Webinar: A social perspective on the protein transition

Published on
February 9, 2021

We are now used to the idea of reducing our meat consumption in favor of other kinds of protein, and businesses are acting to fill this need. What often falls through the cracks, is the impact that this transition might have in different societies around the world and on nonhuman entities such as animals. In an exciting webinar on 2 February, Dr. Jessica Duncan and Dr. Bernice Bovenkerk from WUR raised some of these questions, related respectively to the social impact of the protein transition on food systems and to the ethics of insect consumption.

Towards socially responsible innovation

Scientific and technological innovation, entrepreneurship, new and alternative sources of protein, insects, microalgae, meat analogues. This are the things that we often think about when talking about the protein transition. Indeed, these are critical components of the transition and are rightfully receiving an increasing deal of attention by governments, the private sector and society. “The key piece that we often miss when we talk about innovation and transition in food systems is the social-cultural perspective, a perspective that challenges common sense and focuses on issues such as power, justice and equality”, explained Dr. Jessica Duncan. “Through a sociological perspective you would ask ‘How will societal relations be transformed by a protein transition? Who benefits from this transition and who is excluded?’ These questions are often considered only at the very end of the innovation process, often leading to unexpected and undesired consequences”.  

To take society into account, she explained, we can use a food system approach which considers all the elements and actors involved in growing, processing, transporting, supplying, eating and disposing of our food. In a food system, several factors such as food and planetary health, economic and food security, social justice and culture are all interlinked and a change in one affects all of the others. "Finding a balance within a food system matters, there is no single food system that should be imposed throughout the world".

So how do we approach innovation in a socially responsible way? "Firstly, we need to make sure that it addresses a broad range of people. It's also important to anticipate positive and negative impacts, how it will benefit society and the environment. At the same time, it's important to co-create innovation with the people that will be affected by it and take their perspectives seriously".

The ethics of insect consumption

The protein transition will also affect nonhuman entities such as animals, as insects in particular are often seen as an alternative source of protein. The sustainability advantages of insects consumption are clear, explained Dr. Bernice Bovenkerk, “they can be bred using less time, water and space compared to other livestock. They could also be grown from agricultural waste and be part of a more circular model of agriculture”. This makes them very interesting for the protein transition, but how do we address ethical questions in the case of insects? “Insects haven’t been granted ethical status by many ethical theories for the simple fact of being invertebrate, with the vertebral spine thought to be a necessary condition to experience pain and pleasure”. However, research on many invertebrates have shown this to be a superficial view. Many of these animals, including insects, are thought to be phenomenally conscious even though their nervous system has a very different structure from the mammalian one. “This means that insects can have subjective experiences, but this view is still based on assumptions on what conscience is that are not share by everyone”.

The science, therefore, is still out on this, but does it make it a reason to consume insects as food? “Not if we apply the precautionary principle: absence of proof is not proof of absence. When in doubt, we shouldn’t erroneously assume that insects don’t feel pain, especially when there are other sources of vegetable protein out there that are just as sustainable”.

All these questions are extremely complicated, even animal ethicists don’t agree among themselves according to Bernice. But if we want to consider entomophagy a part of the protein transition, we have to address them at some point. At the same time, we also need to consider whether insects would successfully replace meat consumption or they would only be an addition to our diet. “In Bolivia, for example, people eat crickets instead of popcorn when they go to the cinema, they are considered a snack rather than a meal”.

Deeper questions in the webinar

All the questions discussed in the webinar are extremely important if we want to achieve true economic, environmental and social sustainability through the protein transition. Are you interested in learning more? Watch the replay of the webinar here!

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