Meat alternatives: an integrative comparison

van der Weele, Cor; Feindt, Peter; Jan van der Goot, Atze; van Mierlo, Barbara; van Boekel, Martinus


Background: Meat, an important source of protein and other nutrients in human diets, is one of the major drivers of global environmental change in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, land and water use, animal welfare, human health and directions of breeding. Novel alternatives, including novel meat proxies (cultured meat, plant-based meat alternatives), insects and novel protein sources (like algae)receive increasing attention. But plausible socio-technological pathways for their further development have not yet been compared in an integrative, interdisciplinary perspective. Scope and approach: This paper applies an integrated conceptual framework – the Reflexive Integrative Comparative Heuristic (RICH)– to comparatively assess the nutritional implications, potential sustainability gains and required technological and social-institutional change of five meat alternatives. We formulate plausible pathways for each alternative and identify their pre-conditions and implications. Key findings and conclusions: High levels of transformation and processing limit the environmental sustainability gains of cultured meat, highly processed plant-based meat alternatives, algae- and insect-based food. At the same time, a high degree of societal coordination is needed to enable the potentially disruptive level of technological, organisational and institutional innovations needed to make these novel alternatives viable. Widespread expectations that solutions require break-through novelties or high-tech alternatives imply a neglect of existing and viable alternatives. Our integrative analysis suggests that the priority given to meat alternatives with limited sustainability potential does not just raise questions of technological optimisation of production systems, but is also a second-order problem of the framing of search directions.