The second edition of the ReThink Protein Challenge is just around the corner. On 5 November, students can join an online information session to learn everything they’d like to know about this Challenge. One of the speakers on this occasion will be Stacy Pyett, Programme Manager Proteins for Life at Wageningen Food & Biobased Research (WFBR). We interviewed Stacy ahead of her presentation to discuss the future of proteins.
As Programme Manager, Stacy Pyett connects with everyone inside and outside academia to share ideas on Proteins for Life. She has been interviewed about this subject numerous times, including for Dutch radio and TV. Stacy is also a member of the advisory board of the ReThink Protein Challenge. So, when it comes to the protein transition, Stacy is clearly the person to talk to.
Why is it so important that our society replaces a part of meat-based proteins by plant-based proteins?
"First of all, there are urgent environmental reasons for this. We aim to reduce our emissions of greenhouse gasses, and we urgently need to prepare for the effects of climate change including drought. Proteins are key to these issues, because they are the most resource-heavy part of our food system.
But it’s also about health and equity. At this point, access to proteins is disproportionately coupled to personal wealth. That shouldn’t be the case."
What is the current state of affairs?
"There are reasons to be optimistic. On the consumption side, there has been an increase in the number of flexitarians and vegetarians. There are also more and more plant-based alternatives available. But on the other hand: meat consumption is not declining. So the will seems to be there, but the majority of consumers does not put it into practice yet.
On the production side, we are seeing a huge shift in investments. Just ten years ago, hardly any money was being spent on research alternatives for animal proteins, but now the industry is investing in alternatives to soy and in more sustainable production routes. Still, we have not yet overcome all the bottlenecks to make sustainable options widespread. So just like on the consumer side, the will is there. The technology just isn’t fully ready yet."
How can we accelerate the protein transition?
"Consumers in rich countries will have to reduce their consumption of animal proteins. Will that be the result of personal choice or will we need heavier measures like carbon pricing? That’s not clear yet. But it is clear that there are many benefits to moving to a more balanced diet.
When it comes to production, we have to explore many protein sources to find the ones that work for each specific region. And the whole system needs to produce in a very different way. Circular production, making sure that nothing goes to waste, is crucial. It could potentially eliminate feed-food competition and reduce our dependence on soy imports."
Are there any steps we could take right now?
"There are a couple of quick wins that are not very high-tech but can be very impactful. Consumers could eat smaller portions of meat, 100 grams instead of 200 grams, in combination with more vegetables. We tested this in a restaurant setting and consumers reported enjoying their meal just as much. Other easy options for a smaller footprint are to eat chicken instead of beef and to eat more beans.
Looking ahead, we also need to invest in protein production areas that have a lot of potential but are not drawing enough attention. I’m thinking of areas like micro-organisms and agricultural side streams and residues. There have been a lot of investments in insects, algae and lab-grown meat. But we shouldn’t neglect these other- arguably more promising-- routes."
How do you see the role of technology in all this?
"There have already been many investments in plant-based product development, as companies like Impossible and Beyond have shown. But there is still a need for deeper scientific understanding of these products, including their impact in terms of nutrition and health. We can also still improve a lot in the process to make plant-based products closer to the plant, and thus more sustainable. Furthermore, we’ll need large-scale capacity investments to diversify our protein sources and to make production future-proof. No sustainable protein source can compete with soy right now due to the scale that we’ve reached in soy production. New sources will have to be strongly supported if we want them to be adopted."
What are the most important obstacles?
"On the consumer side, the trend towards plant-based products is becoming associated with a certain socio-economic class. The threat here is that it becomes a niche thing rather than a broad movement carried by all of society.
When it comes to production, it’s really about seriously investing in research and capacity building. At this moment, consumers may be ready to make a step towards a more sustainable diet but we aren’t ready to provide them with sufficient volumes of sustainable, delicious proteins.
A huge risk is that the protein transition dialogue may turn into a polarized debate of ‘meat is good’ versus ‘meat is bad’. Here at Wageningen University & Research, we try not to make it a black and white discussion, it needs to be a nuanced conversation. We’re not urging people to become vegan – animals are actually very valuable in a circular production narrative. We need to invite all actors to the table, and to share a nuanced story."