By Lesley Mitchell, Associate Director, Sustainable Nutrition - Forum for the Future

In November we gathered leaders from across the food world - all partners of our Protein Challenge 2040 project - to see how we are doing collectively on that ‘meaty’ goal (sorry, couldn’t resist) that we set ourselves three years ago: how to feed 9 billion people enough protein in a way which is healthy and won’t wreck the planet by 2040.

One point was crystal clear to everyone: concerted, co-ordinated action across the protein system is needed - right now. The IPCC report makes the challenge clear: mitigating global warming to 1.5 degrees “will require large-scale transformations of the global energy-agriculture-land-economy system”, including a rapid reshaping of how “agricultural systems are organised, and food, energy and materials are consumed”. Just yesterday, 130 major research academies, after three years of peer reviewed research, jointly restated the urgent need to reduce consumption and transform our broken food system.

The Protein Challenge is making this a reality, systemically addressing future food security in the context of climate threat. Indeed, the challenge is bigger than any one of us; our only chance of fixing the broken food system is by acting together. At points during the Protein Summit, especially after a very rousing speech from Jonathon Porritt where he presented future options to us (scenarios from mere ‘severe disruption’ to ‘extinction’), the sense of energy in the room was palpable - as it should be.

Many players in the protein industry are recognising the need for change, which was reflected by the impressive range of people in the room - from major meat producers to alternative protein innovators. These unlikely allies are unified by a common purpose, which meant we were able to build constructive and inclusive dialogue towards a shared vision for action.

So much has changed in this space over the three years since we launched The Protein Challenge 2040 -  both in the collaboration’s progress, and the world at large. For better or for worse you might ask? It’s a mixed bag.

The protein picture today

Whereas signals worldwide clearly show that some citizens are choosing to change their protein consumption, typically for health benefits or animal welfare concerns, overall meat demand is still growing. Projections suggest it could increase by 73% by 2050. We need a sustainable nutrition system that provides healthy and sustainably produced diets, accessible to all.

While the food system has begun to engage with the protein challenge, public policy lags far behind. National, regional or global efforts so far have been too slow and disjointed to enable solutions that will keep global warming below 1.5 degrees. Momentum must be redoubled - but most importantly a systemic food strategy is needed, and should be top of the agenda at events like the UNFCCC COP.

If we are to produce meat, we need investment in innovation and scaling of sustainable feed alternatives. Growing monogastric food production – pigs and poultry – is pushing demand for animal feeds such as soy and fishmeal at an alarmingly fast rate.

That’s not to mention the role of consumer perceptions around meat; many still don’t see a meal as complete without a piece of animal protein at its centre, which is something that retailers and restaurants can’t ignore no matter how good their intentions. Smart behaviour change interventions are going to be key to move these issues forward.

Technology is rapidly shaping the protein system in all sorts of different directions, from vertical farming (just recently cited by the Daily Mail as an innovation which will ‘change agriculture forever’) to increased supply chain transparency - take Global Fishing Watch, an initiative launched by Google in partnership with Oceana and SkyTruth "to provide the world’s first global view of commercial fishing activities." But these alone are not enough.

Moving towards solutions

All is not doom however, and the innovations being developed through the Protein Challenge 2040 project reinvigorated our collective sense of momentum.

For example, in the US we are facilitating innovations that bring together food manufacturers, food service procurement and ten diverse school districts, to create new plant-protein based meals for up to 38 million school lunches, as a model to test and scale transforming the food service sector.

Our work on sustainable animal feed is seeing major supermarkets start to trial ways of delivering less carbon-intensive inputs to the meat supply chain through a decision-making framework called the Feed Compass.

We’ve also engaged a thriving network of chefs, food product developers and foodservice professionals, who are actively making efforts to bring exciting plant protein options to their dishes and have been lending us their insights for the next phase.

We are in this together - and while we know our efforts are just part of the picture, through the Protein Summit this unique collaboration renewed its call to action to work together, build consistent messages and synergise action. We will be looking for opportunities and resources to drive this collective action over the coming year.

In 2019, we will focus on:

  • Shaping the policy landscape to create an enabling environment for businesses who take a sustainable protein approach to thrive, and to bring the issue higher up a number of different agendas
  • Piloting our innovative ‘Feed Compass’ framework with retailers and meat producers to understand how it can support businesses in making future-fit procurement decisions
  • Empowering current and future catering, restaurant and product development chefs to meet customer demand for delicious, sustainable and nutritious dishes
  • Delivering pilots in US schools to help increase millions of future consumers’ access and uptake of nutritious, plant protein based lunches

We know that growing the Protein Challenge 2040 to encompass a more globalised network is key to unlocking the change we seek, at the speed the world needs. If you are engaged in the protein system, now is the time to join the collaboration. And, of course, we are currently seeking funders interested in driving this to the next level of impact.

Now is the time to meet The Protein Challenge 2040 - if you are interested in being part of the solution you can contact our Associate Director of Sustainable Nutrition, Lesley Mitchell:

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