The future of sustainable protein is … complicated

Posted on Tuesday, October 23, 2018

 Four images show the gloved hands of a researcher holding a petri dish containing meat; cows lying in a meadow; an assortment of beans; and various insects.

By Ryan M. Katz-Rosene

Political studies professor Ryan Katz-Rosene presents the case for embracing complexity when it comes to making dietary choices. Join the conversation on October 25-26 when 30 experts gather on campus for the Alex Trebek Forum for Dialogue on the future of protein.

“The Paleoketoveganmacrofasting Diet: Stop the Madness!!!” This was the amusing title of a recent presentation by Dr. Shawn Arent, a kinesiology professor at Rutgers University. The talk was aimed at personal trainers, but for the rest of us the title hinted at the madness of all the emerging (and in some cases conflicting) dietary practices surrounding protein that appear to be gaining credence in North America, based on various beliefs about what qualifies as a “healthy,” “ethical” or “sustainable” food.

If present trends are any measure, the madness is likely to continue. This is because a wide range of forces are working in the background to profoundly reshape the global agri-food sector. For instance, the world’s population is growing at a tremendous pace, and with more than 200,000 additional mouths to feed on the planet every day, experts expect a struggle in meeting demand for nutritious food.

At the same time, hundreds of millions of people are being lifted out of extreme poverty, and along with rising incomes globally, the demand for meat — one of the traditional foods through which humans acquire protein — has grown significantly, putting additional pressure on land and resources.

Cows lying in a meadow.

Heightened ethical awareness

A related problem pertains to the trends of degradation and overuse of water, soil and forests, as conventional agricultural practices, heavily reliant on fossil fuels, synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and other inputs, strain Earth’s natural areas and biodiversity.

Heightened ethical awareness about the treatment of animals in conventional agriculture is also fuelling dietary and culinary change, giving rise to “organic,” “grass-fed,” “free-range,” “hormone and antibiotic-free” and “plant-based” meat — and everything in between. Meanwhile, advances in technology, from genetic engineering to lab-grown cultures, are redefining possibilities in food production while destabilizing agri-food markets.

Increasing (and competing) concerns about the nutritional profile of carbohydrates and fats are also reshaping dietary advice about what protein sources should be avoided or included in a healthy diet (as plant and animal-sourced proteins typically feature different macronutrients). On top of all this, there’s the existential threat of climate change, which is wreaking havoc on food production.

An assortment of beans.

Embrace complexity

Admittedly it’s a lot to take in, even for those who study this for a living, let alone the typical individual trying to make smart food choices without breaking the bank. Yet as complex as it all may be, there is a strong case to be made for embracing this complexity. Why? The world is not a simple place, and while making dietary choices based on our convictions is certainly a worthy practice, we are arguably oversimplifying our convictions to fit clear-cut food “rules” that are typically proposed by people living in very different geographical and agri-food contexts.

Here’s an example: Following the publication of a recent meta-data study comparing the environmental footprints of common protein sources, one of the study’s co-authors was asked about the key take-away. His response was that “avoiding meat and dairy products is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact on the planet.” While, on the surface, this advice seems logical in the face of the study’s global-scale data comparisons, it’s not hard to see that this one-size-fits-all advice paints a monolithic picture of the typical food consumer. The advice may indeed be accurate, but it also may be way off — it really depends on your own context, does it not?

For instance, if you’re a jet-setting frequent flyer, or if you happen to hunt or produce most of your own food, or if you only infrequently indulge in meat and dairy consumption (and support local sustainable producers while you’re at it), or if you derive most of your protein from intensively farmed soy, then it may very well be the case that there are more effective ways to reduce your environmental footprint.

The above example pertains to the environmental impact of different protein sources, but similar types of sweeping claims and counterclaims have been made about the ethical and health merits of avoiding some foods over others. This is not to say that we ought to give up in our quest to inform ourselves, but rather, we should turn the mirror on our own contexts before taking the advice of experts who may not be thinking about us specifically when they proffer their advice.

In short, we could benefit by thinking more broadly about the complexity involved in the specific food choices we make in our own geographical contexts. It’s just (complex) common sense!

Image shows various insects.

 

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