What are some of the key environmental problems associated with current agri-food practices?
“People from all walks of life want our food system to be sustainable, secure and just. However, industrial animal agriculture as it stands, is a disaster from the perspective of our environment, food security and animal welfare. Despite all this, European meat consumption has increased in recent years, and will continue to rise globally over the coming decades. Agriculture is responsible for 10.3% of the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions, and nearly 70% of those come from the animal sector.”
“Current agricultural practices also contribute to biodiversity loss. Pollution from aquaculture systems contaminates surrounding ecosystems. In fact, at least 37% of EU marine habitats have been assessed as being critically endangered or endangered and vulnerable.”
What about the impact on public health?
“In terms of public health, antimicrobial resistance (where bacteria develop resistance to lifesaving drugs like antibiotics) is responsible for an estimated 33 000 deaths per year in the EU, and costs €1.5 billion per year in healthcare costs and productivity losses. Almost half of antibiotics used are fed to animals in the EU.”
“In addition, more than 350 000 Europeans a year fall ill due to food-borne illnesses from animal agriculture such as salmonella, caused by faecal contamination. Using animals for food is also a key driver of pandemics.”
What alternative protein options are available, and what are the potential benefits?
“Studies consistently show that taste, price and convenience decide what most people eat. So, at the Good Food Institute Europe, we’re advancing plant-based and cultivated meat, eggs, dairy and seafood, to make them as delicious, affordable and accessible as conventional animal products. By making meat from plants and cultivating it from cells, we can reduce the environmental impact of our food system, decrease the risk of zoonotic disease, and feed more people with fewer resources.”
“Research has found that moving towards plant-based meat would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 90%. Because making meat directly from plants requires substantially less crops than raising animals for meat, land-use and water-use could also be reduced drastically.”
“Cultivated meat looks, tastes, and cooks the same. Compared with conventional meat production, meat cultivation is less resource-intensive, decreasing methane emissions, deforestation, biodiversity loss, water use, water pollution, antibiotic resistance, and foodborne illnesses. A recent study by CE Delft – the first ever to be based on data from cultivated meat companies – found that cultivating meat from cells could cut the climate impact by up to 92%, reduce air pollution by up to 93%, and use up to 95% less land and 78% less water compared with farming animals.”
“Fermentation is another option. This efficient process enables proteins to grow very quickly – sometimes doubling in size within hours, compared to months or years for animals. This means that, compared with farming animals, meat and other sustainable proteins made using fermentation are less resource-intensive.”
Could you expand on microbial fermentation - how can this technology help in this transition towards more sustainable food chains?
“Sustainable protein companies are using fermentation in innovative ways to produce foods that deliver the distinctive flavours and textures of animal products, without farming animals. Fermentation companies that make meat use a method similar to beer and yoghurt production to grow large quantities of proteins – often naturally occurring mycoproteins sourced from the earth – with a meaty texture.”
“Precision fermentation companies use organisms such as yeast to produce pure milk, egg or collagen proteins, or ingredients such as heme. This process is the same one that has been used for decades to produce medicines like insulin and food enzymes like rennet (which is found in many cheese products).”
“Gene sequences for milk, egg or gelatin proteins (such as whey and casein) are introduced into the yeast, which then produces these proteins in the same way as animal cells. The result is pure milk and egg protein without antibiotics, E. coli and salmonella, or faecal contamination. These proteins can then be mixed with other ingredients like sugar and plant-based fats to create a final product like ice cream, cheese or whole milk.”
What is the current state of play in terms of fully tapping the potential of this technology?
“Some fermentation companies like Quorn have been making animal-free meat for decades – but new innovations for making sustainable proteins are being developed and launched all the time. Europe’s fermentation sector is growing rapidly, with companies producing everything from fish fingers to cheese.”
“In 2020, European fermentation companies raised over €50 million – five times more than the almost €10 million they attracted in 2019. Companies using novel ingredients or approaches – including precision fermentation – will need to apply to regulators before they can sell their products. We expect to see Europe’s first product launches of animal-free dairy and egg products by 2023.”
How is GFI Europe supporting the alternative protein transition?
“At GFI, we work with scientists to develop, fund and promote open-access research on plant-based and cultivated meat, eggs, dairy and seafood, and advocate for fair regulation of plant-based and cultivated meat and for public investment in sustainable protein R&D. We also support major food businesses, restaurants and retailers to increase the quality, quantity and availability of plant-based meats, and to prepare these companies for the arrival of cultivated meat.”
“Europe presents enormous opportunities to advance our mission. It has a population more than twice that of the US, a GDP approximately equal to it, and is home to much of the world’s scientific and commercial talent. It is one of the biggest potential markets for plant-based and cultivated meat – already accounting for 40% of the global plant-based meat market.”
“Europe also influences the world through trade, migration, diaspora communities and thought-leadership. If the policy, regulatory, and consumer environments for plant-based and cultivated meat thrive here, then they are more likely to thrive across the whole world.”