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Net zero on the menu

EOS Insight
24 September 2021 |
In the third article in our EOS Insights series on the social and environmental impacts of the global food system, Joanne Beatty and Dr Emma Berntman look at dietary choices and plant-based menu options.

Fast reading

  • Animal proteins are inefficient at providing caloric supply, on a land-use and emissions basis
  • A global shift is necessary towards balanced, predominantly plant-based diets
  • We are engaging with companies that are allocating capital to plant-based opportunities

Over-consumption of meat not only increases the risk of disease, it is also a major contributor to global heating, and continuing on our current path is unsustainable.

Animal proteins, on a land-use and emissions basis, are inefficient when it comes to providing caloric supply. Chicken, eggs and fish convert to protein at a rate of 17-25% of calorific value, while for cattle it’s as little as 4%. This means that 25 calories of feed are needed to produce one calorie of beef. The average water footprint per calorie of beef is 20 times larger than that for cereals and starchy vegetables.

But just improving the efficiency of animal protein production is not enough. A global shift is necessary towards balanced, predominantly plant-based diets. The much smaller environmental footprint of such a diet is less likely to compete with nature-based carbon solutions and carbon sequestration strategies, including reforestation and afforestation. Crops grown using sustainable and regenerative agricultural practices that protect soil health will further help to mitigate biodiversity loss, as outlined in the second article in this series.

Diets have changed markedly over the last 50 years. While consumer preferences in developed markets indicate an undeniable shift towards plant-based proteins, this is not happening at the pace or scale needed. In emerging markets the trend is similar, but as wealth, disposable incomes and urbanisation increase in these nations there is a corresponding spike in meat consumed.

Based on these trends and the projected growth in demand for animal proteins, we will not be able to feed the expected 10 billion people on the planet by 2050. The EAT-Lancet Commission has stated that global consumption of red meat must more than halve over this period to sustain the planet, food security and human health. A large-scale shift towards balanced plant-based diets is the only viable option and developed markets will need to reduce animal protein consumption the most.

Greenhouse gas emissions from plant-based proteins are 30-90% lower than those from animal proteins. Also, they use 72-99% less water, and result in 51-91% less nutrient pollution in aquatic systems. Following a vegan-only diet versus a diet high in red meat could reduce the greenhouse gas emissions footprint by 70%.

The food sector is already capitalising on the opportunities presented by a global shift towards plant-based diets. We are engaging with companies that are allocating capital to this segment via acquisitions and in-house investment, including Danone, Tyson Foods, General Mills and Cargill. The growth in animal protein substitutes is making the shift more palatable with the global plant-based food and beverage market projected to expand at an annual rate of nearly 9% over the period 2021-2028.  

Protein diversification

Alternatives to animal protein, while highly processed, are forcing traditional food producers to innovate and keep pace, as we have seen through our engagement with McDonalds on healthier menu alternatives and at Unilever with the adoption of healthier ingredient targets. We have also engaged on the key issues and practices of the animal health industry, including protein diversification, with some of the world’s largest protein producers and retailers. These include Mondelez, Carrefour, Conagra Brands, Costco, Tesco, Nestlé, Walmart and Marks & Spencer. Future regulatory measures such as a tax on meat may accelerate innovation and dietary shifts.

A plant-based diet will also be more beneficial for our health and wellbeing. Diets dominant in animal protein and highly processed foods have been linked to obesity, coronary heart disease, diabetes, colon cancer and morbidity. The overuse of antibiotics in intensive livestock production contributes to antimicrobial resistance (AMR). In contrast, plant-derived proteins have been used to reverse Type 2 diabetes and are associated with lower mortality rates. Replacing a percentage or all of the animal protein consumed with plant protein has been associated with a 19% lower risk of death from any cause.

Investors can play a critical role in accelerating the dietary shift by ensuring that food system product portfolios are diversified to include plant-based and alternative proteins. By transitioning protein portfolios in line with a 1.5°C and resource-constrained world, investors can expect to minimise risk exposure and realise opportunities.

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