On September 23, the UN Secretary-General will convene the 6th ever Food System Summit, representing an opportunity to engage countries around the world to advance “game-changing” solutions to better feed a growing population nutritiously, while meeting Paris Climate Agreement targets and reducing poverty.
For the first time, experts from academic institutions and non-profits around the world put together a report, titled “Innovation for Protein Diversification,” outlining how to accelerate the technological development and scale of alternative protein production and consumption globally. As I and my colleagues at Breakthrough have argued previously, an innovation policy for alternative proteins is crucial to scale up alternative proteins. This report goes further in defining the role of the public sector to accelerate alternative proteins, made adaptable across many different geographies, economies, and cultures.
While much of the R&D of the alternative proteins sector is necessarily driven by private investment, the report also discusses how to strengthen the role of the public sector in research. Public investment is crucial for tackling early-stage, fundamental research aimed at scientific and technical hurdles faced by the industry. However, open-access, publicly funded, regional, and global innovation ecosystems could drive the technological development of alternative proteins and, importantly, emphasize social science, economics, and humanities research to help identify interventions and policies to drive the sector equitably and sustainably.
Alternative proteins have the potential to deliver many potential environmental, health, and social benefits, but the delivery of these benefits depends on how quickly the industry can scale. The report identifies ways the public sector can reduce bottlenecks and shift markets such as harmonizing tariff codes and encouraging cross-border trade to ramp up diverse protein chains around the world.
The report also recognizes that the sector lacks consistency and clarity around its environmental, social, and governance (ESG) metrics. One can argue that alternative proteins, in many ways, are an improvement from conventional animal agriculture, but the industry could still improve its transparency. An independent, rigorous panel of diverse experts to both formalize disclosure of ESG data from companies and publish it as an open-access database would steer the sector toward its most ideal future.
The alternative proteins industry is at an inflection point – countries like Singapore and Qatar are beginning to establish the first cultivated meat production facilities and new plant-based chicken products are hitting the market in the US and other countries. The UN Food Systems Summit represents an opportunity to mobilize all actors across the food system to accelerate the pace of innovation and scale alternative proteins and this report provides a guiding framework to do so.