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The Next Economy
We Must Move Beyond Plant-Based Products to Ensure Sustainable Food Future

New analysis from Forum for the Future explores the public commitments of 132 leading food companies and outlines a five-point plan to get businesses on track towards a more sustainable global food system.

Food businesses need to move well beyond consumer-driven innovations in plant-based product ranges if they are to future-proof themselves and their supply chains through the growing climate crisis, reveals a new report from international sustainability non-profit, Forum for the Future.

The Future of Food assesses the public commitments of 132 of the largest, most influential businesses with a stake in the global food system — from major high-street retailers, brands and food service providers to meat, dairy and feed producers. It calls on businesses to follow a five-point plan with potential to create wholesale system change and deliver sustainable protein throughout the value chain — from the way we feed livestock to ensuring balanced, diverse and healthy diets.

With agriculture and land use change accounting for almost 24 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions[^1], the report asks whether businesses are doing enough to create a more sustainable global food system for protein — one in which animals are fed with sustainable feedstocks, natural ecosystems are restored and protected; and ultimately, a growing population is fed with healthy, affordable food that’s good for both people and planet.

The report found that:

  • Promisingly, we’re seeing the start of a widespread shift among businesses in the US and Europe towards a more diverse protein offering. For example, one in every two companies is working to increase the availability of consumer plant-based products. Food and ingredient businesses are leading the way, with 79 percent actively advancing plant protein in their portfolios or on their menus, closely followed by food service and restaurants (61 percent), retailers (52 percent), and meat producers and processors (34 percent).

  • Much of this is happening against a backdrop of concurrent growth in meat sales —and while new product ranges are launched almost weekly, there have not yet been significant moves to reformulate other, more mainstream ranges; or to prioritise ensuring sustainable protein as part of business models.

  • Action can often be fragmented and isolated. There remains a growing need for widespread systemic approaches that account for both protein consumption and production, and have the potential to drive change well beyond individual company boundaries.

  • Despite the major influence of animal feed on health and welfare, end-product quality and overall costs of livestock production, only one-third of companies are taking action to ensure its sustainability.

“The urgent need for the food system to transform, to enable a positive and sustainable future for people and the planet, has galvanised public interest,” said Lesley Mitchell, Associate Director for Sustainable Nutrition at Forum for the Future. “But we need to see companies taking a more ambitious, integrated approach to sustainable nutrition — and that means addressing sustainability across plant, meat and dairy production and consumption, and putting sustainable protein at the core of business strategies.”

The report calls for businesses to lead a transformative shift in the global food system and outlines a ‘five-point plan’ for them to do so. Its recommendations are to:

  1. Develop an integrated protein strategy that puts sustainable nutrition at the centre of delivering healthy diets, links to corporate climate targets and covers key protein impact areas.

  2. Make public, time-bound commitments to shift to sustainable animal feed that send clear signals to the market.

  3. Embed across the business: Focus resources on understanding the shifts needed across all consumer product portfolios to embed and enable healthy, balanced diets; and how to align this across all business functions with a supportive business model, led from the top.

  4. Collaborate: Identify and collaborate on precompetitive challenges, from shifting our food culture and transforming across the value chain to creating an effective enabling environment for scaling sustainable animal feed.

  5. Advocate for change across the food sector, engaging policymakers and institutions. With 10 years left to address the climate challenge, businesses can play an active role in engaging policymakers, investors, funders and NGOs to accelerate action — sending a clear signal for outcomes that deliver both sustainability and nutrition outcomes and shifting incentives in the market.

“Businesses can lead the change needed, and the five-point plan is designed to accelerate progress,” Mitchell added. “The big question is what their business will look like in a world where sustainable, nutritious, affordable protein is the norm — and start shaping that future, today.”

Forum for the Future commissioned The Future of Food as the facilitator of the global Protein Challenge 2040 — an international protein collaboration that brings together pioneering non-profits and food companies including Danone, Hershey, Impossible Foods, Marks & Spencer, Nestlé and Quorn to explore how we can provide up to 10 billion people with enough protein in a way that is healthy, affordable and good for the planet. Each partner focuses on protein as a major issue within its business strategy.

Megan Hellstedt, VP of Sustainable Retailing at Protein Challenge member Ahold Delhaize, said: “We support the Protein Challenge 2040 as a great example of driving collaboration on plant-based innovations. The findings in this recent report will support Ahold Delhaize brands as we innovate product assortments, launch partnerships with suppliers to reduce carbon emissions, and ultimately help customers make healthier and more sustainable choices. Cross-sectoral collaborations like this one accelerate global movement toward healthier and more sustainable diets.”

1 The agriculture, forestry and other land use sector is responsible for just under a quarter (24%) of anthropogenic GHG emissions mainly from deforestation and agricultural emissions from livestock, soil and nutrient management. See IPCC AR5 Mitigation of Climate Change: Chapter 11: Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use (2014).