Climate Change

COP28: Emerging alternatives to meat & dairy may help reduce environment footprint of global food system, says UNEP

UNEP report made distinction between developing and high- & mid-income nations; Per capita consumption of animal meat in Europe & North America is up to 8 times that in Asia and Africa

By Shagun
Published: Saturday 09 December 2023
Representational photo from iStock

Emerging new alternatives to animal products such as meat and dairy may contribute to reducing the environmental footprint of the current global food system, particularly in high- and middle-income countries, provided they use low-carbon energy.

This was a key finding of a new United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) assessment of such novel alternatives to animal agriculture, released on December 8.

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

The report, What’s cooking? An assessment of the potential impact of select novel alternatives to conventional animal products, focuses on three types of alternatives: a) Novel plant-based meats, b) Cultivated meat from animal cells, and c) Protein-rich products derived through rapid fermentation by microorganisms.

Meat consumption is slated to grow by 50 per cent by 2050. The analysis found that these alternatives not only show significant potential for reducing GHG emissions, but can also contribute to reductions in land degradation and deforestation, water and soil pollution and loss of biodiversity, as well as to reducing the risks of zoonotic diseases and anti-microbial resistance.

However, it also pointed to a distinction between developing countries and the high- and middle-income countries, where large scale industrial production and consumption of animal products negatively impacts people and the planet.

For example, per capita consumption of animal meat (the sum of beef, pork, sheep meat, goat and poultry) in Europe and North America is up to eight times that in Asia and Africa, according to recent estimates of regional meat consumption.

This reinforces the need to focus on countries contributing the maximum to animal agriculture emissions and how they can play a role in supporting a sustainable shift through alternative animal products.

“The report underlines the need to ensure a just transition through equitable and regionally appropriate approaches to food systems change,” it said.

The market for these alternatives to conventional animal products has expanded and globally. As of 2021, the plant-based milk retail market had grown to $17.8 billion. The plant-based meat retail market has grown to $5.6 billion. But the report also cautioned against their “highly processed” nature.

Evidence on the crucial food security aspect and the health impacts of using cultured meat from animal cells or fermentation was limited. “While novel alternative foods can reduce harm to farm animals and could contribute to improving public health, other health benefits aren’t as evident: some novel plant-based products tend to be highly processed and have high amounts of salt and saturated fats. Evidence on the health impacts of using cultured meat from animal cells or fermentation remains limited,” it said.

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