The Future of Protein Production

Protein is present in every cell of the human body and is needed to help repair cells and create new ones. The primary source of protein for the body is food, especially animal-based, although dietary supplements are also available as an addition to your daily diet.

Unfortunately, how the current food system produces animal-based protein is not sustainable for an ever-growing global population. This knowledge has pushed discovery and innovation for alternative sources that go beyond plant-based. Keep reading to learn why the current food system process is not sustainable and the solutions being created for the future. 

Current Protein Production

Currently, the global population's main source of protein is animal-based foods like poultry, meat, fish, eggs, and dairy products. The global meat market alone is valued at $1.3 trillion. Plant-based foods like vegetables, grains, fruits, nuts, and seeds are alternative protein sources but are not viewed as sources of complete protein, meaning they lack one or more essential amino acid. 

Despite this deficiency, the global population is encouraged to eat less meat, not just for personal health but to reduce the environmental impact of our current food system. As the global population increases, estimated to reach 10 billion by 2050, finding sustainable alternative sources to produce true animal proteins is imperative. With 319 million people alone, the United States is the lead consumer of meat in the world, with 198.51 lbs of meat per capita per year. Current practices to feed the current population already have a massive impact on the environment and its resources. 

Greenhouse Gasses

Climate change is a hotly debated topic that the global population is currently seeing the effects of, as scientists are warning of a fast-approaching threshold that will have lasting effects on the earth's temperature. Most individuals associate global warming with CO2 emissions. Typically when you think of carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide being released into the earth's atmosphere, you think of industries like transportation, one of the largest producers of the gasses. However, the transportation industry is responsible for only 13% of all greenhouse gasses, while animal agriculture is responsible for 18%.

The majority of greenhouse gasses produced by animal agriculture are a result of livestock waste products— primarily methane. Methane has a global warming potential that is 86 times that of CO2 over a 20-year time frame, making it far more destructive to the environment. If the current food system were to attempt to match the demand of the growing global population, it would be an 80% increase in greenhouse gasses, like methane, by 2050. 

Water Consumption

About 80-90% of US water consumption is committed to meat- and plant-based agriculture production. For meat agriculture production alone, water is needed to grow the food that livestock consume, hydrate the livestock, scald the animals, and cleanse/process meat for consumption. By comparison, it takes 1,847 gallons of water to produce a single pound of beef, enough to fill 39 bathtubs to the top. It takes about 153 liters or 40 gallons of water to produce the same amount of vegetables and about 89 gallons for the same amount of fruit. 

Land Use

Land use isn't just limited to the amount of land the livestock need to live and graze, which is approximately 26% of the world's ice-free land. The amount of land needed to produce the feed for the livestock is 33% of croplands. To put that into perspective, it takes about 10 pounds of grain to produce one pound of meat, so 56 million acres of cropland is used only to grow feed for livestock. As opposed to the mere 4 million acres used for producing produce for human consumption. With the growing demand, more land will be needed for grazing and feeding livestock. Since 1970, over 90 percent of the Amazon rainforest that has been cleared out has been used for grazing livestock. 

What is the Solution for Current Sustainable Animal Protein Production?

As the need for sustainable solutions rapidly increases with the approaching population increase, science has sought to find alternative sources to produce true animal proteins, like egg whites, casein, whey, etc. Advancing technology has allowed some of those methods to become more cost-effective and, therefore, more viable solutions. 

Some of the ways science is the growing need for complete sources of protein are through methods like:

  • Cultivated meat
  • Precision fermentation
  • Plant molecular farming (PMF) 
  • Cultivated Meat

    Cultivated meat is essentially lab-grown protein. Muscle and fat tissue from cells are grown in vitro under specific conditions to produce protein-rich tissue. This method is done outside of a living organism and is continuously evolving to reduce the time, land, and water use needed by conventional meat. In 2000, the cost of producing cultivated meat was too great to make it a competitive alternative to conventional meat at about $453,593 per one pound. However, innovations have reduced the cost to $45.36 per pound, and it's predicted to drop to $4.54 per pound, making it cost-competitive. 

    Precision Fermentation

    Precision fermentation is a process in which microorganisms are used to produce compounds and specific proteins. It re-engineers microbes, like yeast, to convert plant matter and minerals into protein or other substances identical to those found in eggs or dairy. According to RethinkX, this method, already utilized in many of the products we currently interact with daily, will solve many food sector "issues." Issues like high food prices, food-borne illnesses, poor nutrition, biodiversity loss, poor animal welfare, and environmental footprint. 

    Plant Molecular Farming (PMF) 

    PMF is similar to cellular agriculture, but it uses plants instead of microbes to produce animal proteins. The plants serve as a "bioreactor" to produce proteins like whey or eggs, but without the scaling uses of cellular agriculture. Plants are already easily mass-produced, so scaling-up production has no significant obstacles. There are already companies, like Nobell Foods, that are using this method with soybeans to produce dairy casein for vegan cheese. With PMF, soybeans can be genetically modified to produce identical proteins found in milk. 

    Final Thoughts

    Even with all the aforementioned scientific innovations to produce a complete source of protein comparable to the protein in conventional meat, there is always the option of eating less meat and moving towards a more plant-based diet. Still, the demand for meat and meat products continues to grow as the global population increases, and there are no signs of it slowing down any time soon.