The future sustainability of protein markets

Concern over future food and nutritional security is rapidly rising on the global agenda amidst studies showing a growing agricultural shortfall. Simply, crop yields are far from increasing at the rates needed to meet projected demands for 2050.[1] [2] [3] Indeed, an estimated 60% more food will be required by mid-century to feed a projected 9.6 or so billion people, assuming a continuing increase in demand for meat, dairy products and vegetable oils and no significant reduction in food waste.[4] [5] [6] This will have to be accomplished amidst a changing climate, growing competition for natural resources, such as water, energy and land, and biodiversity loss due to land use practices, among numerous other challenges.[7] [8] [9] [10] [11]

Furthermore, there is widespread agreement that the global food system is itself one of the most important drivers of detrimental change to the Earth system.[12] [13] [14] [15] At the same time, the increasing adoption of Western diets – typically centered around meat and dairy products and highly processed foods – is the main factor fueling a crisis of another sort: a global surge in obesity rates and non-communicable diseases.[16] [17] [18]

Whether one considers food security and the challenge of feeding growing human numbers, improving unhealthy diets or charting a path to increased environmental sustainability, the production and consumption of protein – one of the crucial building blocks of the human diet – is involved. This has provoked increased attention on the use of farmed animals for food, a significant source of protein, particularly for those living in more affluent countries.[19]

Livestock production, however, as generally practiced is highly resource-intensive and is now an important factor behind detrimental environmental change at both regional and global scales; if current trends of meat and dairy consumption continue as projected, and barring significant technological achievements, livestock production may ultimately reduce the world’s potential food supply.[20] [21] The substantial resource requirements of livestock are particularly evident when viewed within the context of the agricultural sector as a whole:

  • approximately 75% of the world’s agricultural land, an area nearly the size of Africa, is devoted to raising livestock;[22]
  • about 40% of the crop calories produced worldwide is used as livestock feed;[23]
  • some 20% of the 80 million tonnes of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers used in agriculture each year – a significant factor in detrimental environmental change – is devoted to producing livestock feed; [24] [25] [26]
  •  approximately 29% of agriculture’s global freshwater use is devoted to livestock production.[27]

Farmed animal production also accounts for an estimated 14.5% of global emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs),[28] an amount more than the combined emissions emanating from the world’s road vehicles, boats, airplanes and trains.[29] If current global-average diets continue along income-dependent pathways, for example, then per capita dietary GHG emissions would be expected to increase about 32% by 2050 (relative to 2009). That projected increase, however, would be much reduced under healthier dietary regimes – some 30% less for Mediterranean, 55% for vegetarian and 45% for pescetarian (i.e., vegetarian with seafood) diets.[30]

The urgency and anticipated difficulty in substantially reducing GHG emissions to levels “well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels” as per the recently adopted Paris Agreement[31] suggests there is increasingly limited space for an expansion of farmed animal use, at least as currently practiced. Nonetheless, reducing consumption of livestock products in order to reduce the impacts of climate change has been the conclusion of numerous studies in recent years,[32] [33] [34] [35] [36] [37] as well as that of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).[38]

There is a great deal of uncertainty associated with projecting current trends in consumption decades into the future given the potential for rapid and unexpected changes within complex political, economic, social and environmental systems.[39] [40] [41] Current public awareness of the links between animal protein use and environmental degradation appears to be low,[42] [43] though few surveys have apparently been conducted. As well, the difference among nations in protein demand is particularly stark: per capita use of meat protein from ruminants (e.g., cows, sheep), pork, poultry and seafood within the world’s 15 richest nations in 2009 was 750% greater than that for the 24 poorest.[44]

Navigating a shift away from meat-heavy diets sourced from terrestrial livestock in particular and meeting the demand for healthy, nutritious and more sustainable protein is, nonetheless, generating often high-profile responses from a range of actors:

  • the conclusion by Microsoft founder Bill Gates that the solution to environmentally detrimental levels of meat consumption lies in technology to transform plant proteins into meat equivalents;[45]
  • the publication of a major document by the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) in 2013 – Edible insects: future prospects for food and feed security – for the purposes of developing the edible insects sector of protein and essential nutrient production;[46]
  • the United Nations declaration of 2016 as the International Year of Pulses, an action in large part to position pulses (e.g., beans, lentils, chick peas) as a primary source of protein and essential nutrients  for humans;[47]
  • the announcement by China’s Ministry of Health in May of 2016 of its aim to ultimately reduce that country’s per capita meat consumption by 50%;[48]
  • the formation of a partnership in June of 2016 between WildAid and the Chinese Nutrition Society to produce television PSAs and billboards geared to reducing terrestrial meat consumption; the ads—destined for China and the U.S. – will feature renowned director James Cameron, actor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Chinese megastar Li Bingbing.[49]

While a variety of high-quality protein products from sources other than terrestrial livestock are either readily available (e.g., legumes, oil seeds), under development (e.g., insects) or show potential (e.g., fungal and microbial fermentation products, algae),[50] [51] [52] [53] the value of seafood’s contribution to the global food system in general, and to nutrition and food security in developing countries in particular,[54] [55] is often overlooked.[56] [57] [58] For example, it is not included in the Food and Agricultural Organisation’s (FAO) food trade database and was only just recently included in its food price index, after being omitted for more than two decades.[59] [60] These exclusions are all the more surprising given seafood’s historic role in providing food security and livelihood, and that fishing predates agriculture by many thousands of years.[61] [62] [63]

Indeed, the importance of seafood can scarcely be overestimated:

  • seafood currently accounts for about 17% of humanity’s intake of animal protein and 6.7% of all protein consumed;[64]
  • seafood is an important source of essential fats and micronutrients, particularly for the world’s poor;[65]
  • seafood products are one of the most highly traded food commodities internationally, comprising around 10% of all food trade by value;[66]
  • capture fisheries and aquaculture currently engage approximately 56.6 million people, either fully or partially;[67]
  • approximately 520 million people rely on income from seafood production;[68]
  • aquaculture is the world’s fastest growing food production sector.[69]

Sustainable diets have been recently defined by the FAO as:

[D]iets with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations. Sustainable diets are protective and  respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable; nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy; while optimizing natural and human resources.”[70]

It is clear that seafood can be an important component in line with the FAO’s above-stated concept of a sustainable diet and that immense opportunities exist to develop and promote increasingly sustainable seafood production.[71] [72] [73] [74] [75] [76] However, the poor state of capture fisheries[77] [78] [79] and a variety of concerns associated with aquaculture expansion[80] [81] [82] are significantly undermining seafood’s potential. A recent analysis concluded that global fish stocks are still in decline, and that if contemporary management practices continue then a massive 88% of stocks are expected to be overfished by 2050.[83] This same study notes, however, that “common-sense reforms to fishery management” could rapidly increase annual catch by over 16 million metric tons, thus augmenting food security along with delivering profits exceeding US$53 billion.

Tremendous momentum for a more sustainable future appears to be developing given recent international resolutions, agreements and announcements, in particular, the following:

  • publication of Laudato Si’: On Care for our Common Home in May of 2015 by Pope Francis.
  • adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in September of 2015 by the Member States of the United Nations;
  • adoption of the Paris Agreement (COP21) in December of 2015 by 195 countries;
  • resolution proclaiming the UN Decade of Action on Nutrition from 2016 to 2025 in April of 2016—and thereby the endorsement of the Rome Declaration on Nutrition and Framework for Action—by the United Nations General Assembly.


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