Protein transition in a dynamic food environment: A systems approach

A protein transition is required in light of sustainability, population growth, and public health. Although individuals in western countries more than ever express intentions to increase plant-based protein consumption, population level practices show contradicting trends. A systems approach has been identified as essential to explore and interpret current findings relating to protein transition.

While many researches have reported on consumer choices between animal- and plant-based proteins, we do not understand well the underlying mechanisms that explain current consumption practices of protein sources.

Underlying mechanisms

One reason is that not all parts of the food environment, in which our eating habits are embedded and reinforced by, have received equal attention in research, and some perspectives (e.g., rationality of individuals, network approach) are more dominant in current scientific work than others. For example, we have limiting knowledge about the socio-cultural elements of the food environment influencing consumption practises in distinct demographic groups in our population.

Another reason is that current food practices have developed over time, in particular since World War II, when consumption of animal-based proteins started to increase drastically. We can assume that norms and habits regarding consumption of protein sources (as part of the socio-cultural elements of the food environment) have co-evolved with increasing supply of meat and other animal-based proteins (as part of the physical elements of the food environment). Yet we lack a proper understanding of the dynamics between these elements and how eventually the individual-level behaviours translate to a societal trend.

Project goals

The goal of this project is to develop a more comprehensive understanding of protein consumption trends by considering dynamics, multiple scale levels, and perspectives (ontologies) applied in disserting knowledge. A systematic literature review combined with expert interviews and a secondary data-analysis will be used to draft an overview of trends and developments in protein transition, after which an agent-based model will be developed to study mechanisms that explain consumption practices in a multi-level, dynamic way.

The project resulted from the PhD project “From good behaviour change intentions to a population-level consumption shift” granted by the Protein Transition Investment Theme of Wageningen University & Research.