The great protein punch-up

Alternative proteins like insects, algae and salmon are competing to prove they are the most sustainable meat substitutes. David Burrows reports.

It’s no secret that meat is under pressure to justify its place on our plates. The climate change committee wants a 20% reduction in meat (and dairy) consumption come 2030. Ministers aren’t keen to tell us what to eat but there are plentiful alternatives to livestock protein – and producers are all fighting to convince us of their worth.

And why not – livestock has a huge (and well-documented) environmental footprint so these options deserve their time in the spotlight. But will burgers made from algae or pizzas made with cricket flour really take off? And are they actually more sustainable?

Spoiler alert: I don’t have all the answers. As Fredrik Adams, founder at commercial scale algae cultivation firm Firglas, said in an interview on the potential of his products: “Part of this will be dictated by fashion, all sorts of whims. I’m expecting consumers will go through learning and education, just like they did for sushi.”

So, we have to be careful not to get ahead of ourselves – and in many cases these sectors are right to manage expectations. “Salmon farming alone will not be the answer, but done right, it is definitely part of the solution,” says Sophie Ryan, CEO of the Global Salmon Initiative (GSI). “Our job now is to get it right.” 

The GSI recently published new data claiming that farmed salmon is “one of the most eco-efficient and sustainable forms of protein available”. The report compared fish to chicken, pork, beef and lamb across a number of environmental metrics. Salmon had the smallest carbon footprint, lowest land use and best feed conversion ratio.

But insect farmers or algae producers may well argue that their protein sources are even more sustainable than that.

Feed conversion ratios of insects can be impressive – two, four and 12 times as efficient as poultry, pigs and cattle in converting what they eat into ‘meat’. And of course, they eat pretty much anything. “Insects are the apex of the recycling world. All we are trying to do is mimic that,” said Keiran Whitaker, CEO and founder of Entocycle, the UK’s first insect production facility, in an interview with The Grocer.

Whether we want to eat them is another thing. “These were whole crickets, and they appeared to be looking back at us,” noted Amy Wright, author of the book ‘I think I’ll go eat a worm’, when she first tried cricket risotto. As well as the ick factor in insects, there are also questions around welfare that have yet to be answered. Compassion in World Farming has found some evidence that insects are sentient, but far more research is needed.

Could algae therefore be a better bet? In Denmark these are being reared on waste from the beer industry. According to the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission, there are currently 126 algae-producing companies in the EU running 144 production plants – 57% produce macroalgae and 43% microalgae. Work is currently underway to develop a UK roadmap for industrial applications of algae for food and novel ingredients. “It’s suddenly got very exciting,” said Saul Purton, professor of algal biotechnology at UCL in London, in an interview with The Food Chain earlier this year.

Some of the world’s biggest food businesses are ploughing considerable funds into this particular alternative, which has showed potential to do everything from replace eggs as a binding agent to enrich burgers or noodles. Nestlé and Unilever are both investing in microalgae, which offer “much untapped potential as a viable, climate-friendly protein alternative”, according to Unilever.

Algae is being promoted as ‘green’ both in terms of its healthy eating credentials – “Normally, I would avoid the term ‘superfood’,” explained Susann Schade from the Institute for Agricultural and Nutritional Sciences at the Martin Luther University in Halle, Germany, in a blog for the Food Climate Research Network, “but it seems to be accurate [in the case of microalgae].” – and its low environmental impact.

However, the industry seems to be careful when making carbon claims. The carbon footprints of these alternatives may be larger than you think: the bioreactors used to produce the algae require heating, cooling, aeration and CO2. Harvesting, meanwhile, can also be energy intensive, and in some cases the demands can actually exceed that of fish and vegetable oil production.

Carbon comparisons with meat or other proteins are hard to find. At an Algae UK event held last year, start-ups in this space admitted that they were being asked “all the time” what the carbon footprint of their products is. Unilever is actually undertaking a full cycle assessment of microalgal production in its work with Algenuity, a biotech start-up.

Should we expect more comparisons between these proteins then? And are they fair? Currently, it is “challenging” to find consistent and comparable data across different protein sources, admits Ryan at GSI. “This is something we are working to address,” she explains. GSI is working with WWF’s climate science team to develop a greenhouse gas reporting framework, including life cycle assessments, for farmed salmon and aquaculture more generally which will be comparable to other protein sectors. “This will also enable us to provide real time data and be more farm specific,” Ryan says. Transparency is going to be a “crucial part of improving our global food systems”, she adds.

Undoubtedly the meat industry will have its say on the findings – and is working on data of its own. The impact of one production system for, say, beef can vary dramatically from another in terms of greenhouse gas emission, for example.

While the data needs to be clear, some of these alternatives are best kept hidden in the foods we eat. “If microalgae products are done well you might not even know it’s in there,” suggested one producer recently.

Indeed, the taste, cost and colour tends to have held algae back. With insects it’s the texture and often those obsidian eyes Wright wrote about. “There are chips that you wouldn’t be able to tell from Doritos,” she said. “The insects just look like pepper, and they add some protein to it. That’s where it’s going to go – chips and pasta so you can’t really tell there’s anything in it.”

From mushrooms to mealworms, seaweed to salmon, almost every alternative protein option is building an evidence base to show it is more sustainable than cows, pigs, sheep and poultry. Welcome to the great protein punch-up. Let’s hope it’s a fair fight.

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