Green protein foods – A continental approach to societal transition?
Harry Aiking, Vrije Universiteit, Netherlands
Due to increasing global population and affluence, certain human activities with huge environmental impacts – rather than incremental improvement – require a radical systems change: a “societal transition”, involving society, industry and government as the main stakeholders. Recognised targets for transition include the production and consumption of food, energy and water. Notably, food production appropriates about 75% of freshwater and 20% of energy. Within the food area, meat production has a disproportionate environmental impact via both resource utilisation (land use, biodiversity, freshwater) and pollution (climate change, pesticides, eutrophication). In the PROFETAS (Protein Foods, Environment, Technology And Society) programme 20 multidisciplinary researchers study the environmental, technological and social feasibility of the transition from the currently predominant consumption of animal products towards a more plant protein food (NPF) oriented society. Preliminary results show the environmental benefits of a transition from animal to plant protein may be a factor 3-4 for land and energy requirements, but even 30-40 for water requirements and eutrophying pollution. The geographical distribution of potential environmental and economic benefits strongly depends on the actual protein crop selected. Furthermore, the protein transition (towards sustainable production of protein) should not be considered in isolation, i.e. uncoupled from the biomass transition (towards sustainable production of energy and materials). The aspiration to become self-sufficient (independent from imports) may also play a role. It is evident that different parts of the world require different transition approaches, due to differences in climate, culture and political priorities. Peas may be the preferred primary crop for industrial plant protein production in Europe, for example, but in Asia soy may be preferable for a multitude of reasons. Intercontinental cooperation is clearly required.
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