Keeping up with the latest action in the protein system during the research for Forum for the Future’s latest report, The Future of Food, was as challenging as it was exciting. But is all this action shaping up to deliver transformational change? Roberta Iley, Protein Challenge 2040 lead at Forum, shares her insights.

Transforming the global food system is critical for slowing our current climate and ecological crises. One macronutrient in particular - protein - lies at the intersection of a number of major global sustainability challenges - land-use change, the nitrogen cycle, malnutrition, biodiversity loss, animal welfare, sustainable livelihoods and climate breakdown - but it has also become a hot topic in its own right. While Western diets contain on average 20% more than the nutritional requirements for protein, we have seen a growing number of people varying the source of the protein they eat and identifying as ‘flexitarian’, often for health reasons. With this is mind, to meet every person’s nutritional needs in an equitable and sustainable way, the protein system must transform. 

This formed the basis of the Protein Challenge 2040. Forum facilitates this pre-competitive collaboration with businesses and NGOs working in and around protein, and its partners recognise that the protein challenge cannot be tackled in isolation - it requires a systemic transformation to benefit people and the planet. 

Since our work on the Protein Challenge 2040 began, we have seen a huge surge in both the production and consumption of plant-based protein, alongside rapidly evolving research into insect and cell-based proteins. Yet this is happening against concurrent growth in meat sales, suggesting today’s protein system is expanding rather than transforming. To analyse this further, we decided to take a step back from the Challenge and evaluate the state of the market, asking whether all the changes we’ve seen in the protein system so far are shaping up to deliver a transformation commensurate to the scale needed to address the climate and ecological emergencies?

The results of this analysis form our latest report: The Future of Food. We reviewed the public commitments of 132 of the largest and most influential businesses that interact with protein and assessed whether businesses really are on track to deliver a sustainable protein system by 2040. 

Read the executive summary here

Read the full report here

Promisingly, there is a lot of action in this space. So much action, in fact, that we had to repeatedly create and re-create a ‘typology’ of actions being taken by businesses to keep up with the sheer frequency of new announcements - particularly from meat producers launching plant-based products. There is not yet a standardised way to measure action in this space, making research both challenging and incredibly exciting. What we did find included: 

These numbers highlight that holistic, systemic strategies are not yet widespread. Businesses need an integrated protein strategy that brings together sustainability and nutrition, is joined up with climate targets, and tackles both protein production and consumption together to avoid unintended consequences. 

Hopefully this report will spark a wider debate around the future of food, including questions such as: 

  • What will our diets look like by 2040? 
  • How will food be farmed and produced?
  • How will diets vary across different populations? 
  • And what is the role of businesses in getting us there?

And as ambition turns to action at the scale and pace needed to address the climate crisis, businesses need to also take into account how emotive, uncomfortable and challenging it may be to transform our protein system. It relates to what we eat and peoples’ ways of life and livelihoods right here in the West, rather than an issue to be felt and dealt with elsewhere: it’s a global system that we deal with in proximity. We’ll need to grapple with and embrace the complexity and nuances that this will bring.

But - the fact that the protein industry is now rapidly shifting suggests we can change its shape and  get on track to deliver a sustainable system by 2040. We invite businesses to follow a five-point plan to drive truly transformative action, including:

  1. Develop an integrated protein strategy;
  2. Make public, time-boud commitments;
  3. Embed your strategy across the business;
  4. Collaborate; and
  5. Advocate for change. 

If you work in a business and wish to collaborate to transform the future of food, contact Roberta Iley or learn more about the Protein Challenge 2040 here.

Read the Future of Food report here