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The power of plant-based protein

Humans need protein in order to survive, but there has to be a change in the way we currently produce and consume it if we are to protect our environment and our health, says Forum for the Future’s Simon Billing.

With the launch of the government’s Eatwell Guide last week, protein is once again in the spotlight and continues to remain high on the agenda of businesses and governments globally. For the first time this guidance, which is produced by Public Health England, refers to dietary recommendations which achieve both health and sustainability outcomes, including the need to consume less red meat and replace these with more plant based proteins, such as beans and pulses.

Over the last year a group of leading retailers including Waitrose and Target, NGOs like WWF, and other international food companies including Hershey’s and Quorn have begun tackling the question of how we can feed nine billion people enough protein by 2040 in a way that is healthy, affordable and good for the environment.

Called The Protein Challenge 2040, it is a first-of-its-kind partnership bringing together representatives from animal, plant and alternative protein industries to map all the different supply chains, understand the inter-relationships and impacts, and pinpoint solutions.

We have identified six areas where innovation is most needed. The first is how to increase the proportion of plant-based proteins in diets. In the UK, as in many developed world markets, we consume much more animal protein than we need to maintain our health. Animal protein has a higher environmental impact than plant sources.

Rebalancing consumption of animal, plant and alternative proteins among consumers would help to address many key issues across the protein system: human health, greenhouse gas emissions, water use and pollution, land use change and habitat loss. This is where the foodservice sector can play a key role in shaping the future of food.

It is no surprise that some of the first companies joining the Challenge are foodservice companies like Baxter Storey and Pret a Manger, alongside Alpro, Quorn, Waitrose and WWF. The foodservice sector is well-placed to lead and drive the change towards more sustainable consumption of protein. It has the ability to inspire and support consumers, and influence what is placed on shelves.

There are already some great examples of leadership in this space, such as Sodexo and WWF’s Green & Lean initiative, which provides sustainable and healthy meals in schools.

The Protein Challenge 2040 is now forming a new group in the UK and the US to test, design and pilot solutions that aim to rebalance the consumption of plant-based proteins amongst consumers worldwide. The group is bringing together leaders in the space including food businesses, retailers, foodservice companies and entrepreneurs.

We recognise there are real opportunities here to engage consumers, innovate the product offer and influence a supportive policy environment. By joining up efforts and working collaboratively to address the same goals, we will be able to maximise the impact of different initiatives to accelerate progress towards change more quickly.

We recognise that the challenge is bigger than any business can solve alone. By pooling all our expertise and influence, we will be able to take forward solutions that will create a step change, together

Simon Billing is principal sustainability advisor at Forum for the Future