Fake meat products, often manufactured by the same companies which process and package real meat, won’t save the planet, says the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food).
A report, The Politics of Protein, published by IPES-Food on Thursday reveals that fake meat is not as sustainable as its advocates claim and risks enabling “giant agri-business” companies to dominate food systems.
The report also suggests that “falling for meat techno-fixes” risks standardising a diet of processed food and creates “industrial supply chains that harm people and the planet”.
Technologies such as cultured and fake meat, plant-based substitutes and precision livestock and fish farming are promising reduced damage to the climate.
However, the evidence for these claims is limited and speculative, says the panel of experts.
The IPES-Food report follows warnings from an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on Monday of the need to fundamentally change food systems to combat climate change.
The report criticises misleading claims used in climate change debate, which dominate and polarise discussion on meat and protein, finding that there is a “protein obsession”, a narrow focus on greenhouse gases to the exclusion of wider sustainability concerns and a failure to account for significant differences between meat production systems and world regions.
Instead, the expert panel calls for greater focus on entire food systems and comprehensive food policies, measuring not just greenhouse gases, but broad sustainability metrics within territorial and regional contexts and redirecting public and private resources from “big protein” businesses to the public good.
The report found that fake meat technologies only appear to be viable due to relentless marketing, misleading claims about a global protein shortage and ignoring key aspects of sustainability such as biodiversity and livelihoods.
The experts say that fake meat may cause more harm than good, resulting in hyper-processed food, a dependency on fossil fuel energy and loss of livelihoods for livestock farmers in the global south.
The IPES-Food report notes that so-called “alternative proteins” have attracted eye-catching backers including Bill Gates, Sergey Brin and Richard Branson, along with support from US, Chinese and European governments, but highlights that the market has also seen significant investments and acquisitions from the world’s big meat processing companies, including JBS, Cargill and Tyson.
The alternative protein market is now characterised by giant companies who combine both industrial meat production and a growing number of alternatives, creating protein monopolies, finds the report.
IPES-Food is an independent panel of experts, first formed in 2015 and which claims to be “guided by new ways of thinking about research, sustainability and food systems”.
The panel aims to influence the debate on global food systems reform through policy-oriented research and direct engagement with policy processes.
The panel includes 23 experts from 16 countries across five continents, including a World Food Prize laureate, a holder of the Légion d'Honneur, a Balzan prizewinner and two recipients of the Right Livelihood Award.
In many cases, switching to fake meat will make the problems with our industrial food system worse
It is co-chaired by current UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights Olivier De Schutter and independent expert on agriculture and food systems Maryam Rahmanian.
Make problems worse
IPES-Food member and lead author of report Philip Howard said: “In many cases, switching to fake meat will make the problems with our industrial food system worse - fossil fuel dependence, industrial monocultures, pollution, poor work conditions, unhealthy diets, and control by massive corporations.
"Just as electric cars are not a silver bullet to fix climate change, fake meat is not going to fix our damaging industrial food system.
“Well-meaning consumers might not know that fake meat is increasingly in the hands of the same giant meat corporations that are linked to the destruction of rainforests.”
Co-chair Olivier De Schutter said: “People say more protein is needed to stop people going hungry, as an excuse to leap on techno-fixes like fake meat, but the reality is there’s an excess of protein production globally.
"These techno-fixes have nothing to offer malnourished people and hunger must be addressed by improving access to diverse diets for people in poverty.
“The oversimplified hype about meat completely overlooks the experience of people in the global south for whom meat and fish are a sustainable source of nutrients and livelihoods."
The full IPES-Food report is available to read here.