University. The talk was aimed at personal trainers. But for the rest of us, the title hints at the madness of all the emerging (conflicting) dietary practices (and increasingly, institutional policies) surrounding the provision of protein that appear to be gaining credence in North America. This highlights the various beliefs about what does or does not qualify as a “healthy,” “ethical,” or “sustainable” food.

If present trends are any measure, this madness is likely to continue. A wide range of forces are working in the background to profoundly reshape the global agri-food sector. The world’s population is growing at a tremendous pace, with more than 200,000 additional mouths to feed on the planet every day. Experts therefore expect a struggle in meeting the future demand for nutritious food. At the same time, hundreds of millions of people are being lifted out of extreme poverty. Along with these rising incomes globally, the demand for meat — one of the traditional foods through which humans acquire protein — has grown significantly, putting additional pressure on land and resources.

A related problem pertains to the trends of degradation and/or overuse of water, soil, and forests, as conventional agricultural practices — heavily reliant on fossil fuels, synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and other inputs — strain Earth’s natural areas and biodiversity. Heightened ethical awareness about the treatment of animals in conventional agriculture is also fueling dietary and culinary change. This gives rise to everything from “organic,” “grass-fed,” “free-range,” and/or “hormone and antibiotic-free” meat to “plant-based meat,” and everything in between.

Meanwhile, advances in technology — from genetic engineering to lab-grown cultures — are redefining possibilities in food production and simultaneously destabilizing agri-food markets. Increasing (and competing) concerns about the nutritional profile of carbohydrates and fats are also reshaping dietary advice about what protein sources should be avoided or included in a healthy diet. (Plant and animal sourced proteins typically feature different nutritional profiles in terms of what macronutrients come along with them.)  On top of all this, there’s the existential threat of climate change, which is wreaking havoc on food production.

The case for embracing complexity in agri-food policy

Admittedly it’s a lot to take-in, even for those who study this for a living. Yet as complex as it all may be, there is a strong case for embracing this complexity when crafting policy for the agri-food sector or institutional dietary policies. Why? While it’s certainly important to have clear and cogent policies that are easy to follow, there’s a risk that oversimplifications in policy will be unable to account for the different life circumstances and experiences of citizens, consumers, and employees in different geographical contexts.

Here’s an example: There’s been a lot of talk lately about instituting bans on meat at various public institutions and private businesses. Policy proposals of this sort have been informed by meta-data studies that compare the environmental footprints of common protein sources, such as one recent high-profile study in Science. One of this study’s co-authors was recently asked about the key “take-away” of his research. His response was that “avoiding meat and dairy products is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact on the planet.” While on the surface this seems logical considering global-scale data comparisons, it’s not hard to see that this universal advice paints a monolithic picture of the typical food consumer.

The advice may indeed be accurate, but it also may be way off. It really depends on the specific context of various consumers does it not? For instance, if you’re a jet-setting frequent flyer; or if you hunt or produce most of your own food; or if you only infrequently indulge in meat and dairy (and support local sustainable producers while you’re at it); or if you derive most of your protein from intensively farmed soy; etc., etc., — then there may be more effective ways to reduce your environmental footprint. Further, there could be instances where completely banning meat and dairy would work against local sustainability objectives. Or against the dietary needs of people with chronic intestinal or nutritional issues.

The above example pertains to the environmental impact of different protein sources, but similarly sweeping claims and counterclaims have been made about the ethical and health merits of avoiding some foods over others. There’s lots of expert advice out there and it’s bound to grow both in volume and scope. But as we attempt to convert information into sustainable policy for protein provision, we ought to keep in mind the specific dynamics and local complexities that shape regional agri-food contexts. It’s just (complex) common sense!

An earlier version of this article was published by the uOttawa Gazette on 23 October 2018.

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