The future roles of livestock and alternative proteins are heavily contested. The IPES-Food report The Politics of Protein: Examining claims about livestock, fish, ‘alternative proteins’ and sustainability aimed to overcome polarisation by critically assessing the stories commonly told about different proteins and their environmental, nutritional, and social impacts. Did the report achieve its goal? In this TABLE Letterbox exchange, Garrett Broad and Phil Howard discuss whether the report instead reinforced existing media narratives about alternative proteins, and debate the extent to which plant-based and cell-cultured foods can help to resolve the challenges facing the global food system.
I read your recent IPES-Food report on “The Politics of Protein” with great interest. Over the last several years, my research has dug deep into debates about meat and animal food production, exploring the many environmental, nutritional, and ethical implications of feeding our protein-hungry planet. I’ve also spent a lot of time exploring efforts that aim to change the dominant system of industrial farm animal production (also known as factory farming). My work has investigated a host of advocacy campaigns that promote changes to meat production and consumption, market-led initiatives to create high-tech vegan meat alternatives, movements that advocate for a return to small-scale animal husbandry, and the role of the incumbent meat industry across this landscape.
With that as background, there was a lot about your report that I nodded along with in agreement. We agree that there are too many uncertain claims asserted as fact in the “future of meat” conversation. We agree that a whole range of social and environmental criteria should be taken into account as we consider the best path forward, and that there are no silver bullet solutions. We agree that more democratic engagement in food system decision-making is necessary as a way to assess technologies and use innovation to promote the public good, and that polarisation is a major obstacle to a sustainable food future. In this vein, the report states that its key recommendations are “focused on reframing the discussion, overcoming polarisation, and putting the conditions and frameworks in place for truly transformative reform pathways to emerge.”
It’s on this final point that I think we might have a major point of departure. My takeaway was that the report, and particularly the media coverage that followed, likely contributed to a more polarised meat and protein discussion, not less. Much of the commentary that followed its release seemed to offer one big conclusion – that alternative proteins, including plant-based meats like Beyond or Impossible, as well as the emerging science and industry of cell-cultured meat technology – are a bad idea, at best, and a dangerous boondoggle, at worst.
How did this conclusion take hold? The image attached to the report featured depictions of “meat free meat” labelled in various languages, accompanied by a tweet from @IPES that stated it would “set the record straight” on “misleading generalisations and silver bullet solutions.” Your op-ed in Civil Eats was headlined, “Fake Meat Won’t Solve the Climate Crisis.” Other coverage and social media chatter followed suit, focusing almost entirely on the section that criticised alternative proteins, ignoring the rest of the report’s focus on the broader politics of protein, as well as the shortcomings of other alternatives such as “regenerative livestock systems,” which are no panacea either.
I’d be happy to discuss in this exchange why I think alternative proteins have more potential than you seem to believe, even as I agree they are not a cure-all. But my bigger questions at this stage focus on the impact of your work. Do you think your report helped to make the discussion about the politics of protein less polarised, or did it ultimately end up reinforcing the same unproductive media narratives that you hoped to counter? If you agree with me that it fell short on this count, looking back, is there anything you might have done differently to encourage a better discussion?
I’m glad you found so much to agree with in our report. Our goal was primarily to raise questions rather than provide answers, and to draw attention to issues that are often silenced when simplistic claims are constantly repeated and amplified. We hope that it catalyses more discussion (including this exchange!) about the claims we identified, and don’t expect anyone to agree with every single point. We highlighted multiple areas where the evidence is still tentative, for example, and are open to revisiting our inferences.
Avoiding polarisation was one aim of our report. The primary goal, however, was to critically examine claims that do receive abundant attention in media and policy spaces, and therefore may steer us toward pathways and solutions that are less optimal. The assumption that more protein needs to be produced to feed a growing population is one such claim – one that you echo in your second sentence with the phrase “protein-hungry planet.” This claim is made frequently by many people, even though protein is currently consumed in adequate amounts nearly everywhere, including by children in low-income countries, and even when accounting for quality. Protein deficiencies are rare and most prevalent in parts of the world that have insufficient access to all foods. In other words, what we see is not a “protein gap,” but a food gap.
This hasn’t prevented many well-meaning organisations from calling for a “protein transition” – despite its potential to reinforce a strategy that dominant meat and dairy processors are using to promote increased consumption of their products, to expand into other food sectors, and to become even more powerful.
Alternative “proteins” are thus a problematic descriptor, an oversimplification that reduces a diverse array of foods to just one macronutrient. I agree, however, that some of the media coverage of “meat substitutes” that followed our report could have benefitted from more nuance, and more attention to broader political and economic factors.
The benefits claimed for products sold by Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat and Vivera (owned by JBS, the world’s largest meat processor) are significantly exaggerated by these firms, and are fully deserving of much more scrutiny. Cellular or lab-grown meat initiatives are not yet commercially viable but are receiving increasing subsidies from governments, despite numerous technical challenges that may be insurmountable. Their focus on patents and trade secrets is also attracting ownership stakes from nearly all the world’s largest meat and animal feed corporations, who will have little incentive to undermine the industrial livestock production that supports their core businesses. The potential benefits of encouraging smaller-scale food processors that use more diverse ingredients (e.g. lupins, fava beans) or produce traditional foods like tempeh, however, did not receive enough media attention.
I would like to avoid polarisation with groups and individuals that have much in common with us, although we still need to engage in difficult conversations on contested issues, particularly to assess if our strategies are reinforcing food systems problems rather than addressing them. Let’s examine, for example, the shaky assumptions that, (1) more protein is needed, (2) that a meaningful proportion of people will reduce consumption of industrially produced animal source foods by replacing them with highly processed and proprietary analogues, and (3) that gigantic firms with billionaire investors are capable of solving the problems that they have directly exacerbated.
I think it’s important that you called attention to my use of the phrase “protein-hungry planet.” We should explore exactly what is meant by this notion, whether we believe it to be true or not, and what the implications are for food system policy and advocacy. You make the point that there is an adequate supply of protein in the world, and that protein deficiency is relatively rare and manageable. On this, we are in general agreement – although, I think we can also agree that even a little bit of protein deficiency is unacceptable, given existing global resources.
Still, that doesn’t contradict the broader point about the world’s overall hunger for protein, and in particular animal protein, which is the primary source of protein in highly developed nations, and increasingly in demand across the developing world. As I see it, hunger from lack of protein may not be a major problem, but we are still hungry for (animal) protein, and that’s an issue we need to address.
When it comes to explaining the rise of animal protein production and consumption, there are two main explanatory camps. One perspective is grounded in a supply-side thesis, which suggests that increased animal protein consumption is the product of some combination of a productivist corporate agro-industrial strategy, supportive government policies, and aggressive marketing campaigns. Together, these actions have flooded the planet with cheap animal protein products. In this interpretation, changes on the supply-side that make meat less available could lead to attendant decreases in overall consumption, although any large-scale effort to do so would surely be met with strident opposition from many corners.
The other perspective is grounded in a demand-side thesis, which argues that some combination of biological, socio-economic, and cultural forces make people really want to eat meat and other animal proteins. Meat obviously has deep roots in human evolution, is connected to a host of symbolic meanings about gender and social status, and is consistently an object of desire as societies increase in wealth and urbanisation. Reducing pressure on the demand side, if possible at all, would require a fairly dramatic social awakening about the drawbacks of animal protein.
Your IPES report does bring up both supply-and-demand factors, but it seems to place heavier weight on the supply-side thesis, arguing that, “Current trends towards high consumption of animal source foods are a function of industrial agriculture, the promotion of Western-style diets, and heavy cultural marketing” (p. 46). It sees signs for hope on the consumer side, though, suggesting that “emerging cultural values” that bring to light the harms of industrial animal farming, combined with the rise in plant-based and vegan eating, are promising trends that could realign our food system away from high-meat diets.
As someone who has been vegan for the past 15 years, I wish that was true! Sadly, I’m not convinced that Diet for a Small Planet values are on the verge of a cultural takeover. The fact is that vegan and plant-based diets remain niche in those countries with the highest levels of animal protein consumption. In these contexts, there may be plenty of people who say they are opting to eat “less but better” animal protein, but actual market data suggests they are either lying to surveys or lying to themselves (and/or being lied to by meat marketers about where their animal food really comes from). Developing economies are not exactly leading a plant-based revolution either.
To me, this suggests the need for an all-hands-on-deck strategy that both shifts government and corporate policy in ways that can internalise the costs of animal farming and shifts cultural values to promote more whole food plant-based eating. But I also see value in exploring whether and how meat analogues might serve as a tool to reduce the global demand that we actually agree is growing. In terms of the role of gigantic firms with billionaire investors in this process, aren’t they even more likely to dominate alternative protein if equity-minded food system advocates write off the sector’s potential entirely?
Yes, the production and consumption of meat and dairy products is increasing in many parts of the word, but let’s call this what it is – "livestock” or “animal source foods”. Even reducing livestock to “meat” obscures the fact that they are animals, and that they have many other roles in some contexts, such as providing fertiliser, wool or traction. If we’re focused only on foods, however, it would be better to specify “meat” or “dairy” or “eggs,” all of which contain fats and many other nutrients, rather than oversimplifying them as “protein”. To restate what you said just a little differently, it isn’t a hunger for one “charismatic” macronutrient that is driving these trends, it is a constellation of many factors, including biology, culture, government policies, marketing and socioeconomics. This results in varying consumption patterns for different types of animal source foods depending upon the context.
I see the supply-side and demand-side perspectives as not in conflict, but as two parts of a dynamic system that frequently influence each other. Both are important, but if I emphasise the supply-side it’s because it doesn’t receive as much attention as a lever for change in policy discussions. Dominant food firms have become powerful enough to influence both supply and demand, such as convincing more people to collapse animal source foods and their analogues into “proteins,” and to consume even more protein when the majority already exceed current dietary guidelines. These firms are constantly seeking to reshape society in directions that will increase their power. It is important to recognise that this is typically more about limiting than increasing our choices, despite the illusion of choice we see in most large retailers. Their strategies include deskilling and undermining our knowledge of food production and preparation, which can steer people away from boiling split red lentils, for example, and toward microwaving a frozen meal.
I agree that we need all-hands-on-deck and multiple strategies, but with a focus on changing food systems, not just the product. This will involve efforts to synergistically address both supply and demand. Even these approaches are unlikely to succeed, however, unless the political economic contexts that lock in increasing concentrations of power are changed. These structures are what make it so challenging for individuals to choose “less but better” options as frequently as they may claim to survey researchers, and what enables marketers to lie to them without serious consequences.
Promoting the “alternative protein” sector (and its potential) on all-inclusive terms is potentially the most dangerous course of action at this juncture. It will encourage even more governments to back them financially and politically. Big food is already exerting enormous control over the sector so public support will simply subsidise their costs and endorse their products without inserting real public interest imperatives in return. Shedding light on big food's increasing control of these industries is key to changing course. If these corporations know that claims will be rigorously assessed, they might have less incentive to buy up start-ups in the sector. Manufacturers will also have greater incentives to ensure that the products they are marketing as sustainable options are based on truly sustainable supply chains. Scrutiny will also help to avoid consumers being under the illusion that these products are the optimal way to change diets and save the planet. With more transparency and less hype, citizen-consumers will hopefully be able to see these products for what they are: an alternative convenience food, and a potential substitute for the worst forms of meat.