Animal agriculture struggles show need for alternative protein sources

Jordan Allen and Amiti Banavar

Meat and dairy farming accounts for more than 14.5% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, contributing to environmental degradation and biodiversity loss. These sectors contribute the most to GHG emissions, greatly exceeding emissions from the transportation sector. The Paris Agreement of 2015 made the need for reform abundantly clear — four of the 17 sustainability goals outlined are specifically related to animal agriculture. The world’s leading producers were urged to work toward eradicating hunger, promote responsible food production and consumption, address climate change, and protect land-based life. The COVID-19 epidemic and a lack of widespread policy reforms make it less likely that these objectives will be met by the target year of 2030.

If we hope to reach these goals, a more sustainable food system is vital. Maintaining the food supply chain and economy while creating a greener system may sound challenging. Reducing the world’s reliance on conventional animal agriculture for its protein supply and harnessing more sustainable production methods must be a part of the solution. Alternative — meat made from plants and cultivated from cells are a key part of this puzzle.

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In November, more than 100 world leaders and 35,000 people are meeting in Egypt for the United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties, COP27, to discuss every aspect of climate change to limit human impact on our environment. For the first time, the conference will include a Food Systems Pavilion focused on making viable changes to international food organizations and food policy.

While leaders are making progress and decisions toward our health and climate future, the impetus also lies in consumers making informed decisions about the food we eat every day.

Consumers have already demonstrated a keen interest in plant-based meat. In 2021, plant-based food sales totaled over $7.4 billion, representing 54% sales growth within the last 3 years.

Currently, one-third of protein consumed worldwide comes from animal-based sources. However, animal proteins are expensive, limited in supply, and directly related to fresh water depletion, climate change and biodiversity loss. They also cause human illness (eg, E. coli, salmonella, and listeria). When the pandemic brought supply chains to a halt, the difficulty of maintaining slaughterhouses while keeping workers safe from COVID-19 caused meat prices to spike and was a major reason for the $19.5 billion Inflation Reduction Act. This initiative was passed to help the struggling agriculture sector and provide new conservation funding to support climate-smart agriculture. Issues like these will only become more frequent — including disease, food supply chain shortages, and climate instability. Because of these ongoing problems, there needs to be a more significant consideration for new protein sources.

Although we can’t assume everyone wants to adopt a flexitarian, vegan or vegetarian lifestyle, alternative proteins are derived from more than just plants. According to alternative protein think tank, the Good Food Institute, “alternative protein” is a catch-all phrase that can be interpreted as ingredients derived from non-animal sources. New technology, known as cultivated meat, makes it possible to cultivate animal cells in bioreactors so consumers can enjoy real meat more sustainably. Studies show that cultivated meat could produce up to 92% fewer emissions than conventional meat.

Despite alternative proteins gaining traction in the media, there is still much to be done to reduce the world’s reliance on animal agriculture to the extent required to meet global sustainability goals. It will be impossible to meet the goals of the aforementioned 2015 international Paris Agreement without a marked reduction in conventional animal agriculture. But during the past few years, many companies, academic institutions and global initiatives have emerged focusing on developing and distributing alternative proteins. These developments bring hope for a climate-friendly food future. Groups such as the Alt Protein Project at Virginia Tech, supported by the Good Food Institute, are devoted to outreach and education about various animal-free choices being developed and sold.

Communities surrounding Roanoke and the New River Valley have always been eager to support local, farm-fresh food. With the opening of several vegan restaurants in Roanoke, fast-food chains adding brands such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Burgers, and the addition of plant-based options at supermarkets such as Kroger, meat-free meals are becoming easier to obtain. As citizens and voters we can push our government to invest in businesses focused on advancing sustainable food systems to promote more food diversity and income streams in our communities. Although changes on an international scale may be slow, we have the power to influence future generations in our own backyard through our decisions and actions.

Allen and Banavar are second-year master’s students studying food science and technology at Virginia Tech. Allen currently conducts research utilizing food processing by-products, particularly brewer’s spent cereal, in the Huang Lab at Tech. Banavar’s research focuses on developing and characterizing plant-based scaffolds for use in cultivated seafood, and she currently works in the Ovissipour lab at the Virginia Seafood Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Hampton.

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