Red meat versus alternative proteins. A false debate?

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What if the whole debate about animal versus alternative protein was a false debate? What if it was still possible to reduce global read meat consumption by more than 50% as recommended by the experts of the EAT Lancet commission, and, at the same time preserve the livelihoods of the millions of smallholders in low-income countries whose livelihoods and food security depend on livestock rearing?

Often in the news media – and even more often in the academic literature – the current debate about red meat versus alternative protein is framed almost like the unbearable moral dilemma of a Greek tragedy: on the one hand, we are asked to reduce the global production/consumption of red meat by half and to shift to alternative protein sources (plant-based, insects, cultured meat, algae, etc.) in order to reduce the negative consequences of excessive red meat consumption on human health and on the environment. On the other hand, we are also told that this shift, if forced, would be disastrous for the millions of poor smallholders, women and young children in low-income countries who depend on livestock and red meat consumption for their livelihoods, food security and nutrition.

In a recent article published in Frontiers in Sustainability, two researchers from the CGIAR Initiative on Sustainable Healthy Diets through Food Systems Transformation (SHiFT) challenge the soundness of this apparent dilemma. They carefully document the narratives and the arguments used by the different protagonists and show that much of this ‘Greek tragedy’ is in fact a false debate. Their analysis reveals how this seemingly irreconcilable tension between reducing red meat consumption in the name of sustainable healthy diets and continuing to improve the food security and nutrition of vulnerable groups in low-income countries is mainly the result of the way particular groups of actors within the food system frame the problem. Not surprisingly, one of these actors is the Big Meat industry, which has huge financial interests in seeing red meat consumption continue to rise. What is more surprising is that a number of scientists and experts also play a part in creating or perpetuating this false debate. Between the need to secure project funding, the pressure to publish and maintain visibility, and the more unconscious influence of the scientific paradigms within which they operate, scientists can often contribute to the polarization of the debate by taking strong or even sometimes biased positions (either for or against one side of the story).

What the paper also reveals – and this is perhaps even more shocking – is that plant-based and other types of alternative proteins (insects, cultured meat, algae, etc.) – which many of us see as the way to counterbalance the Big Meat industry – are not as ‘clean’ as we think. Did you know that the vast majority of the successful alternative protein start-ups that have emerged in the last 10 years have already been bought up by some of the largest fast-food corporations (e.g. McDonald’s, KFC, etc.) or by some of the richest people in the world (such as Richard Branson or Bill Gates)? In effect, most of the alternative protein products that we proudly buy in our favorite local “alternative” grocery store are actually produced under license by the same Big Meat corporations that also offer their famous double (or is it triple?) beef burgers all over the world through their globalized fast-food chains…

However, not all is doom and gloom, say the authors of the paper, who note that while our dream of seeing the Big Meat industry challenged by those alternative protein options may have died before the protein transition had a chance to start, the wicked nature of the problem of eating red meat or not eating red meat may also be just an illusion. The authors conclude: “In fact, there is no technical impossibility to simultaneously reduce the consumption (and production) of red meat directed at consumers in high and middle-income countries, while at the same time boosting protein consumption among the socio-demographic groups and populations for which more protein in their diet would be beneficial”. Let’s hope this is indeed the case…

The International Food Policy Research Institute and the Alliance of Bioversity and CIAT lead SHiFT in close collaboration with Wageningen University and Research and with contributions from the International Potato Center. SHiFT combines high-quality nutritional and social science research capacity with development partnerships to generate innovative, robust solutions that contribute to healthier, more sustainable dietary choices and consumption of sustainable healthy diets. It builds on CGIAR’s unparalleled track record of agricultural research for development, including ten years of work on food systems and nutrition under the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health (A4NH).

Header image: Adapted by CIAT from Microsoft Stock Images and the Noun Project.  

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