Can we change how and what we eat?

This is an excerpt from Trust Inc. How Business Gains Respect in a Social Media Age by Matthew Yeomans

The need to change consumer behaviour around fashion, apparel and various resource heavy consumer goods is pressing. However, it pales against the urgent need to address the way the world grows and consumes food. That task may yet turn out to the singular most important sustainability struggle of all our lifetimes.

Given food’s singular importance for every person on earth you might think that our modern, sophisticated society would have worked out an equitable system to ensure all humans have both enough to eat and the option and knowledge to choose tasty, nutritious food.

That is not the case. For many people the challenge remains simply finding enough food to eat. For others the issue is getting access to the right mix of food to ensure a healthy diet. For many more the challenge isn’t one of availability but of cost – how can they feed themselves and their families on limited economic means. Then there is the rapidly expanding global middle class. Their most pressing question is: what type of cuisine do I want to eat and do I want to cook it or pay someone else to cook it for me?

The world’s population is set to grow dramatically over the next few decades, reaching nearly 10 billion by 2050. To feed all those people we’ll need to double global food production and we’ll have to change how we grow and produce that food. At the same time the food industry will have to reshape the often unhealthy consumer attitudes to eating and drinking – attitudes that it has been responsible for shaping in the first place.

Fixing a Failing System

The stark reality is that the global food system is already at breaking point. The challenges start with the way we grow our food and the way we manage the land. They continue in the form of millions of people who still lack the right balance of nutrients in their diet. And they are compounded by a modern mainstream consumer culture that has become infatuated with the allure of cheap, convenience food offered by big food producers and, as a result, lost connection to where their food comes from and how it is made.

The development of our modern food system didn’t take place in a vacuum – it was a response to the growing demand for food from a rapidly urbanising global society, one that no longer had the time, space nor inclination to cultivate their own food. What grew out of this demand was a food industry that produces the brands, products and tastes that so many of us love, whether it be those favourite meals of our childhood, the convenience food we snack on or the everyday staples we depend on to help manage our busy lives.

Yet many of the strategies and processes that have been employed to grow, produce, distribute and market food in our modern society place enormous strains on natural resources, biodiversity, the environment and the people charged with producing it.

From an agriculture standpoint the demands of our current food system has ramped up the use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers, and they have accelerated the intensive farming of core crops like maize, soya and palm oil (and the deforestation often associated with growing these crops).

Agriculture already uses almost 38% of the world’s total land surface area while nearly 70% of the world’s surface water supplies are used for farming. Today it takes between 2,000 to 5,000 liters of water to grow and process the food that we consume each day.

This industrialisation of the land has devastating consequences in terms of soil degradation and erosion. According to the renowned food writer and campaigner, Michael Pollan, “scientists estimate that cultivated soil has lost 50 to 70 percent of its carbon, speeding up climate change.”

One of the undoubted achievements of our industrial agricultural complex is its ability to produce large amounts of filling food at a very affordable price. Unfortunately the global food industry has often delivered this success in the form of convenience food that maximises the use of sugars and fats at the expense of more nutritious ingredients. As a result, today millions of people are consuming too many calories and not necessarily the right calories.

You might expect obesity to be primarily what people now like to call a “first world problem” but worldwide obesity has doubled since 1980 and it is estimated that 13% of all adults aged 18 are clinically obese with a further 39% being overweight.  Increasingly, it is becoming a global disease and one that poses a double burden for many developing nations even as they also struggle with widespread undernourishment.

The fact that something is very wrong with our relationship to food is not lost on the general public. They may not talk in technical terms like resource scarcity, sustainable sourcing, biodiversity or nutrition deficiency, but it is beginning to dawn on them that something is broken with the way our food is farmed and the way we are consuming it, even if they don’t yet have a full understanding of the impact that their food decisions are having on the planet.

Beyond Beef… and Pork… and Poultry

At the heart of food system problem is consumer demand for proteins and how we obtain them. Proteins are one of the primary and essential building blocks of our bodies. They help create the bone, cartilage, hair, muscle and other body tissues.  We can get different types of proteins from various sources. For the majority of the people on this planet however, they like to get their proteins from animal meat, be it beef, pork, poultry or fish. Unfortunately, this collective appetite for meat poses a threat to our ability to feed ourselves in the years to come.

Consider the facts. The livestock we rear for food and dairy use nearly 30% of the world’s ice-free landmass and produce 14.5% of all greenhouse-gas emissions according to United Nations’ research. Raising animals also requires enormous amounts of food: it takes at least 7kg of grain to produce 1kg of beef, 5kg for pork and 2.5kg for poultry. Then there is the drain on water resources: 12,000 gallons is needed to produce just one pound of beef. No wonder then that nearly 50% of the water used each year in the US is directed to raising animals.

Between now and 2050, the world’s population is expected to rise from 7.2 billion to over 9 billion people. The majority of those are on course to become meat eaters especially in emerging nations where eating more meat is associated with increased prosperity. Beef sales in China alone have risen 19,000 percent in the past decade.

With the world on a food collision course the only sustainable path is to reduce the amount of meat we consume. With that goal in mind a growing number of nutrition experts and food companies (including some meat producers) advocate a radical rebalance of how we get our protein. The solution, they believe, is to replace meat with so-called green protein in the form of plants.

Making the shift away from animal protein to plants makes sense in terms of personal health. The recommended dietary allowance of protein is just 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight each day – an amount that can be easily obtained through plant sources such as peas, sorghum, mushrooms and soybeans. It’s true that plant protein doesn’t deliver the same composition of complete amino acids as animal protein but it offers other health benefits and advantages over meat – lower risks cholesterol and heart disease for example – as the estimated 375 million vegetarians around the world can attest.

But just because eating vegetables makes scientific, dietary and sustainable sense will not be enough to make the meat eaters of the world give up.  What role then can plants and vegetables play in feeding a world that has come to put animal protein on a pedestal?

Michael Pollan neatly encapsulated a sustainable approach to eating when he wrote: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants as part of his book, Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual. For that mantra to become a global reality, companies will have to create new types of plant-based food choices that will be just as tasty and appealing as a juicy hamburger, succulent lamb chops or even crispy bacon!

Green protein’s potential to disrupt and transform the food industry has already attracted a great deal of interest from the technology community of Silicon Valley with food start-ups like Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods and Califia Farms attracting significant investment from venture capital, other tech companies and even major meat producers. Their motivation is financial not culinary of course.

As Ali Partovi, a San Francisco investor in past successes such as Dropbox and Airbnb, told the Economist: “Anytime you can find a way to use plant protein instead of animal protein there’s an enormous efficiency in terms of the energy, water and all sorts of other inputs involved—which translates at the end of the day to saving money.”

As every Silicon Valley entrepreneur knows though, even the most brilliant new technology will fail if it doesn’t capture the public’s imagination. For green protein to really challenge animal protein food companies will have to persuade consumers of its appeal over and above the traditional “green is good” argument. Producing a superior product will be crucial – few consumers will swap animal meat for plant protein if it doesn’t taste as good. So will the marketing, branding and communication of the plant-based meat products.

That might sound like a daunting challenge for the marketers of the world but latent demand for plant proteins is already there just waiting to be tapped.  While just 7.3 million Americans are vegetarians more than 22 million consider themselves Flexitarians – they eat mainly vegetables and occasionally meat. According to the US Department of Agriculture, annual meat consumption has fallen by 15% in the last decade and 33% since the 1970s. Eating trends in Europe mirror the US.

Enduring cultural and religious norms can also play an important role in reducing animal protein consumption especially in parts of Asia such as India where 31% are vegetarians.  That means there’s a ready-made market for new vegetarian-based food products that build on Asia’s cultural and culinary heritage.

Fifty years ago, families in the western world ate five times less meat than we do today.  So, in the big picture of food history, our current meat fixation is just a minor footnote at the moment. However, if we continue consuming meat at the same rate as the last 50 years that footnote could turn into the event that alters the history of human civilisation. How we can transition in the most efficient and tasty way from animal to plant protein should be food for thought for producers and consumers alike.