By Bellah Conte

With the animal agriculture sector accounting for up to a fifth of the planet’s warming emissions, emerging novel alternatives to animal products such as meat and dairy may contribute significantly to reducing this footprint, provided there is use of low-carbon energy.

This is according to a UN Environment Programme (UNEP) assessment of the potential impact of select novel alternatives to conventional animal products which include novel plant-based meats, cultivated meat from animal cells and protein-rich products derived through rapid fermentation by microorganisms as part of UNEP’s frontiers series that identifies and draws attention to emerging issues of environmental concern.

The report, supported by the Government of Belgium, reveals that innovative alternatives, such as plant-based meats and cultivated animal cell products, offer substantial potential for mitigating greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Additionally, these alternatives play a crucial role in addressing issues like land degradation, deforestation, water and soil pollution and biodiversity loss.

The authors stress the need for regional considerations and propose policy recommendations for decision-makers to protect food security, employment, and cultural aspects.

Emphasizing the positive impacts of innovative meat and dairy alternatives, Inger Andersen, UNEP’s Executive Director, underscores their role in providing diverse consumer choices while mitigating adverse health effects.

Andersen advocates for increased government support and transparent research to unlock the potential of these technologies, addressing environmental and health consequences associated with animal agriculture on a global scale.

While novel alternative foods offer potential benefits for farm animals and public health, concerns arise regarding highly processed plant-based products with elevated salt and saturated fats. Limited evidence exists on the health impacts of cultured meat or fermentation.

Despite mimicking sensory experiences, the success of alternatives in reducing unsustainable animal protein consumption hinges on factors such as cost, taste, and social and cultural acceptability, particularly in high- and middle-income countries.

The report highlights the necessity of internationally agreed mechanisms for trade policies and food safety standards. The authors stress the importance of transparent research to comprehend the nutritional and socio-economic implications of alternative consumption, considering equity, food security, and the livelihoods of smallholder farmers in different regions.