By Andy Richardson - Head of Corporate Affairs, Volac (Protein Challenge 2040 leadership group member)

As Forum for the Future’s latest report on The Future of Food neatly shows, we have seen a dramatic shift in the narrative around protein of all kinds in the past few years. Since co-founding the Protein Challenge 2040 collaboration with Forum four years ago, we have seen - and to some extent orchestrated - the growth of a movement of businesses who are taking action to tackle the question of how we will feed 10 billion people enough protein by 2040 in a way which keeps them and the planet healthy.

I am now seeing players in the animal protein supply chain collaborating to improve the efficiency and sustainability of dairy and meat production. At the same time, food businesses are now either investing, acquiring or launching new plant-based products in response to a rising concern for the environmental impacts of the food we eat amongst consumers.

This picture is rapidly changing all the time, and as a proud “co-parent” of Protein Challenge 2040 I’m delighted to see how the expert facilitation and systems thinking brought by Forum for the Future, and the determination of our industry to create something together, is making real change in the world of protein.

Action on protein: a mixed bag

Yet still, action across key areas is mixed. For instance, Forum’s recent report found that only a third of companies are taking action on animal feed beyond single-issue commitments such as more responsible sourcing of soy. Projects such as Feed Compass - part of Protein Challenge 2040 – are actively promoting collaboration across the supply chain to drive action on sustainable feed, but more widely action still feels to be in its infancy. This is potentially a significant risk for the livestock sector and may contribute to animal protein being further challenged as part of a future sustainable diet.

Taking a wider view, I sense a lack of integrated strategies from food companies around protein. This means that by and large, even though many companies are taking action, the connections between - for instance - scope 3 emissions targets and product offerings are not being made. This leaves us with what feels like a disparate set of actions being taken across the board when, if brought together through the lens of system change and proper, get-your-hands-dirty collaboration, these actions could add up to so much more. 

Why collaboration is key

Collaboration is not a happy-clappy, be-nice-to-people activity – it has a real hard business application and it holds the key to our success in the future. It can be seen by some as woolly and difficult to quantify in terms of impact, but it is an essential precursor to real action on the ground in an increasingly polarised world.

Critically, the Protein Challenge is the first and only collaboration on protein which brings together business and NGOs. Everyone talks about the need for this, but no one else has yet achieved it. It’s this joined-up thinking which will get us further, faster. As a key partner of the collaboration, I can attest to its real-world benefits.

For instance, I’m seeing more and more that the language that the Protein Challenge 2040 has been using to talk about key issues is being replicated by influential figures in the industry, government and NGOs and in conferences and key media coverage. This effect is difficult to quantify but is a signal of the kind of mindset shift which forms the backdrop to any real systemic change.

It hasn’t always been easy, but collaboration can get you closer to where we need to be. When the Protein Challenge 2040 steering group was first formed, there were some diverse views (there still are!). Forum acted as a neutral facilitator to help organisations realise common ground and shared values in this tricky territory. It also helped us and other organisations recognise the value of being able to step back to understand where we sit in context of the wider food system, avoid knee jerk reactions and take a long-term view on key sustainability issues.

It’s up to us

We all have a part to play - and many organisations, from EAT to the IPCC, have set out the urgent need for joined-up action across the food system if we are to provide up to 10 billion people with enough healthy, sustainable food by 2040.

I would urge anyone that works in the food industry to read The Future of Food for a unique, real-time overview of where we are today on protein and where we could be in the future. Where can you see yourself as an individual and as a business in 20 years’ time, and how will you have contributed to this growing movement? The time for action is now, and every move we make will have long-lasting effects. Let’s make sure they’re the right ones.

You can read more about the Protein Challenge here.