‘It’s not as simple as replacing animal- with plant-based protein’

Protein transition is not just about eating less meat. It is also about equal distribution around the world. ‘Right now the focus on equitability is missing’, says Stacy Pyett, Program Manager Proteins for Life.

Why is it so important to have a protein transition?

‘The protein transition has been a theme at WUR for the last four years because it is a key part of the needed food system transition. There are four important drivers for a protein transition. The most visible one is sustainability. We need to produce within our planetary boundaries. There is a growing demand for meat worldwide, but also for crops that we grow for animal feed. At this moment we are using more than is available.

The second reason that is less obvious, but very important, is equity. The protein is not distributed fairly. There are regions with overconsumption, and consumption of a high percentage of animal protein. And regions with undernourishment and very low access to protein, especially animal protein. The discussion on protein transition is mostly about transition from animal to plant based protein in high-income countries, but equal distribution is often left out of the societal dialogue.

Quinoa plant - WUR researchers have developed quinoa that can grow on high saline soil
Quinoa plant - WUR researchers have developed quinoa that can grow on high saline soil

I think ethically we should not be happy with where we are right now. My concern is that when we focus too much on the sustainability only, that we might think as high-income consumer it’s enough just to switch from animal to plant based protein. But there is a reason why we want to switch: it’s for the planet, but also for the people who have no access right now to sufficient protein. I wish that this part of the transition had more attention. It’s not just about whatconsumers here eat, but also how we collectively work toward equity. Could you do more? Policy-makers, philanthropies, and especially the food industry can do more to advocate for equity. Consumers can support brands that commit to equitable supply chains.

Sustainability and equity are the two most important reasons for the need for a protein transition but not the only ones. We also have to think about climate resilience. We have to prepare for more floods, fires, and other extreme weather incidents. Globally, it would be smart to be less dependent on just a few types of crops. For example in the Netherlands the soil is getting increasingly saline. If we want to use our coastal lands for agriculture we need to plant crops that are saline resistant. These are things we have to consider when thinking about protein transition. Last but not least it’s about health. Because we know that a healthy diet is more plant-based than what we eat now.’

What does our diet look like in 2050?

‘The global average diet is about one third animal based protein, and two thirds plant based. But that covers up overconsumption in high-income countries and under-access in low-income countries. Most of our attention goes to us, high-income country consumers, decreasing our meat consumption. This is very relevant, but we might also want to allow more meat and dairy consumption in undernourished regions. For one because animal-sourced foods contain certain micronutrients like iron and vitamin B12, and micronutrient deficiencies are a problem for example in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of south east Asia. In the Netherlands about two thirds of the diet is animal based. We could reduce that to one third, and if we did that we would be much closer to the global average. For our health, eating less animal-sourced foods is not the goal in itself, which makes the term “protein transition” is a bit misleading. It’s not that we have to exchange one protein for another: in most high income countries we eat more protein that we need. What we should eat more of are fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains and legumes.’

How does WUR’s research contribute to the protein transition?

‘WUR has three main research themes around protein transition. The first one focuses on circular systems. The core problem here is feed-food competition: we grow crops that are suitable for human consumption, like soy, and we feed them to animals that we consume. About 98 percent of soy grown worldwide is for animal feed. This is something that is not very visible for consumers. Many would say that they are unhappy about deforestation and its association with soy. But at the same time they have no idea that when they buy beef they are contributing to this problem. So I think we really need action from policy makers to change this. If we are only cultivating soy for human consumption, there would be no problems with deforestation because the amount we would need would be much less than today.

If we are only cultivating soy for human consumption, there would be no problems with deforestation
Stacy Pyett, Program Manager Proteins for Life

The second line of research focuses on alternative protein sources. This is important for climate resilience. For example: soil salination is a problem in the Netherlands, and also in some Asian countries. WUR researchers have developed quinoa that can grow on high saline soil. Another reason to look for different protein sources is to make sure everyone has access to protein. Because there is already enough, it’s just not distributed equally. WUR is looking at sources like duckweed or microbial proteins, that don’t need land to be cultivated. This could be an option for countries that have a scarcity of arable land.Also we wouldn’t need more deforestation, because we could increase our production for example by farming in urban greenhouses. We are also looking at microorganisms that are able to transform things that we cannot eat into edible proteins. For example there are bacteria that can eat methane gas and grow on that. Or bacteria that grow on agricultural residues and side streams.

Soy beans
Soy beans

The third research line is about consumer behavior and how we can reach a societal shift. You can change what you’re producing, but if people aren’t buying it, that won’t work. The most important thing is that we try and understand the gap between intention and behavior. Because when we ask consumers if they want to change their diet and decrease their meat consumption, almost everyone says yes. We also see an increase in sales of meat-replacers. At the same time the meat consumption stays pretty consistent. It’s not clear what is happening here. Maybe people eat meat replacements instead of a salad, rather than substituting a hamburger. We know for example with the energy transition that people buy energy-saving lightbulbs, but then feel justified in taking a long car or airline trip. We call that the “halo effect” when we overcompensate, rewarding ourselves for good behavior by allowing ourselves to splurge on something else. Alternatively, it could be that some people are reducing their meat intake, but others have increased it.

In the end, if we really want to create a transition, it’s not enough to say that we want it, we need to understand what drives daily choice and create the right environment that people can actually change their behavior.'