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Sustainable Food Systems Will Mean Coexistence, Not Competition

The meat sector in its current form is unsustainable; yet so is completely replacing the use of animals as a food technology. For the biggest and fastest environmental impact, we must address the way we grow our food. More sustainable models will involve coexistence between traditional and alternative production methods.

The world is in dire need of innovation to address the rising global hunger crisis, exacerbated by the war in Ukraine. Geopolitical conflict, COVID, climate change, and rising supply chain and logistical costs have created a perfect storm, putting the world’s 811 million hungry people at even greater risk. Current models and industry systems within the agrifood sector haven't changed significantly for more than a century. To stem the tide, food production must evolve to help improve the impact of food production on the environment.

This does not mean we should look to eliminate certain products from our diets. Reducing the conversation about food and climate change to being an issue of consumer choice is simply a distraction. For the biggest and fastest environmental impact, we must address the way we grow our food. More sustainable models should involve coexistence between traditional and alternative production methods. Meat plays a major role in our diets; however, its current production systems have a major impact on our land, as well: Around half of the planet’s habitable land is currently used for agriculture, according to some reports, with roughly 77 percent being used for grazing livestock.

Building more inclusive food systems

Though recent years have seen the advent of a whole new host of plant-based meat alternatives, commercially available meat alternatives first emerged in the 1970s amidst the energy crisis — with soy-based proteins leading the way as people began to consider how to help the planet through their diets.

Despite a host of alternative options, livestock accounts for about 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions — with two-thirds of that total coming from cattle alone, according to the FAO. Despite the recent popularity of plant-based diets, the world is on track to consume more meat by 2050 than ever before.

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To create the kind of overhaul needed to address the impact that livestock agriculture has on the climate, we need to think bigger than simply plant-based vs animal protein. What is required is a series of solutions including new production methods for meat (cultivated meat), regenerative farming practices, and further education and adoption of sustainable diets and responsible consumption.

An inclusive solution is needed to solve the complexity of the problem, one that involves multiple strategies working in concert with education and policy:

  1. responsible meat consumption and the adoption of sustainable and healthy diets,

  2. sustainable and regenerative agriculture practices incorporating incremental innovation to increase efficiency, and

  3. transformational innovations such as alternative proteins and cultivated meat that can complement sustainable agriculture and meet the growing demand for food along with the world’s population.

Transitioning the current meat production model: Co-existence is key

The meat sector in its current form is unsustainable; yet it is also unsustainable to completely replace the use of animals as a food technology. Sustainable livestock agriculture has a crucial role in the overall ability to restore our planet. To transition to more sustainable systems overall, the world will need to undertake an inclusive transition involving large and small conventional animal agriculture producers.

The unfortunate reality is that while consumers increasingly demand sustainable food production (particularly when it comes to the meat sector), no meaningful change will come without a shift in policy and technology.

Meat as we know it isn’t going away anytime soon; and new ways of producing the same products without many of their accompanying effects are quickly emerging to address the challenges that have long existed. Case in point, there are a growing number of players in the burgeoning cultivated meat industry that are providing solutions — pioneering advances to grow meat including beef, seafood, chicken and pork directly from cells.

These companies are working to provide cultivated meat commercially, and will eventually provide their products at the supermarket alongside and for the same price as conventional meat products — grown without antibiotics and with minimal environmental impact.

Finally, increased competition — combined with policy changes and a realignment of incentives — will push the meat sector towards a more sustainable and ecologically sound production model; but this can only happen with the coexistence of cultivated meat solutions and more sustainable agriculture practices.

To truly create resiliency in our food systems, we must all be accountable for our actions and implement the four pillars of sustainability. This means prioritizing environmental conservation, providing access to food that satisfies the sociocultural needs of all, promoting and advancing human health and wellbeing, and ensuring economic viability with affordable products through traceable supply chains.

We can no longer afford not to act

With estimates showing that 282.7 million people across 80 countries are facing extreme levels of acute hunger — an approximate 110 percent increase from 2019 levels — increasing resiliency of the global supply chain and, most importantly, food supply, is imperative. We can no longer afford to maintain the status quo.

Instead, we need to take a huge step forward to meet the growing market demand for meat, whereby transformational innovation co-exists and complements the production capacity of regenerative livestock farming methods. Cultivated meat and other solutions like it may just be the innovation we need to ensure food security and address food-related climate change issues.

Supporting the inclusive transition to sustainable and resilient animal agriculture systems will be a key solution to achieving the most rapid and impactful climate change goals of our times.