Novel meat and dairy alternatives could help curb emissions: UN

Mehedi Al Amin

Published: December 8, 2023, 10:38 PM

Novel meat and dairy alternatives could help curb emissions: UN

Representational Image of Cultivated Meat

Mehedi Al Amin from Dubai, UAE

Emerging novel alternatives to animal products such as meat and dairy may contribute to significantly reducing the environmental footprint of the current global food system, according to a new UN Environment Programme assessment report published on Friday during the COP28.

It is part of UNEP’s Frontiers series, which identifies and draws attention to emerging issues of environmental concern.   

The report is titled “What’s cooking? An assessment of the potential impact of select novel alternatives to conventional animal products” focuses on three types of alternatives.

Novel plant- based meats, cultivated meat from animal cells (extracted from living animals and grow in the lab) and Protein-rich products derived through rapid fermentation by microorganisms.

The report, produced with the support of the Government of Belgium shows that these alternatives show significant potential for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, land degradation and deforestation, and water and soil pollution. Along with protecting biodiversity these alternatives can reduce the risks of zoonotic diseases and anti-microbial resistance.

These novel alternatives could also help to significantly reduce animal welfare concerns, compared to their conventional counterparts.

“New food alternatives will offer a broader spectrum of consumer choices,” said Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP.

“Further, such alternatives can also lessen the pressures on agricultural lands and reduce emissions, thereby helping us address the triple planetary crisis - the crisis of climate change, the crisis of biodiversity and nature loss, the crisis of pollution and waste - as well as address the health and environmental consequences of the animal agriculture industry.

“More government support, as well as open and transparent research, can help unlock the potential of these new technologies for some countries,” she said.   

Animal agriculture sector accounting for up to a fifth of planet-warming emissions and meat consumption slated to grow by 50 per cent by 2050. 

While conventional animal products are an important source of protein for many communities, particularly in developing countries, in many high- and middle-income countries, their production and consumption happen at a scale that negatively impacts people and the planet, the report pointed out.

The tens of billions of animals slaughtered annually are far from the only victims of a fast-growing animal agriculture industry.

Producing and consuming animal-source foods, while offering important nutrients, has also been associated with significant challenges for public health.

Excessive consumption of red and processed meats is associated with cardiovascular diseases, certain cancers, obesity, and diabetes.

The animal agriculture industry is a major driver of climate change.

Animal emissions, feed production, changes in land use and energy-intensive global supply chains account for almost 60 per cent of food-related greenhouse gas emissions and 14-20 per cent of global emissions. 

Animal agriculture is also associated with increased risks of anti-microbial resistance – 73 per cent of all antimicrobials sold are used in animal agriculture – and with the spread of zoonotic diseases such as COVID-19 or Avian Influenza.   

Novel alternative foods can reduce harm to farm animals and could contribute to improving public health.

Evidence on the health impacts of using cultured meat from animal cells or fermentation remains limited, the report mentioned.

However, cost, taste, and social and cultural acceptability will strongly affect the trajectory of nascent alternatives to conventional animal products. 

Greater policy support for open access research and commercialization, shifting subsidies, tax rebates, direct financial investments, and loan guarantees to favor novel alternatives, as well as internationally agreed mechanisms on supportive trade policies and food safety standards is suggested.  

The authors underscore the need for open and transparent research to understand the nutritional implications of regular consumption of alternatives, and to understand the socio-economic implications of their uptake in different regions, including for equity, food security, and livelihoods of smallholder farmers. 

The authors conclude that novel alternatives can likely play a role in supporting a more sustainable, healthier, and more humane food system, with regional differences.

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